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Issue 240

Steirischer Herbst Enters Its Villain Era

By exploring moral ‘grey zones’, Graz’s annual festival dips into murky waters

BY Kathrin Heinrich in Exhibition Reviews | 20 OCT 23

The conceptual superstructure of ‘Humans and Demons’ – this year’s edition of the annual festival steirischer herbst – loomed large even before the exhibition opened, with artistic director Ekaterina Degot detailing a focus on ‘moral grey zones’. The festival’s accompanying text, meanwhile, sketched a premise of resignation in the face of ‘our unravelling, ominous world’, citing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global experience of COVID-19, before culminating in the hypothesis that ‘survival might be impossible without entering a grey zone where the most violent and demonic qualities of humanity come to the fore’.

‘Villa Perpetuum Mobile’, exhibition view, 2023, Forum Stadtpark. Courtesy: the artists and steirischer herbst

Inspired by works of literature that explore the thin line between ‘the weak and the wicked’ – to quote Primo Levi in Jacques Presser’s Night of the Girondists (1992) – each of the four exhibition venues was treated as a subchapter of ‘Humans and Demons’, with its own title, concept and a protagonist loosely related to the city of Graz. ‘Villa Perpetuum Mobile’ at Forum Stadtpark, for instance, centred on the Bulgarian physicist-turned-pseudo-scientist Stefan Marinov, who opposed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity before taking his own life in Graz in 1997, when his efforts to build a perpetuum mobile failed. Here, as elsewhere in the show, however, the artworks were treated like props, with the space turned into a gimmicky home featuring Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s dining set The Believers (2019) – into which a large, swinging pendulum seemed to cut – and Alice Creischer’s Venetin Coliu (2023), a mud-covered bedroom installation titled for one of Marinov’s dud self-perpetuating motors and its utopian vision of free energy.

‘Demon Radio’, exhibition view, 2023, Grazer Hügelland. Courtesy: steirischer herbst

More problematic was ‘Demon Radio’, which focused on Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, a Nazi officer and radio broadcaster known as Dr. Jazz. Large portions of the space were dedicated to Schulz-Köhn’s record collection, queasily foregrounding what the exhibition literature referred to as an ‘ominous and charismatic’ figure instead of the music and its performers. Anton Kats’s The Cemetery of Melodies Alive (2023) filled the air with a sonic pastiche of past-life recollections and memories from his Kherson childhood, while video works by Zuleikha Chaudhari, Anna Engelhardt and Mark Cinkevich and Dani Gal took visitors from musings on machines to a World War II-era nationalist Indian radio station and into the colonial tactics of Russian air bases in Ukraine, Belarus and Syria.

Eteri Nozadze, Flussschifffahrt (River Cruise), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Although many commissioned works addressed the city’s history in site-responsive approaches, these rarely probed beyond surface-level. At the ‘Church of Ruined Modernity’ – dedicated to neo-concrete artist Mira Schendel, whose Jewish heritage led her to obtain papers in Graz in 1944 before emigrating to Brazil – Eteri Nozadze’s Flussschifffahrt (River Cruise, 2023) imagines Schendel’s routes through the city on white banners that, wafting ethereally in the abbey space, didn’t add to our understanding of her life. In the attic, however, Dana Kavelina’s animated film The Lemberg Machine (2023) – about the 1941 Nazi pogrom in Lviv – was among the festival’s standout works. Eerily in tune with its setting – the church bells started ringing just as German soldiers appeared on screen – the film also served as a reminder of the 1938 November pogrom that systematized violence against Graz’s Jewish population and of the church’s passive response to National Socialism.

Dana Kavelina, The Lemberg Machine, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

While there may be no such thing as an innocent bystander, The Lemberg Machine highlights not only that there can be innocent victims but that the notion of Nazi perpetrators falling into a ‘moral grey zone’ is a cruel fallacy. Worse yet, some of the terms peppered throughout the exhibition literature – ‘demon possession’, ‘pact with the devil’ – seemed to hint at supernatural forces, elevating figures such as ‘Dr Jazz’ beyond their human crimes. Read against Austria’s history and present, in which right-wing politicians reap electoral success while acting like hapless jokesters, this approach is, at best, ill-advised. Why not glamorize integrity instead?

Main image: Anna Engelhardt and Mark Cinkevich, Onset, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artists

Kathrin Heinrich is an art historian and critic. She lives in Vienna.