The classicist Temple of Theseus, a scaled-down replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, was built in 1823 in a small park close to the Hofburg Palace. It was designed specifically to host a single work of then-contemporary art, Antonio Canova’s sculpture Theseus Fighting the Centaur (1805–19). This classicized paraphrase of the defeat of Napoleon stood in the temple for more than 70 years before being transferred to the city’s new Kunsthistorische Museum, leaving the temple to a phase of alternative use and decay. Since its recent renovation, however, the building with its polished white lead surface has regained its porcelain-like radiance. Moreover, as part of efforts to integrate contemporary art into the programme of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the temple served as a venue for the CAC Contemporary Art Club, initiated by Roberto Ohrt, Wilfried Kühn, Alexander Schröder and Gabriele Senn. Later on, a new series was launched, curated by Jasper Sharp. It began with Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, followed by the Belgian Kris Martin.
This year, it was the turn of Richard Wright, who won the Turner Prize in 2009. Wright lives in Glasgow, where he also studied. Since Glasgow’s art academy, designed by Charles Mackintosh in 1896, counts as one of the first ever buildings with totally white interiors, it was interesting to see how Wright would deal with this early ‘space for contemporary art’.
Approaching the unbelievable whiteness of the polished temple via the usual steps, seen through wide-open doors, the interior appeared gapingly empty. Then, under more favourable lighting, a kind of veil became visible on the back wall. Over a period of weeks, Wright and his team had applied a huge shimmering triangle to the wall. Close up, it consisted of a fabric of ornamental lines pounced onto the wall – a process of punching holes through a stencil – and then covered with silver leaf. As the light entering the space changed, the surface remained in constant movement. A visitor wishing to identify something in the swirling lines might have seen apocalyptic cloud formations, tattoos or bodily orifices. But everything was forever dissolving across axes of symmetry, as in a Rorschach blot.
As with most of Wright’s works, the mural will be painted over at the end of the show. But this time the transience of the work can also be observed in more gradual form: over a period of months, the silver will oxidize, becoming blacker and blacker. What will remain unchanged is the chosen form of the large triangle. Positioned slightly off-centre for a less monumental impact, it appears as a shadow, recalling the compositional structure of the Canova sculpture, while also directing the viewer’s gaze upwards towards the ceiling – something I was surprised to realize I had never noticed before. As the wall rises, it soon meets a ledge decorated with a palmette frieze. Above the ledge, a coffered barrel vault with inset floral reliefs spans the space. Aside from extending his ornamental network beyond the ledge, Wright also transferred the mousey-brown colour of the ceiling to the walls. The whole space, where the Cinemascope-like focus was previously always on the white-painted wall zones, suddenly became an enclosing shell: the floor, a pattern of black and brown stone slabs, the walls with their ledges and mouldings, and the overarching firmament of the vault. Into this closely wrought space, the mural conjured an apparition, like sunlight breaking through a gap in thick cloud cover, bringing about a re-sacralization. An audacious move, but executed with great delicacy. And seemingly in passing, Wright traced the ‘white cube’ of contemporary art back to the closed cella of antiquity.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Please note that this article has been updated from the printed edition that appeared in frieze d/e issue 10 to correct factual inaccuracies regarding the history of Theseustempel as a venue for contemporary art.