An Urban Festwochen Experience

Not just art for art’s sake: ­Layering performance and politics, we adapt our preception of the city

It was noon as I entered the ticket office of the Wiener Festwochen in Lehàrgasse 3a: The place was empty, and the guard was playing chess against himself. The festival had just begun, and I left laden with flyers and booklets.

Since 1951, the Vienna festival courts natives and tourists, artists, amateurs and passionates, who roam the city’s galleries, theatres and museums for six weeks, inhaling culture.

This year the theme was “Art and Politics”. Among the many events figured two guided walks: Into the City explored the ways of politics in music; Unruhe der Form (The Unrest of Form) suggested how we might “imagine the political subject”. There were some 100 events from theatre to readings and debates, at the Secession, Freiraum 21 at the Museums-Quartier and the Academy of Fine Arts.

At the Apple retailer, screens depicted the ­deserted streets of Fukushima | Photo: Armin Bardel

At the Apple retailer, screens depicted the ­deserted streets of Fukushima | Photo: Armin Bardel

The venerable rooms of the Secession housed the works of over 20 artists and hosted  readings. Symmetrically arranged small high windows bathed the wide hall in a pale shite light. Around the room was a cluster of stereotypes of modern art: Next to one side of the narrow wall, a woman, eyes closed, was slowly writhing on the floor, on which several old tube televisions showed images that seemed unrelated.

Only Heinz Frank’s sculptures seemed to address a political subject. The human being is lost in a continual crisis with a system governed by finance: “Put tongue against palate, and try to speak, clasp hands together, and try to work!”

On small monochrome canvases, Russian Dmitri Gutov addressed the artist in ultra-capitalist societies defending the credo of 19th century Romantics, art for art’s sake.

Japanese artist Akira Takayama’s audio walk through Vienna, Fukushima-Epilogue?, was refreshingly different.

I was given a small radio receiver and a map, on which the eight stations of the walk were marked, leading from the Secession building to the underground station Karlsplatz, along the Opernring, through the Hofgarten, past the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Apple and Nikon retailers on Getreidemarkt and ended back at the Secession. At every stop was a press photo of the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima in March 2011, on Japan’s main island, Honshu.

Takayama placed his pictures in ingenious locations, thus forcing a closer look at the environment: In the Apple retailer, Google Street View abducted me on a walk through the deserted streets of the Fukushima zone, as pictures merged with setting, discovered at every station afresh.

The narrative began with Elfriede Jelinek’s text Fukushima-Epilogue?, read in German over the Japanese translation whispered underneath.

The eight pictures, presented as postcards – framed prints or large banners – were shocking in their bluntness. It forced a rethinking of the mass media, and in a subsequent conversation, he told of his visits to schools near the contaminated zone talking to the students and recording Jelinek’s translated text for his audio walk in Vienna.

Very moved, I left the Secession into a sunny, careless evening. Art can change our views and our political bearing, I realised. It can teach, and it can be moral. The Festwochen continue through 16 June; the “The Unrest of Form” audio-guide is available from Wednesday to Saturday, at the Secession entrance hall. Pick up the player anytime from 13:00 to 16:00. ÷

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