For the last ten days, I have been in Vienna as part of the inaugural Critics’ Agenda: Vienna, developed by the irrepressible Jelena Kaludjerović and Nevena Janković of BLOCKFREI. Together with fellow critics Orit Gat, Sabrina Mandanici, Mohammad Salemy, Andrey Shental and Jeppe Ugelvig, this involved a whirligig introduction to the Viennese art scene, with studio visits, gallery tours and a fair amount of Wiener schnitzel. To make the programme even more intense, it was conveniently — or sadistically, depending on your point of view — scheduled alongside Vienna Art Week. Following on from our first full day in the city — a studio visit with Katrin Hornek chased by a tour of the Kunsthalle’s ‘Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox: 1989–2017’ — we were then brought to the Dorotheum for the opening. It’s fair to say that I have never been to an art opening quite like it, and that my head was very sore the morning after.
What is ‘local,’ and what is ‘global’ art? Can we say one is better than the other, or does it even make sense to look at contemporary art in these terms? These were among the questions posed by artist, critic and curator Mohammad Salemy, during his presentation, ‘Global Art as A Cloud-Based World System Practice,’ which took place at Schneiderei as part of the alternative spaces programme. In it, Salemy argued that all art professionals, galleries and institutions have no choice but to participate in a global system of art; the transformative effects of web-based technologies notwithstanding, that they simply have no choice but to travel and to seek out far-flung connections. Consequently, he claimed, the security of a notional centre is elided, the artworld instead becoming cloud-based, conducted in the transitory spaces of airport lounges, chanced Wi-Fi hotspots and Airbnb homes. All of this is doubtless true; but for Salemy, the idea of “good” contemporary art in fact depends on its negotiation of this global system of art — on the extent to which it exceeds his imprecise definition of “localness”.
Salemy’s presentation, given its provocative distinction between global and local art, was bound to ruffle some feathers; considering its inclusion within the programme of Vienna Art Week, it was also somewhat contradictory inasmuch as here, I thought, was a productive example of this binary’s increasing lack of definition. I also got the sense that, when pressed, Salemy’s idea of “good” art appeared markedly woolly, and hinged worryingly close to an idealisation of globalism, simply for globalism’s sake; Sabrina Mandanici, my colleague in the Critics’ Agenda, coined the term ‘word shells’ to describe the empty jargon endemic to contemporary artspeak and, left unchecked, Salemy has a natural tendency towards these. This being said though, Salemy’s talk was useful for generating debate at Schneiderei and, as a newcomer in the city being introduced to the local art scene, this idea of local versus global practices was a potent one. What does it mean to make art, or indeed write about it, on a solely local basis? Is it even possible anymore? I was inclined to say no.
Nonetheless, Salemy’s distinction between local and global seemed only to gain traction as the days passed: on the one hand, we were introduced to artists — among them Florian Hecker, Katrin Hornek, Gelitin, Dejan Kaludjerovic and Anna Jermolaewa — who are recognisable in their outwardness. Whilst this is not in itself a marker of “quality” or so-called criticality, it was clear to us that these artists participate in an artworld that is not solely Vienna-based — going on residencies and, most crucially, developing and exhibiting their work abroad. On the other hand, we came across a lot of work that seemed defined by its immediate context and demonstrating a baffling lack of engagement with the wider artworld, other practices and even well-worn art historical tropes; the white male body, for example — and oftentimes his penis —seemed to still hold a confounding amount of currency. The still robust public funding of the arts in Austria is one way of thinking this problematic: quite rightly, artists and arts professionals are relatively secure in Vienna, and are not forced to mine their transnational qualities to the same extent that they would in London or Berlin, for example. Given the country’s recent, worrying shift to the right, however, this might not be the case for much longer.
I do not want to romanticise an idea that says less money equates with better art. In Ireland, the arts are a highly contested but mostly sidelined public addendum — I have written about this elsewhere — and the net result of less money, alongside increasingly unlivable cities, means that artists basically just leave. By contrast, Vienna seems supremely liveable, with a highly palpable sense of public money and vibrant institutions being the overriding impression of my first visit. At the 21er Haus, the exhibition ‘Duet with Artist,’ a cooperation with Leverkusen’s Museum Morsbroich, was a strong example of this, well curated and outward looking in its approach; mending pottery, drinking beers and ping pong meant it was also great fun. Thomas Bayrle’s ‘If something is too long — make it longer’ at the MAK was highly considered, rich in ideas and used its location in the opulent museum space to clever and productive effect. Florian Hecker’s concert at the Kunsthalle, programmed alongside his exhibition also running there, ‘Hallucination, Perspective, Synthesis,’ was a challenging proposition, and if not exactly enjoyable, a welcome affront to our senses. In a gallery context, ‘Schreibtischuhr’ at Galerie Meyer Kainer, programmed as part of curated by_vienna, was a real highlight, but unfortunately ended before we got a chance to make a repeat visit. Over the course of my stay in the city, I was told many times that discussion is not taking place; that ideas are not grappled with and contested: in short, that the self-criticism integral to contemporary art, is not taking place. But there is clearly a great desire for it. Events like Vienna Art Week, curated by_vienna, and even talks like Salemy’s are instrumental in this. They serve to push against Vienna’s insularity — invariably a factor in most “off-centre” contexts, Dublin included — opening it up to exterior and even critical positions, whilst still retaining the particular texture of the city: global and local.
Over the course of the programme, we tried (and failed) to see every single exhibition in the city. We had studio visits with Hornek, Christian Eisenberger, Markus Schinwald, Barbara Kapusta, Nikolaus Gansterer, Anna Jermolaewa, Barbis Ruder, and Gelitin. Curators also showed us around countless institutions. I think it is fair to say that we had a good, if tentative introduction to the city, and to the kind of art that gains visibility in it. To round off the programme, then, my fellow critics and myself took part in a panel discussion at the Kunsthaus Wien, on the topic of the role of art criticism. Divided into two panels, and moderated ably by Christoph Chwatal and Klaus Speidel, this gave us the chance to reflect on what had been a very busy ten days in Vienna. I have been on many of these panels before — typically on the so-called “death” of art criticism — but was delighted to learn that we did not discuss its demise, not once. Art criticism, from the variety of voices and positions represented at this panel discussion, is in no risk of falling away. Events like Vienna Art Week and Critics’ Agenda, I think, are instrumental in attracting these exterior voices to the city, of creating more possibilities for criticality and discussion in a city that badly wants it — and, who wouldn’t? I’m already looking forward to my next visit.