REVIEW: 'NEWSTALGIA' at the Austrian Cultural Forum – Curated by Alina Ana Kolar, the exhibition features works by Catrin Bolt, Charlie Billingham, Club Fortuna, Eduard Freudmann, Guy Oliver, Kate Mackeson, Lara Verena Bellenghi, Markus Riedler, Elisabeth Molin, Omri Livne, Pauł Sochacki and ZOLLAMT.
Opening during the time of Frieze and Frieze Masters in London, when a string of dizzying blue-chip shows monopolizes art goers in the most prestigious venues, a presentation, as loud as a diplomatic smile, started off at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Curated by Alina Ana Kolar, the show features works by a rather large range of art practitioners: Catrin Bolt, Charlie Billingham, Club Fortuna, Eduard Freudmann, Elisabeth Molin, Guy Oliver, Kate Mackeson, Lara Verena Bellenghi, Markus Riedler, Omri Livne, Pauł Sochacki, and ZOLLAMT.
Taking over the stairways, the corridors, the mantelpiece, and even the occasional white cube spaces available, “Newstalgia” brings to 28 Rutland Gate (a building the Austrian government bought in 1956) an interstitial presentation. That interstitial quality seems fitting, however, considering the cultural arm of the Austrian Embassy in London defines itself as a “forum” exactly to encourage the fluid exchange of ideas and debate. It is also fitting since the exhibition takes place in and around their offices.
Austria, as a nation that seems to still ponder over, interestingly so, issues of identity and the darker sides of its history, has the Austrian Cultural Forum to be praised for making space to a progressive and inclusive program. Since its inception, the ACF has been open to immigrants’ issues (starting with the Austrian jewish community in the early 50s) and to other minorities, sexual or else. As such, this exhibition, at the fringes of the city’s glamour, proposes, sometimes awkwardly, a gathering of fresh and young projects and ideas.
Rippling beyond the exhibition in London, the third iteration of Berlin-born street newspaper Arts of the Working Class (thereafter abbreviated AOTWC), spreads the show’s ideas as a catalogue of sorts. The paper offers side-glances to the works of the artists, who contributed to the contents either through written or visual forms. It is interesting to note that one of AOTWC founding members, Paul Sochacki, has paintings in the show. Sochacki often paints absurd figuration that is both whimsical and serious, which practice fits an exhibition that draws from past historical trauma and resilience. Although the particular works on view probably aren’t his strongest, his overall looming influence on the newspaper that embodies the gesture that holds the show is ubiquitous.
AOTWC is published in different languages, accommodating its contributors’ working habits, and includes visual essays and illustrations. It attempts to address an audience that is crucially missing in the art world, i.e. the working-class, a category largely under-represented in the arts (in the UK, this has been underlined by The Panic report that followed a 2015 research “set up to challenge the “old boys’ network” in the creative industries” more here). The first issue of AOTWC, themed “A City is a Stateless Mind” launched the intellectual positioning of the paper for breaking old habits, all the while revisiting the good old concepts of class struggle. In it, curator Alina Kolar writes: “imagination as a political solution to political problems has long been investigated in philosophical theories. What artworks often try to do is to trigger our imagination”.
By doing so she is setting the tone of the paper that encourages art practices to be at the core of public debate, if not provoke it altogether. The second issue of AOTWC explored its community engagement during a collateral event they organized at Manifesta 12 in Palermo. Presented as a summer camp it was created to engage with the vendors from the Ballarò market and the community kitchen of Cre.Zi Plus. AOTWC reflects a movement in which art and artists are seen as just another professional occupation naturally fitted to be part of society as a whole, thus breaking away from the art world current elitist reality.
Back to the show, the idea of the side glance, added to being in corridors, and on the fringes, becomes essential in order to engage with the contents of this show. One example of the transitory quality of the exhibition comes from the works by collective ZOLLAMT (Helene & Joachim Baur). Those aren’t particularly arresting, and appear rather crafty (bottles with lettering and other bits and bobs including soaps), but they have the merit to draw attention to Zollamt’s concept itself. Located in Bad Radkersburg, on the Austrian border with Slovenia, and close to Hungary, the project develops an interdisciplinary program which beautiful statement says it has:
“the potential to exemplify the idea of Europe, embodying the transformation of a separated past into a common future”.
If anything, their playful arrangements lift up the overall display of the show by its craftiness and everyday aesthetics. Another sidelines fortuitous yet significant encounter is found in Berlin-based Jerusalem-raised Omri Livne’s Memorial Bench. Livne commissioned the bench in England from a woodcarver he found online, to homage the memory of his grand-father whom he barely knew. His grand-father, whose personal history prompted to give his body to science, consequently denied members of his family a place to grieve and remember him. On the bench, the artist engraved a plaque with a poem that includes words such as “Died Without A Trace / Air Breath Gust” salvaging key words and sentiments he attaches to his distant relative. In AOTWC, Livne's contribution also explores memory and loss, although obliquely, recounting the time he almost suffocated eating a falafel. Both grave and entertaining, his tale reveals a practice that integrates commentary on death and higher meaning (or lack of it), with the absurd, and a little waggish attitude.
Resonating from the stairs above that corridor, a sound installation blasts with what seems to be birds chirping. In reality, it is a recording by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the “chorus”: the sound of earth’s radiation belt. The installation is by female collective Club Fortuna (Xenia Lesniewski, Julia Rublow and Sara Sternat) and is called ‚Everything Or The Universe‘. Invigorating, (being at once in the stairways of the ACF and in space is quite the mind ride) the installation acts as an invitation to gain perspective. Specifically, when reading the artists contribution in the pages of AOTWC, that perspective is used for pain management. Their Pain Control Techniques, that include Distraction, Mind Numbing, Dissociation, and Reframing, if it applies to pain management, seems also good enough for life. For example, when introducing dissociation techniques, where one is invited to imagine their pain outside their bodies, floating near perhaps, Club Fortuna writes:
“try it for a moment. Imagine you’re sitting across the room, watching yourself reading this. Did you notice a difference?”
Obviously we do. And with the earth song the projection goes way farther than across the room. The work, at once surprisingly practical and poetic, succeeds in creating a shift, even if only for a moment.
Pain, or painful memories, are dealt with on a national level in ‚Weinheber Ausheben‘ (2013) the video by Eduard Freudmann. The film shows how a group of people in Vienna, presumably the artist and friends, dig the earth around a memorial bust erected in a park in honour of Austrian poet Joseph Weinheber. But Weinheber wasn’t just a poet, he was also a Nazi. This question of “can you enjoy someone’s art despite them being a nazi?” (a rather European subject, in France this dilemma is raised for writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine; in England, for painter Emil Nolde) is here dealt with so subtly it becomes endearing. The group digs the ground, then unrolls ready grass covers atop the lowered surface. By lowering the grounds around the memorial, they alter its integrity, questioning its status, hushing it down somehow. Any good therapy starts with acknowledging one’s issue, here it seems a rather elegant way of dealing with a poet’s Nazi past. The film also shows how the authorities later make the earth even again, and by doing so remind us that the blind following of rules is what allowed the expansion of the Nazi regime to expand in the first place.
Thrown together what seems casually, a bunch of works on paper and found objects by Vienna-based artist Markus Riedler bring some domestic kitsch to the exhibition. Here, some of his “In Between Us” drawing series (2017, on going) explore the range of emotions between loving couples where Riedler superimposes text and other symbols over two characters representing a couple. One such text goes:
“This is definitely the last song / that I write for you, / because it pulls me to new shores / otherwise I will stop / bye”.
Also on show a porcelain dog, precisely a Staffordshire dog figurine (made in the 19th century in England and Scotland) that Riedler found in a flea market in Vienna. These pottery dogs come with racy stories, sometimes referred to as whore dogs, as prostitutes would position them facing the window, or not, to indicate availability. Or they would be used to launder money for sexual transactions. The whole of Riedler’s work has a sweet and dusty bygone charm to it that pulls the viewer in both playing with adult desire and cuteness.
But the sweetest relief in the show comes actually from eatable sweets. Elisabeth Molin creates small chocolate sculptures inspired by the Greek mythology figure Atë. The goddess is said to represent mischief, folly and delusion. The sculptures Molin makes — all neatly presented on the mantelpiece — are made for the public to eat freely (and perhaps experience some of the mischief?). This work brings the transient aspect of the show to its apex, as it is called to disappear while being presented. Memory is like a footprint in the sand, washed away by the next wave, or here literally a meal, destined to be eaten, digested, and discarded.
Guy Oliver's found images collaged on screen as videos or prints find a particularly strong resonance in times of Brexit. Said to work between comedy and tragedy to explore British collective memory but through his own identity, the work on show offer unsavory visual hints on the country’s political legacy. Here, a video collage of Margaret Thatcher, and there, a pencil drawing of John Major. Circling back to the particulars of one nation, who recently chose to leave the European Union, the exhibition affirms how a plurality of dissonances can, if you make them, coexist together. Corridors are project areas, they are transitions spaces between other spaces, may they be further public spaces, or private ones. There is a certain liquidity to them, and thus malleability, which this show allows to happen by its own lack of structural consistency.