CURATORIAL NOTES: VIENNA – Sarah Lehnerer, Wes Anderson & Juman Malouf, Ed Ruscha

  • 16.01.2019

Tropes and Limbs

It is common for an artist’s practice to be contextualized by the artist’s nationality, age, race, even their sexual orientation, but less often is an artist’s practice discussed explicitly in relation to their civil or economic status. Seemingly taboo in it’s unspoken nature, the pecking order and financial support behind an art’s practice has only increased in relevancy during times of political illegibility and ideological disruptions.

Is the artist’s position a privileged one? What kind of negotiation defines it? The answer will always begin where civil and economic conditions define status, and grant opportunities for discussion. When I entered Sarah Lehnerer’s studio in Lichtenberg, Berlin, the objects that took over the space were reminiscent of leisurely activities. Images and bulks of clay whispered familiar pleasures. A lapse of peaceful emptiness like an unproductive moment reminded me of the pensive joy in contemplation.

With her cup of tea and small beads of sweat, she adjusts the volume of the playlist she shares with Felix Leon Westner. We talk about her daughter. The places she’s visited. The moments she captures and replays, collages, prints and reprints, until they belong everyone. There it is, a definition of labor: pleasure and value, projected, extracted from memory, the best she has, for others to enjoy it.

I can’t see her body, but I think of it, when I touch the sculptures on the floor, casting her elbows, her knees. I don’t know her daughter, but I imagine her going through puberty. Here, in the exhibition, we are not sitting in Sarah’s car, but we can feel the tension between that techno track, her questions, his hands on the wheel, while we are watching. She kept to herself her plans for the Viennese space of EXILE until she was sure which reality the chosen objects interrelate with each other. It is a difficult game to play with the given context; a gallery space that looks like a sauna.

Sarah asked Inka Meißner to write a text down that could take her gesamtkunstwerk beyond the gallery space, to turn it into an ever more abstract comment on her work. It is rather a global meta-text, available now from everywhere, which interlinks walks somewhere in Brandenburg and Sarah’s logic of production that manages to interlace everything with everyone. This is why I allow myself to connect her to my thoughts on other current exhibitions in Vienna.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures

People complain about the way the dandies like Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf stroll through the depots of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Their carts overflowing, as though it was a supermarket. However, the best way to refresh the perspective over art history today is to invite others to reinterpret the story behind the object, over its historical value.

Some connections are more obvious than others, but the title of the exhibition underscores the equality of every object. All of them are precious in the collection, but most of all, they were valuable without museologic significance. They were precious to someone around the world.

A seventeenth-century emerald vase in a cramped space– a favorite one of Tilda Swinton, whose birthday was the day of the opening in Vienna – faces the bright green costume of a Hedda Gabler performance in 1978 to suggest the molecular similarities between hexagonal crystals and shantung silk.

Some whispers about the museum’s difficulty in placing the works within the exhibition, as Anderson and Malouf did not take gravitational limitations of the rooms for some of the objects as a curatorial paradigm. But after wandering through the very tightly arranged display rooms in green, red or mustard colored velvet and wooden walls, another narrative is possible: the associations our very eyes produce, beyond institutional rules.

The Spitzmaus coffin is just one of 400 objects drawn from all fourteen of the museum’s historical collections, and pars pro toto, the embodiment of Anderson & Maloufs fantasizing gestures that re-stage the definition of the Wunderkammer. Among them are Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, Old Master paintings, selections from the Kunstkammer and the Imperial Treasury, items from the Imperial Armoury, Coin Collection, and Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, as well as pieces from the Theatermuseum, the Weltmuseum, the Imperial Carriage Museum, and Schloss AmbrasInnsbruck.

It has something quietly oppositional, this dandy-behaviour, as Wes Anderson puts it in his films, and Juman Malouf in her sketches, with its surfaces and the self-referential love to details. There are good reasons to defend such a high degree of aestheticism, which unveils art history as a trial-and-error process. And even though we could need more arguments against the Austrian government, whose administration passes by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, on the tram or in a car, through the ring, this exhibition fulfills the purpose, to adjust the light of the unknown objects from an aristocratically founded collection that avidly propagated its curiosity for the simple kind of lives around the world; some things that are impossible to present in a museum.

Double Americanisms

The first exhibition by remarkable and popular creative people who are not necessarily curators at the KHM in 2012, was titled The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas, and it was curated by Ed Ruscha. Ruscha’s solo exhibition at the Secession opened last year only ten days after Anderson and Malouf’s Spitzmaus sensual iconological feast, and it is a rather self-reflective exhibition for which Ruscha produces the antithesis to his paintings: digital prints. The reflective title, not only jabbing the political and social schizophrenia in the United States, encompasses Ruscha’s fixation on linguistic deformations, and visual language with the questions around digitalization and the re-definition of tradition.

Language takes on a new role in this unexpected repetition of his latest works. Ed Ruscha is known for his amazingly bright, clear depictions of colorful skies, bucolic and urban landscapes in the USA, and for the bold, suggestive, elliptic phrases that occupy, always, their foreground: “God Knows Where”; “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped”; “That Was Then This Is Now”; “The Act of Letting a Person Into Your Home”; “He Walks Into a Meeting Hall Full of Workers and Yells Out, “O.K. What is It You Guys Want, Pontiac Catalinas?”.

Ruscha’s show at the Secession marks the public debut of a new series of linguistic paintings informed by his memories of Oklahoma City, where he spent his teenage years. The city’s distinctive slang is depicted in a dozen of parchment drumheads, gilded edges of books and prints inscribed with locutions whose shared feature is the use of a double negation—“I Ain’t Tellin You No Lie”; “I Can’t Find My Keys Nowhere”; “Don’t hurt me no more”; “I Ain’t No Singer”.

Expressions like these remind Ruscha of the way people around him used to speak, and rather than disavowing them as incorrect English, he picks up on them and transforms them into a commentary to today’s intercultural globality and xenophobia. Maybe. But if he paints and then digitally reproduces burned flags of the United States in reverse, isn’t he just doing a statement, straight forward, about the loss of sight of the future within nationalist nations, again, like the USA? In any case, the paintings and their reverse copies suggest trauma and paralysis, like stage designs of parallel worlds. This is the first time Ruscha exhibits digital reproductions, and possibly the last according to an interview with the F.A.Z.

It’s hard not to relate “Double Americanisms” with the exhibition prior to Sarah Lehnerer’s solo show. Sharing discrete pleasure of subtle narratives, a humorous way of mirroring the world through a questionably staged state of mind. “America’s greatest hits” by the London based duo kennardphillipps responded to the rise of right-wing populism, not just in Austria but around the globe with almost wall-sized image is depicting a pictorial night shot of the brightly-lit Austrian Parliament building flying the Austrian flag. On the opposite wall hang three individual banners showing red-white-red colored horizontal stripes.

The political discourses of today make it challenging to find close examinations that allow, at the same time, further interpretations. In Vienna, these current exhibitions implicate the act of renewal, at a personal level.