When Mykola Ridnyi shot his film on the Black Sea coast in 2008, in which jellyfish splash onto a peaceful beach to the sound of jet planes with dozing anglers in the background, no one could have guessed how soon the setting would change to match the background noise. Six years later, the Crimea was annexed by the Russians.
Today, even in Austria, people cringe when another wobbly mollusc lands on the sand as a projectile in Ridnyi’s video. The war is near. And in the newspapers that are displayed in Graz’s coffee houses, there is speculation as to whether this has not long since arrived in the heart of Western Europe with the pipeline accidents.
Ridnyi’s video in the baroque stairwell of the Neue Galerie in Graz forms the entrance to the main exhibition of the Steirischer Herbst. It could not be more appropriate to a show entitled “A War in the Distance”, which director Ekaterina Degot had chosen as the motto for the entire festival long before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Moscow art historian, whose contract has just been renewed, discovered so many hidden references to wartime events in the paintings in the collection from the 19th and 20th centuries that she was tempted to make the hidden obvious and to accentuate it with current works.
The previous Austrian self-image looked different. According to a famous saying of Emperor Maximilian I, “happy Austria” would rather marry other ruling houses than fight them. The defiant ramparts of Graz speak a different language.
Opening weekend with happening
Ekaterina Degot has thus maneuvered Austria’s best-known multi-genre festival even more in the direction of fine arts. While the focus used to be on the performative, this time only a video and huge papier-mâché heads in the shop window of a luxury outfitter at the center of the happening of the opening weekend bear witness.
The Lebanese artist Raed Yassin restaged a puppet parade from the 1980s in Beirut, which at the time manifested artistic resistance to the Lebanon war. Not planned, but as ordered, a colliding real fire brigade operation lent emphasis to the rather cheerful happening in the center of Graz.
In the Neue Galerie, on the other hand, the cultivated tranquility of the museum prevails, even if the current reference to the political world situation is breathing down your neck. In addition to Ridnyi’s video, the contribution of another Ukrainian artist reminds us of this. Zhanna Radyrova’s minimalist sculptures welcome the public in front of the reopened historical entrance. The sculptor created them from sheet metal, which looks speckled with bullet holes and comes from the front. A layer of white lacquer only emphasizes the martial perforation even more.
The “happy Austria” allegedly preferred to marry other ruling houses than to fight them.
The first room of the exhibition course also philosophizes about the white of modernity and confronts Hugo Cordignano’s painting with washerwomen from 1918/19 with Friederike Anders’ video from 1979, which assembles film scenes with “Women in White” one after the other. The connection is quite far-fetched as with so many combinations of the course.
Whispers about fascist ideas at the beginning of the festival
In happy moments, the works illuminate each other. In 1945-50 Karl Jirak painted a farmstead in Lower Styria, next to which a caravan of refugees was camped with horse-drawn carriages. The gorgeous video by Aslan Goisum fits this only too well. In 2005, the artist from Grozny filmed a white Volga on a foggy meadow, into which a dozen slowly approaching people squeezed, one by one, until the overloaded car drove away, spluttering.
There have always been refugees, as the exhibition makes clear. In 1968, the year the Steirischer Herbst was founded, refugees from Czechoslovakia flocked to Austria. Black-and-white photographs of dormitories in gymnasiums are reminiscent of this. How similar the pictures are. The thunder of the Cold War also reached Graz that year, which was celebrating free art with its new festival – also as a response to the city’s brown past, which enthusiastically welcomed the annexation of Austria.
How much fascist ideas might still have been virulent at the beginning of the Steirischer Herbst, curator Degot asked herself, just like the historians who recently disenchanted the documenta’s founding myth. Last but not least, compensation was behind the enthusiasm for modernity, as it turned out. Since then, the glorious early history of the Documenta can no longer be told so perfectly.
Pain is shown – but indirectly
In Graz, however, the exhibition does not provide any evidence for a similar suspicion, but is content with a murmur: A volume by the dialect poet Hans Kloepfer is on display in an old cupboard as evidence of the Heimattümelei. The page with the poem “Steirischer Herbst 1916” is open.
In it, it rumbles and rolls just so darkly from the Isonzo as an allusion to the famous Isonzo battle. It remains to be speculated whether the Graz festival actually got its title from this poem, which describes one of the most costly combat operations of the First World War with its downplaying images of nature.
Harun Farocki, to whom a small retrospective on the subject of war is dedicated in the Forum Stadtpark (until October 16), uses completely different means and, as a pacifist, calls things by their proper name. In 1969, while still a film student, he tried to give an idea of the pain that the napalm bomb caused in the 25-minute film “Inextinguishable Fire” by stubbing out a cigarette on his forearm.
The filmmaker was convinced that the true extent of the injuries could not be shown and that the audience would react with rejection. So Farocki also works with indirect images. He uses them as weapons of art.
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