BY Markus Wailand in Reviews | 05 MAY 00
Featured in
Issue 52

Things We Don't Understand

BY Markus Wailand in Reviews | 05 MAY 00

'Isolation, living in a happy nation', sang Ace of Base a few years ago. 'Isolation, living in a shit brown nation' reads a demonstrator's placard. She was carrying it around Vienna on the day this review was written, along with thousands of others protesting against the new Austrian coalition government which includes the ultra right wing Freedom Party. Many artists have taken part in these demonstrations, while others have expressed their discontent via cultural boycotts: Lou Reed cancelled his concert in Austria; curator Robert Fleck won't work in Austria; the Oscar jury was asked to boycott the Austrian director Barbara Albert; the writer Elfriede Jelinek has banned her plays from being performed in Austria - this is an incomplete list, and it gets longer every day.

Curators Ruth Noack and Roger Buergel could never have suspected that their exhibition 'Dinge, die wir nicht verstehen' (Things we don't understand) would take place against this background, but now the political situation is having a marked effect on the way their project is perceived. Addressing the question that Austrian artists are asking at the moment: what possibilities are open to political art?, the show would have stood out against Vienna's artistic landscape months ago because of these very questions. But now another assumption of the show is being examined: its emphasis on aesthetic autonomy.

Autonomy is perhaps the only opportunity artists in Austria have of escaping from the isolation of the 'shit brown nation'. Ideally, it's a concept which attempts to create a resistant, robust context, an aesthetic strategy that intervenes politically but is not swallowed up by politics.

The works by the eight artists in this exhibition were not immediately recognisable as 'political' - this was not agit-prop, neither was it an approach which sought to blend art and social work. The video installation by Harun Farocki, Ich Glaubte Gefangene zu Sehen, (I thought I saw Convicts, 2000) explores the current state of institutional discipline and punishment. It consists mainly of shots taken by surveillance cameras in American prisons, and includes scenes of warders sending inmates from rival gangs into the prison yard together and placing bets about who would win the ensuing fight. Farocki works with politically explosive material of a kind that has also been used by citizens' action groups. However, if their aim is to use the pictorial material as evidence, for Farocki the scandal is not so much about what the images might reveal, but the fact that they exist at all. By using a double projection system, he illustrates how behaviour in a prison, for example, changes when everyone involved knows that they are being filmed. As prison life is often uneventful, the warders are not averse to provoking incidents for the cameras.

Ines Doujak recreates photographs of famous criminal cases, doubling up the subject in a way that robs the images of their sensational quality. Her strategy is evident in one photograph, (Untitled, 1994), in which a group of ski instructors in anoraks have assembled under a tree and pulled their caps over their faces like bank robbers - an Austrian take on historical Ku-Klux-Klan photographs. Alice Ohneland quotes Gustave Courbet in her L'Atelier de la Peintrice (The Painter's Studio, 2000), but has replaced the rebel of the Paris art salons with herself in the centre of the canvas - in other words, at the centre of the world. She also groups friends (Berlin colleagues) and enemies (those responsible for the world exhibition Expo 2000 in Hanover) around her.

Ultimately the success of 'Things We Don't Understand' depended less on individual works than on whether the idea of aesthetic autonomy is a productive model or not. For nothing in Austria is as it was. While outside the trilling and drumming demonstration, with its 'Resistance, Resistance' slogans, passed the entrance to the Generali Foundation, in the autonomous zone of the gallery, on the monitors of Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's installation, were cloud formations of the kind that tell meteorologists that El Niño is approaching (The El Niño Effect, 1997-98). Inside and outside blew the winds of change.