The first art piece I met on my arrival in Vienna was a red spray-painted demand on the concrete wall of the train station.
EU, SOLIDARITY NOT CHARITY! with an anarchist symbol for the exclamation mark's point. As the protest statement on the wall confirmed, linking solidarity and economy is always a conflict, especially in a regime where even a gesture of kindness is thought to be transactional. It is even more difficult to imagine the relationship between solidarity and the art market when the latter is ruled by the same principle of luxury and scarcity that makes art a factor of class identity. However, the graffiti announced the spirit that would guide the 36 hours ahead of me in the city, in which I roamed around some of the most recognized art endeavors of the eastern conglomerate: the art fair Vienna Contemporary (VCT), the gallery festival Curated by which animates multiple institutions around the city.
In Vienna, representing the borderland between European slopes, the sentiment of solidarity breaks through general anti-social-politics and the economic benefits brought to Europe by the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, the demise of the Soviet Bloc, and the war in Ukraine. On this note, this year, Vienna Contemporary (VCT) and Curated by sought to emphasize the importance of, as they put it, political homelessness and contemporary citizenships by showcasing galleries from the fringes of the European art market and artists who shed light on the disparity in citizenship classes in Austria and Europe. On a more speculative political claim, Curated by manifested a hope for the time of the not yet, through the Barthesian theme of the Neutral. The participation of Ukrainian galleries, a few representatives of the queer community, a handful of BIPOC artists, and a series of public panels, tried to unsettle the capital moved during the week of cultural bulimia, and to make visible the struggle of those who cannot afford to express political neutrality or indulge in bourgeoise forms of art.
The art fair, hosted in the opulent venue of the Kursalon at the city center, was inhabited by fair-specific portable art formats and gendered wealth – however, a form of horizontality between blue-chip and smaller galleries was pursued by the artistic director Boris Ondreička, who, during our meandering conversation about the fair and art market, revealed the strategy behind the juxtaposition of galleries of different calibers; that which invites visitors and buyers to navigate the fair as a territory in which relationships of cultural and aesthetic affinity are more valuable than international prestige. It may be my romantic eye, but by structuring the fair sections according to a web of interferences and reference, and not notoriety and price ranges, I felt the director’s attempt to recharacterize the fair as a constellation of places of social and artistic representation, where citizenship and aesthetics are not founded on national identities and juridical possibilities, but a belonging informed by conversation and formal intensities, without competition.
As the role of art objects as commodities becomes increasingly demystified, there is still a tendency in even the most progressive institutions to present overly stylized perspectives that reduce complex political struggles to mere symbols. However, many artists presented during the fair not only spoke about political, cultural, and economic displacement but also spoke from these conditions before an audience not coming from the same struggles. For example, Bildrecht SOLO award winner Abdul Sharif Oluwafemi Baruwa (presented by EXILE Gallery) presented intimate portraits of daily life on poor and ephemeral supports, wood and paper scraps, and broken furniture to affirm that the condition of the artist in perennial movement is that of making art on the debris of a stable life. “Or art that can be carried across places on our bodies,” as Vienna Contemporary ZONE1 curator Francesca Gavin, quoting Alfredo Jaar, told me in our conversation on art formats in relation to conditions of exile and nomadism. This adjustment to extreme conditions made me think about the work of the Hungarian artist OMARA – Mara Oláh, presented in the exhibition Not Either Or, But And associated with VCT and curated by Laura Amann. OMARA’s work on display, cigarette boxes unfolded and used as tiny canvases, was created during cold winters, when the possibility of oil to dry outdoors was obstacles by the rigid cold. The work subverted the expectation of OMARA’s large-scale oil paintings and highlighted the strong connection between life circumstances and creative processes.
Despite political values of anti-patriarchy, anti-racism, anti-fascism, and anti-nationalism being flaunted by the more progressive institutions in Europe, little effort is put into accompanying them into a process of deconstructing the privileges that sustain the aforementioned political projects. However, a welcoming impression was served to me by listening to the many forms of gratitude expressed by artists from marginalized and underrepresented communities who were invited to share a piece of the stage by participating in institutional exhibitions. This was evident for the Roma artist Robert Gabris, who premiered their exhibition This Space Is Too Small For Our Bodies at Belvedere 21. Their heartwarming solo show, an ode to the soothing power of community and many-ness of queer bodies against gender normativization, in the face of a life of grief and discrimination, pierced the relatively traditional posture of Belvedere 21. Through the unfolding of their extensive body of works, consisting of drawings and installation, I felt that a little fissure of hope was granted to Gabris and their community.
The dynamic of power between the host and guest institution, which often exemplifies the same rules of welcoming and acceptance guarding national borders, was deconstructed by the collective/collaborative exhibition on show at Kunsthalle Wien. Titled No Feeling is Final. The Skopje Solidarity Collection, the show brings together modernist works from the MoCA Skopje with those from the Kunsthalle. Bridging geographies and historical landmarks through artistic encounters, the exhibition celebrates forms of international solidarity that partook in the rebuilding of Skopje in the ‘60s after a devastating earthquake. The exhibition, arranged through displays conceived by artists from the Kunsthalle sheltering artworks from Skopje, created a clashing atmosphere, where the common thread between artistic gestures was to demolish hegemonic aesthetics and structures of power. Exemplifying this idea is Brook Andrew’s inflatable large-scale object and mural wall, sheltering works by Pierre Alechinsky, Jasper Johns, Wifredo Lam, Oto Logo, Zoran Mušič, Kumi Sugai, Vladimir Veličković, Marjan Vojska, and Pablo Picasso, allowed the visitors to admire the works from a position of kaleidoscopic softness.
By moving the sentiment of belonging away from coordinates of nationality and normative-patriarchal ideologies and grounding it in a spectral atmospheric chant coming from generational struggles is the proposition carried by Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti, who curates the exhibition Motherless Daughters for the gallery VIN VIN. The main core of the show consists of screenings by Maria Iorio with Raphaël Cuomo, Beatrice Gibson, and Delphine Seyrig, with interludes by Harun Farocki and introduced by a series of twelve poetic invocations titled Grazia (2023) by Giulia Crispiani and an uncanny installation Peaux de dame (Waste Bin) (2020) by Pauline Curnier Jardin. Through the relationship between moving images, video footage from feminist assemblies, and a divine relationship with mourning a landscape where sisterhood is not a blood relationship but a political act of choosing comrades, affects the visitor. Such as in the video work I hope I’m Loud when I’m Dead (2018) by Beatrice Gibson, a collaboration between the artist, poet CAConrad and Eileen Myles, through poetry, footage from political protests, reckon with the effects of political upheaval on an uncertain present.
The time spent in Vienna, submitting myself at my own pace to the game of meetings and greetings, but observing the components that create the mesh of the so-called institutional(ized) system of arts, made me hope for a momentum of equality, even if the social and political contradictions are gangrenous. The collaboration between independent institutions, artists, and bigger players in the cultural definition of the city and of a broader geopolitical sphere summoned a form of friendship that may become a way to plot for redistribution. By attempting to intertwine luxury markets and fields of displacement, poverty, and cultural agonization, that result in existential depauperation, maybe those who are forced to minimize their narration for the sake of receiving crumbles of solidarity will learn to steal back dignity. I don’t know if recognition as a luxury good can compensate for stolen lives, but if stealing is spilling, that is creating a relationship, and then from this gesture, a bond can be formed.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: viennacontemporary 2023 | Credits: kunstdokumentation.com
fig. 1: Abdul Sharif Oluwafemi Baruwa, Trespassing, 2023, oil on canvas, 30x24cm. Courtesy the artist and EXILE.
fig. 2: viennacontemporary 2023, Installation View Exile Gallery, Photo: Mariia Yeroshkina.
fig. 3: Robert Gabris, Vierka vastu merav (Vierka I die for you) aus der Serie "The Blue Heart", 2014. © Bildrecht, Wien 2023
fig. 4: Installation view: No Feeling Is Final. The Skopje Solidarity Collection, Kunsthalle Wien 2023, photo: www.kunst-dokumentation.com
fig. 5: Beatrice Gibson, I hope I'm Loud When I'm Dead, 2018. Courtesy the artist and LUX, London.
fig. 6: Giulia Crispiani, Grazia, 2023, 12 poems, A3 edition 1/50 ita / en. Courtesy the artist.