“Grand Hotel Abyss”: steirischer herbst ’19, Graz
by Frida Sandström
“Our hotel might collapse any minute,” announced Director and Chief Curator Ekaterina Degot in her inaugural speech for the 51st edition of the yearly festival Steirischer herbst, taking place in the Austrian health resort of Graz. Founded in 1968, the festival’s early intersection of artistic, curatorial, and discursive practices was once in clear opposition to mainstream conventions. Now, in 2019, there is something rather obnoxious about the all-too-polished exhibition and performance intent.
Borrowing its title from Georg Lukács (1885–1971), the 2019 edition seeks to revitalize the sharp critique that the Hungarian Marxist philosopher directed toward the German intelligentsia in 1962. In coining the metaphor of the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity,” Lukács underscored the paradox of cultural critique that isn’t followed by direct action.1 In Graz, his words hit the contemporary art world in its soft spot.
It is not only the Western indulgence of surplus critique—or as Lukács puts it, “excellent meals or artistic entertainments”—that are the focus in Graz. Rather, the abyss of such matter embodies the larger part of the festival program. Such a political impasse can, as Lukács wrote, “only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.”2 In other words will default engagement outside of these comforts remain undone. Lukács’s argument relates to those of the contemporary cultural critic Lauren Berlant, whose notion of “cruel optimism” has come to represent the twenty-first-century affective economy of clickbait consumption, be it of goods or of relations.3
So what is it that we desire, but never fully get? In times of intensified political factions, joined by the repression of collective memory and mutual care, it might be self-understanding and—perhaps—unity. A central question for most humanism and activism today is how to come together beyond populism while not simply preaching to the choir. On September 19, Grand Hotel Abyss opened in the midst of this shattered commons with composer Zorka Wollny’s Voicers—Oratorio for Five and a Listening Crowd (2019) performing the vacuity of political speech. From balconies of the Renaissance palace Landhaushof Graz, five people sang drowned-out arguments for unity across the political spectrum.
If postwar novelist Thomas Bernhard in his 1988 novel Heldenplatz described Austria as “a brutal and stupid nation,” the opening Extravaganza in the neo-Renaissance Congress Graz enacted the frivolity of such characteristics. As with most of the festival venues around the city, this place has a distinct relation to the postwar era. In the 1940s, the Styrian region was squeezed between German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and the corrupted Communism of former Yugoslavia. Today, the twenty-first century rearmament is manifested in the confused binary between left and far right, internationalism and national conservatism. And if contemporary art resides in precisely that abyss, Scottish artist, writer, and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Some Short Thoughts on Neoclassicism (1986) is key for this year’s Steirischer herbst. Decoding the semiotics of tyranny through the twentieth-century revitalization of classicism, Finlay, who died in 2006, analyzed politics at a distance—from his garden in southern Scotland.
Seldom leaving the flowerbed, Finlay ingeniously linked authoritarian bureaucracy from the British Arts Council to Benito Mussolini, in whose hands dance and musical harmonies were transformed to marches with drums. In Graz, his objects, prints, and concrete poems (from 1973 to 2003) are generously hung in the basement hall of Künstlerhaus Graz. Suggesting another garden, another world, the installation might be the abyss-in-action, reversing exhaustion into movement, as did Zorka Wollny’s composition of vacated speech. A similar attempt appears in Jule Flierl’s collapsed vocal performance Ore of Peace (2019), interpreting Werner Kunz’s 1972 propaganda poem with the same title, initially written to celebrate East German uranium extraction during the Cold War. Flierl sings her version through sonorous gaps in the text that, when uttered, loop the political intent into an immanent contestation of its logic. Alike Finlay’s concrete poetry, the historically burdened phonetics are reformulated into potent sounds beyond language. At the Extravaganza, Flierl’s reversed enunciations were exchanged for the disconnection of voice and face in her Dissociation Study (2017–19). Allowing the joyful intonation of opera singing to freely float away from its signifying facial gestures, when sounding and gesticulating out of sync, Flierl’s messy make-up appearance marked a possible end of any critical distance from the spectator.
As opposed to sad memes of consumerist culture, Manuel Pelmus’s Tricks for Tips (2019) corrupted the score of the Extravaganza workforce of waiters. Adding a small choreography to their shift, the waiters were allowed to rest—to close their eyes and simply take a break. “It takes courage to enjoy,” they repeated to the tipsy festival visitors who lightheartedly reached out for some snacks. Indeed it does—the question is only whose courage is at work, for whose enjoyment. The immediate link between glamour and fascist aesthetics is perfectly put by Finlay in his 1982 Camouflage Sentences, monitored along with his works: “Camofleurs are Monday painters. To camouflage a tank is to add what Shenstone calls ‘the amiable to serve’—the beautiful to the sublime, flutes to drums.” Part of the Extravaganza program was also Jakob Lena Knebl and Markus Pires Mata’s tableau-vivant-like performance The Style Council (2019), where Miss Universe (the most recent in Austria to be given the “Universe” title since Arnold Schwarzenegger) and fellow bodybuilders danced between stable poses, along with rhythmic drones, antique kitsch in their hands. By the entrance Elmgreen & Dragset had installed a sales counter distributing luxurious “Bernhardkugels” (instead of the local treat, the Mozardkugel), while hinting to Thomas Bernhard’s disparaging judgement of the country. The 50 euro chocolate box likely exceeded the waiters’ take-home pay for the evening.
Consuming joy, we join it in circulation. Luckily, Pelmus’s and Flierl’s works refused the material fatigue of extracted surplus enjoyment while instead reversing the circulation of emotional labor. As Finlay suggests in his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998), “Classical gardens deal in grave generalizations, modern gardens in fussy particulars.” Graz was clearly not on climate strike in late September, but it did indeed struggle with joy as escape, as demand, as warfare. “Time in general is fragile and dangerous,” Degot stated in her speech, describing the yearly festival harvest as “abysses of uncertainty opening on both sides.” Indeed, it takes courage. Throughout selected hotel lobbies in Graz, Nedko Solakov’s subtle installations Lost Cold War Spies (2019)—small puppets hidden in corners and behind furniture who once noticed gave a hint to any former warfare paranoia yet active in the region.
Aside the mess of the wealthy, Jeremy Deller’s documentary installation Putin’s Happy (2019) underscored the mess of the politically dispossessed. With handheld footage from the Brexit demonstrations on Parliament Square in London last spring, the Brexiters insistently reiterate the state’s dismissal of war veterans, the sick, and the homeless as the alt-right imagination of one single force unit of the crisis. There we go again, the ghosts of World War II. As part of his series Bust Talks, German artist Thomas Geiger enters into a honest conversation (in German) with the bust of pro-Nazi writer Hans Kloepfer as if the latter really was responding. The blunt action connects nicely with Deller’s on-site journalism, where the imperative of the documentary exchange is to interact with the lost narrative of the present moment—a moment that, when consumed, is no longer ours. It takes money to ignore.
1. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin, 2003), see: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/theory-novel/preface.htm.
2. Lukács, The Theory of the Novel.
3. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Steirischer herbst 2019, Graz
until 13 October 2019