Remembering to Reinvent

At the new Augarten Home of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, an exhibition by British ­concept artist Simon Starling and Danish socio-political art collective Superflex tests reality

Starling showed the aerodynamics of a roof, otherwise known as architecture in action | Photo: David Reali

Superflex’s installed livestock, Rita and Hektor | Photos: Jakob Polacsek

Joint exhibition of blackout lamps by Starling and Superflex | Photo: Jens Ziehe

aerodynamics of a roof,

Starling showed the aerodynamics of a roof, otherwise known as architecture in action | Photo: David Reali

Birds were twittering, a raven squawked as children frolicked and cattle graze in the lush grass: This was a garden party with ambrosian buffet and food for thought as Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary presented Reprototypes, Triangulations and Road Tests, showcasing Simon Starling and Superflex. Formerly on Himmelpfortgasse, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) now inhabits the lush Augarten, where it opened its gates on 29 May, sharing space with the Belvedere’s Gustinus Ambrosi sculpture collection.

Remembering was the first step to transforming Gustinus Ambrosi’s former atelier space into a contemporary art gallery. His ghost and a series of incriminating documents from the years when he designed for Hitler during World War II still haunt the premises. So TBA21’s chairwoman, Francesca Habsburg, invited British concept artist Simon Starling and the Danish socio-political art collective Superflex as cultural practitioners to re-prototype and reinvent the historical complexities of the premises. A high-energy patron of art, Habsburg’s mission is to bring “a breath of fresh air” to the property by opening up the gardens for artistic intervention from installed livestock to traditional silver prints, and from black-out lamps to spoken-word events.

Blackout lamps

Joint exhibition of blackout lamps by Starling and Superflex | Photo: Jens Ziehe

When you wish upon a Starling

The winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, Simon Starling – known for his up-cycling and DIY techno-scientific art – is currently exhibiting at the gallery space and collaborating with art-colleagues from Superflex on atmospheric black-out lamps that hover throughout the space like ambient UFOs.

Starling conceives of the gallery “a bit like a constellation” with “half of the work [as] installation.” After testing the roof’s lift-off capacity on the Dobersberg airfield, Starling parked a truck in the gallery with an aerodynamic roof by the Modernist architect Prouvé. Prouvé (Road Test) is architecture in action. Is the roof really aerodynamic? Will it take off? We were there: It didn’t. Starling though was more interested in production and process than in product. The symbiotic reaction and the relationship of materials and meaning to one another is central to his work.

Exposition highlights the material platinum. Elegantly sectioned off by a grey transparent wall, platinum prints of designs by modernist designer Lily Reich for the German engineering pavilion at the Barcelona Exhibition in 1929 line one wall. Lamps powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that also involve platinum in its chemical process light these pictures.

Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations consists of different chunks of stone – metaphoric birds – surrounded by black-and-white photographs on the walls. It is a layered narrative of a maharajah’s commission for a palace by European architect Eckart Muthesius and parallels two films The India Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur by Fritz Lang. In the final room is Venus Mirrors, two facing mirrors address a rare astrological constellation and reflect back, like a sun or epicentre, to the beginning of the exhibition.

Superflex’s Rita and Hektor

Superflex’s installed livestock, Rita and Hektor | Photos: Jakob Polacsek

Intervening with Superflex

In contrast to Starling’s outside-to-in approach, Superflex engages with the Ambrosi collection and the Augarten’s history from inside-to-out.

Superflex is renowned for its art interventions that illuminate the intricacies of politics by reducing the meta to its most literal essence. “We’ve been called to do Ambrosi’s dirty laundry,” summarises Rasmus Nielsen of Superflex with good-natured irony. “Ambrosi’s story is about a deaf guy who fell in love with a cow from Tyrol,” referencing a photo of Ambrosi cuddling his cow that figures in the collection.

The Belvedere’s display showcases Ambrosi’s ambivalences with an application to the NSDAP party, with his self-testimony, and with his deafness, as excuses for his political blind spots as a visual artist. Ambrosi sculpted for the Nazi state, immortalising busts Richard Wagner, among others. In 1942, he was commissioned by Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, to create Maiden with Cow to match a Youth with Bull, as a symbol for “wholesome” agrarian and national values as well as staple products, meat and milk.

In turn, Superflex amplifies the grey zones. “You can’t fit a cow into a rabbit hole,” Nielsen says. Now the creature in the Augarten is a handpicked and very real Simmentaler Fleckvieh, a special Swiss cattle breed. The cow and bull, Rita and Hektor, might bear offspring. In effect, Superflex does not clean up, but rather frames Ambrosi’s stains with a living, and recurring leitmotif.

This self-reflexive work by Superflex and Starling is highly demanding of its audience. To balance out the challenge of remembering, diversion is amply supplied in the form of food and drink, features with which the events at the Augarten are generously bolstered.

Until 23 Sept.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21)
Atelier Augarten
2., Scherzergasse 1A
 (01) 513 98 56-24

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