The first room contained all the others in a nutshell. Entering Nadim Vardag’s exhibition Repeat and Fade, visitors were greeted by walls covered with black and white posters advertising this very exhibition. Faced with such an (ironic?) blanket of sheer redundancy, visitors were at least sure about their exact whereabouts.
In a downright didactic fashion, this greeting established ‘repetition’ as a leitmotif for the rest of the show: a series of sparse installations and reductionist projections through which Vardag hoped to explore his interest in ‘space and film and all of the liminal zones brought forth by this most illusionist of media’, according to the press release.
The artist presented loops from movies, like the horror classic Cat People (1942), on sleek designer monitors, such as Mario Bellini’s Cuboglass_-TV (1992), although the excepts were so short that they were barely recognizable as loops. Muffled electro sounds by musicians Isaac Bigsby Trogdon and Andreas Reihse were playing on Bellini’s purist _Totem stereo system (1970). Vardag used video to revitalize a chronophotographic image of a seagull by Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904). These minimally invasive meditations on film, photography, sound, art and design were embedded in and surrounded by designer objects like Charles and Ray Eames’s LTR Occasional Table (1950) and Egon Eiermann’s Tischgestell (Table Frame, 1965) whose modules Vardag combined to form sculptures (Untitled, 2012). Here and there on the walls were humorous handwritten sayings left over from Nedko Solakov’s show at the museum in 2009 – a repetition with no fading.
These games of casual name-dropping and cultural referencing – staged with brash elegance on the border between autonomous art and high-end design – surely aimed to interest people who collect signifiers and signifieds like forest dwellers collect mushrooms. A ready-made design object here, a little found footage there, references to Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Object Art, Media Art, Expanded Cinema, etc. But could all this satisfy more than the interests of an educated middle-class viewer socialized in the digital age? Vardag’s smart, media-distanced practice is to the conditions of actual existence as the cartoon fish Nemo is to the actual ocean. Reducing media cultures to their bare bones by rigorously excluding gestures, facial expressions and voices – and producing installations that create new spatial contexts – is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. Harun Farocki (who, along with Heimo Zobernig, was among Vardag’s teachers at Vienna’s art academy) set very high standards for such endeavours with his football analysis Deep Play (2007). Farocki’s work showed how an enjoyable spectacle is dependent upon rigorous programming of the apparatus.
Consequently, one can ask if the ‘potentially media-critical and deconstructive dimension’ of Vardag’s work (as one of the catalogue essays puts it) is at allsignificant. Isn’t it more the case that media critique and contemporary art discourses have entered a phase of self-mirroring going nowhere fast – this time within a show of exquisite design? For all of the reduction in this exhibition, perhaps there was a little too much ‘repeat’ and not enough ‘fade’? According to the catalogue, one of Vardag’s untitled sculptures (2012) ‘did not deconstruct the media apparatus’ but actually ‘underlines its power’; that really would have been an interesting angle – critical affirmation, not via the usual excessive conformity, but via cool mimicry – although it was unclear if the artist managed to pull this off. The sculpture in question – based in both form and scale on a projection box – consists of stainless steel tubes. Instead of a white screen, a piece of dark fabric with holes in it hangs at the centre. In my eyes, this arrangement did not highlight the power of media, but, of course, the reader may decide otherwise.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell