BY Matthias Dusini in Reviews | 08 JAN 08
Featured in
Issue 112

Josef Dabernig

BY Matthias Dusini in Reviews | 08 JAN 08

Despite having twice participated in the Venice Biennale, and been the subject of a retrospective exhibition hosted by the Galerie im Taxispalais in Innsbruck and the Leipzig Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005, somewhat remarkably this is 51-year-old Viennese artist Josef Dabernig’s first show in a private gallery. One reason for this belated début may be the artist’s decision deliberately to distance himself from the market: over the past two decades the majority of his work has consisted of public art projects and interior designs for art institutions, and his short films have been shown in cinemas rather than galleries. More than this, however, the timing of the exhibition is fully in keeping with Dabernig’s appreciation of methodical slowness – evident both in his artistic approach and in his chosen subject matter. His oeuvre includes handwritten copies of books, formal sequences of ever-tighter patterns of lines, and accounts of filling stations and refuelling statistics pertaining to journeys he has undertaken. In the short film Wars (2001) waiters in a buffet car restaurant hang around endlessly for customers, while in Jogging (2000) the familiar three stripes on the car driver’s Adidas tracksuit trousers are the only evident sign of sporting activity.

In this latest exhibition Dabernig’s staying power is similarly in evidence, with the two rooms of the gallery structured around a work spanning almost 20 years: Ohne Titel (Untitled, 1988/2007). Originally this piece consisted of sheet-steel cubes manufactured in the same way as ventilation shafts. In his early works Dabernig was a strict Constructivist who avoided subjective statements: positions and proportions were defined to the millimetre. Likewise, the descriptions for his public art projects contain no references to the artist’s intentions and delegate the responsibility for the realization to craftsmen. Here, however, the cubes of Ohne Titel have been dismantled into their constituent parts. They lie on the floor or lean against the wall, recalling Minimalist sculptures of the 1960 and ’70s. The new ‘dismembered’ version of the sculpture feels more at ease. On the worn parquet floor of the gallery, which opened two years ago in a former shop, the sheet metal components evoke a museum atmosphere, as if their industrial surfaces had taken on a patina – a layer of dust covering the notion of a sculpture not wrought by the artist’s hand in the classical sense.

The second work in the exhibition perpetuated Dabernig’s apparently emotionally distanced approach, by revealing nothing more than simple facts. Hotel Roccalba (2007) consists of two prints hung side by side, their aluminium frames recalling those of the information boards often found in railway stations. The left-hand print reproduces, in ‘anonymous’ Courier font, the script of a new 35mm film that the artist is currently working on, while the right-hand print shows black and white photographs, arranged in a grid pattern, of the actors and the location: a down-at-heel hotel in the Italian Alps. Laconically the script describes the plot, consisting of mundane everyday events: two women spooning yoghurt; a man shaving his bald head; a football match broadcast heard from off-camera. There follows a list of filming instructions and editing sequences in which Dabernig, with a nod to the methods of Structuralist film, emphasizes his preference for precise compositions. The film, states the script, maintains ‘the level of construction of meaning in a state of suspension’. It is unclear, the text continues, what connects or separates the people. From this surprisingly ‘authorial’ insertion one might deduce a great, if not entirely un-ironic, scepticism with regard to storytelling, which affects the artist’s view of people, things and images, and calls to mind associations with the early works of Peter Handke or Wim Wenders.

Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, Not Further Developed (2004) is the title of the third and final work in the show. Created for the Graz Kunstverein in response to the opening of Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s Kunsthaus Graz, whose futuristic architecture was intended to help the city modernize its image, Dabernig’s project is a slide show imitating an architectural presentation for a new art museum. For the façade he proposes either the pseudo-Art Nouveau architecture of the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin or an emulation of the monotonous curtain wall of functional building in Hungary. ‘Exhibition views’ show a plush tiger on a toy slide, and the viewer is immediately reminded of the typically crowd-pleasing installations currently filling new museums of contemporary art. Dabernig’s ironic proposals effectively review the tendential shift from museum-as-mausoleum to museum-as-glorified-entertainment-park. Another ‘exhibition view’, consisting of a handwritten inventory from a Polish hotel, appears to be a faux example of the Eastern European Conceptual art on which, in particular, Austrian institutions and collections in recent years have focused such meticulous attention. Dabernig’s art demands the patience to watch things getting old.

Matthias Dusini is a writer and editor of the magazine Falter. He lives in Vienna. His most recent book, written jointly with Thomas Edlinger, is In Anführungszeichen – Glanz und Elend der Political Correctness (Quote Unquote – The Splendour and Misery of Political Correctness, Suhrkamp, 2012).