The magnificent chandeliers of the Kursalon in Vienna collided with the lonely figures of Maria Sulymenko on display at the Vienna Contemporary fair. At the stand of the Ukrainian Voloshyn Gallery, the assistant Anna Kopylova and I briefly stood aside about her travels. She had driven 30 hours from Kyiv, where she lived at the gallery for weeks at the beginning of the war with Russia. It is mostly underground, making it an ideal bomb shelter.
I was haunted by a remark I’d made the night before, while slightly complaining over dinner about my seven-hour train ride from Berlin to attend Vienna Contemporary and Curated By, a city-wide arts festival, that is, to quote a collector : ” Unique in the world.” In fact: For 14 editions of this innovative model, 24 dealers handed over their rooms to external curators, who often come from museums outside of Austria, with a grant of 9,000 euros from the city. Each organizes a single show that reflects an overarching theme.
With a view to the ongoing war 30 hours drive away was this year’s concept Kelet, Hungarian for “east”. (If the psychological divide in Europe isn’t clear enough, last year’s theme was humor.) Each participating gallery takes a different approach to the challenge, but in the case of Keletmany took it literally and chose to invite curators from eastern longitudes of Austria.
Even without such a specific request, the Viennese art scene has long been looking into this horizon. Vienna Contemporary, held earlier this month, and the more recent Spark fair, held in the summer, both feature a range of galleries from Central and Eastern Europe.
One of the newcomers to Vienna Contemporary this year was Galerie Sandwich in Bucharest, a small space literally run by artists trapped between two buildings. The Romanian dealer displayed small ceramic works based on a combination of folkloric myths and real political events by Ukrainian artist Diana Khalilova. On another floor, Ukrainian galleries Voloshyn and Kyiv’s Naked Room exhibited free of charge.
Vienna and its cultural scene are a gateway between these European geographies and identities of East and West, however charged the terms may be. (“Any mention of East and West is accompanied by chilling quotes,” noted Curated By’s Chicago-based curator Dieter Roelstraete in his opening remarks.) However you choose to slice Europe, Vienna is a city that like a polished jewel looks of the old empire, where you will hear Slavic languages almost as often as German on the streets. People, culture and ideas flow from Bratislava and Budapest as well as from Western capitals of comparable size.
Nevertheless, talking about East and West in Vienna is a political game, especially since the outbreak of war. In Austria, there is a “scary calm” when it comes to solidarity with Ukraine, as one trader put it. (Events were also quieter, with few to no Russian collectors.) In the not too distant past, this country was far from immune to Russian influence, money and energy. And in the present, the nation has remained suspiciously neutral in a war with an aggressor.
As such, the concept for Curated By, which Dieter Roelstraete conceived in March (when Europe was still frozen in a collective breath), carries particular weight. Lithuanian curator Valentinas Klimasauskas commented that this year’s focus is in some ways a “gesture of art historical or curatorial justice”.
Kelet was gently rebuffed in some cases by curators who felt it was too easy: Adomas Narkevičius, who organized an exhibition of Lithuanian artists in Gianni Manhattan, said he hoped to “react without answering”. His exhibition, featuring an all-Lithuanian cast (Milda Drazdauskaitė, Elena Narbutaitė and Ola Vasiljeva), bears the cheeky title The Prompt. It explores the limits of any sense of knowledge, using minimal materials to portray role-playing games as something else. Sleek-looking curtains of hanging paper blur the view, and a laser light creates a pink-blue “cut” in the wall.
The Austrians seem to be aware of the strange place they occupy now. Until recently, cheap Russian gas made up 80 percent of its energy. Europeans are panicking about the approaching winter and what it will mean for the economy (and what that will mean for empathy for Ukraine). The same fears are deeply felt in the art world, with its large, bright spaces that are costly to heat in a cash-strapped business.
That fear underpinned two exhibitions, including that at Galerie Georg Kargl, curated by Hana Ostan Ožbolt, where the lights in the gallery were completely turned off. Small sculptures, including meticulously crafted readymades by David Fesl, punctuated an otherwise somber space. At Galerie Crone, too, the gallery frontage was darkened in a show curated by Eva Kraus, Director of the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, and Ukrainian artist Volo Bevza. The natural shadows deepened the poignant mood of an exhibition that included young, contemporary Ukrainian artists reflecting on the relationship between virtual and physical realities of war.
A large, free-standing sculpture of a leaflet by Yevgenia Belorusets was particularly impressive. Placed in the center of the room, the sculpture called Please don’t take a picture of me! Or they will shoot me morning, is printed with stories written by the artist that play with fact and fiction. The bloated newspaper embraces the split personality of media coverage of this war. The date struck me: 2015, a year after the official start of the war in Crimea. It was a time when Russian state money still played a prominent role in the art world under the guise of promoting international exchange. Belorusets’ work breaks this myth and offers a very different picture.
After churning out unimaginable amounts of fairs and gallery weekends in recent years, they can start to feel cacophonous. Curated By, on the other hand, is hybridized, varied, legible and not pedantically connected. Although some contributors gently ignored the brief, all participants agreed that it was not a time for flashy work, but an opportunity for muted reflection. There was a sense of a collective subconscious: in times of great need and where words fail us, art fills a void.
The most successful exhibitions chose to look beyond the immediate crisis and trace a thread between the current war and longer conspiracies. It is important not to reduce Ukrainian artists to the experience of this war and the refugee crisis, emphasized the Polish curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Natalia Sielewicz, during her tour of “The Neverending Eye”.
The solo show at Croy Nielsen features works rescued from Ukraine by the late Fedir Tetyanych. The pioneer of Ukrainian cosmism worked as a state artist for Soviet Ukraine. His works speak an ambiguity: they are both historical protagonists of the Soviet era and transgressive attempts to imagine worlds and paths beyond.
His ‘biotechnospheres’, futuristic utopian havens of his own invention, are depicted in watercolors that were almost lost to history before a dedicated group of ‘Eastern’ Europeans rescued them during the outbreak of war. They are now hanging in Vienna as shattered dreams from the past. The futuristic machines stand in front of lush Ukrainian fields, which we now see with new eyes – a fertile, fragile soil.
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