Book Review: Roland Schöny’s Public Art Vienna

With a dedicated fund established in 2003, Vienna became an international model for fast-tracking public art projects

Three works financed by the Public Art Vienna Fund, (l. to r.) Heinz Gappmayr’s Spatial Texts for the Vienna Central Library (Hauptbücherei, U6 Burggasse/Stadthalle); the Wall of Language mural based on graffiti technique; Franziska and Lois Weinberger’s Roof Garden for the City of Vienna Library at City Hall (Rathaus, U2 Rathaus) | Photos: (l. to r.) Manfred Seidl, Franz Wibmer, Jörg Auzinger

Art financed by Public Art Vienna Fund

Three works financed by the Public Art Vienna Fund, (l. to r.) Heinz Gappmayr’s Spatial Texts for the Vienna Central Library (Hauptbücherei, U6 Burggasse/Stadthalle); the Wall of Language mural based on graffiti technique; Franziska and Lois Weinberger’s Roof Garden for the City of Vienna Library at City Hall (Rathaus, U2 Rathaus) | Photos: (l. to r.) Manfred Seidl, Franz Wibmer, Jörg Auzinger

If you’ve ever headed to the Secession or Naschmarkt underground by way of Karlsplatz, you are bound to have passed through the Karlsplatz Westpassage, where in red LED-lights embedded in mirrors, you can read the “amount of money in euros spent on military armament in the world since 1 January”, the “number of people unhappy with their jobs in Austria”, or even the “number of Schnitzels eaten in Vienna since 1 January.”

This is Pi, a cleverly designed media and social-awareness installation created specifically for the passage by Canadian artist Ken Lum, and is one of many public art projects documented in Public Art Vienna – Departures, Works, Interventions.

Along the 130-meter-long underground pedestrian passageway, Pi confronts the passerby with social, economic, and ecological information that is continuously updated, and deeply thought-provoking. Headlines on 14 mirrored panels cite dramatic global developments along with typical, sometimes trivial titbits of everyday life in Vienna.

Mirrors enable “self-reflexivity”, we learn, of the viewer in relation to others and to the world at large – a statement characteristic of Public Art Vienna, a new overview of art in public spaces in Vienna, published by the Public Art Vienna Fund. This is not a pleasure read, and for those who are not well-versed in popular art and art history, the text will come off as a bit pretentious and technical.

Still, it has its compensations. A comprehensive documentation of the fund’s projects between 2004 and 2007, it offers insights into local works by artists Lois and Franziska Weinberger, Maria Hahnenkamp, Heinz Gappmayr, and Inés Lombardi, among others.

In addition, drawing from a wide range of sources, Public Art Vienna traces the wider context of art in public spaces worldwide, against which Vienna’s unique history has evolved. Described as a “boomtown for contemporary art”, the book shows how a series of highly controversial installations in the late 90s led to the establishment of a dedicated Fund for Public Art in 2003, thus institutionalising a process for fast-tracking public art projects.

Much of the credit for the decision is given to revered German theatre and film director Christoph Schlingensief, who staged and televised an Aktion he called Bitte liebt Österreich – Erste österreichische Koalitionswoche (Please Love Austria – The First Week of the Austrian Coalition) in a container outside the Staatsoper, inviting 12 alleged asylum seekers, Big Brother-style, to take up residence. Austrian citizens were then called upon to phone in daily to vote out two of the least liked occupants who, according to the script, then had to be deported.

Hoisted atop of the container roof – along with slogans like Ausländer raus! (Out With Foreigners!) typical of far-right political parties – were the blue flags of the FPÖ. This eventually led to a replacement of Vienna’s Executive City Councillor for Cultural Affairs and the establishment of a fund, with an independent board, to promote art in public spaces. Ultimately, art projects in urban space involve a process of negotiation dependent on political decisions, however, the authors underline that public space should be equated not with freely accessible areas, rather – from an administrative perspective – with those areas, zones, sites or streets, governed by public sector institutions.

The book recounts several interesting discourses of public art in Vienna, and sheds light on some challenges for the future. One example is the outsourcing of housing construction projects, with the associated privatisation of lots, making room for new solutions – and presumably problems – in the creation and maintenance of art in public space.

Public Art ViennaAgainst this background, the institutionalising of public art in Vienna does not simply follow a virulent discourse on the visual arts, but rather reflects how political officialdom has come to acknowledge the use of urban space as a subject open for public cultural debate.

Richly illustrated, Public Art Vienna profiles the many projects that have already been realised under the fund  – some of which can claim global relevance, such as Lum’s Pi – yet provides a well-balanced retrospective of these feats, despite demands for heightened regulation of art in public space. Ultimately, explorative and socio-political projects seem favoured by the fund, including social policy projects, one-night film projections, or in one case, a scaffolding sculpture project that opens new perspectives on urban spaces.

The book also includes a number of essays and theoretical explorations by Christian Höller, Gaby Gappmayr, Annelie Pohlen, and Roland Schöny.

 

Public Art Vienna – Departures, Works, Interventions (2004–2007)
Roland Schöny (ed.)
Moderne Kunst Nürnberg (2012)
English and German pp. 211 

For more on public street art, see “Give Me Space! Street Art in Vienna” in TVR Jul/Aug 2012.

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