Archeology and Ambivalence at Austria’s Steirischer Herbst Festival

Milica Tomić, "Exhibiting at the Trowel’s Edge," 2018. Photo: Mathias Völzke.
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One morning in Graz, a woman carries a large portrait of Adolf Hitler on a bus through the center of the city. It’s an oil painting with a bulky frame, the unmistakable face turned outwards for the other passengers to see. It’s a provocation, one of several characterizing the Steirischer Herbst festival; for three weeks out of the year, things feel somewhat out of the ordinary in Austria’s second city.

Steirischer Herbst translates to “Styrian Autumn”: Styria, or Steiermark, is the name of the province of which Graz is the capital. The interdisciplinary arts festival is entering its 51st year, its first under artistic director Ekatarina Degot. The provocateur on the bus is responding to a notice placed in the local newspaper, by artist Yoshinori Niwa: “Do you worry about your Nazi-uncle’s old hat still stored in the attic? What to do about it?, you ask yourself. I have THE solution for you!” In Graz’s busy Hauptplatz, Niwa installed a large deposit bin, bearing the prompt from the newspaper. This is where the painting is headed. Every day the box is emptied and its contents destroyed. “Questionable past?” reads the sign, “simply get rid of it!”

Yoshinori Niwa, “Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space,” 2018. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

One evening in the festival’s Herbst Bar, I witness a conversation between Niwa, Degot, and head of curatorial affairs, Christoph Platz. Platz reads aloud several reactions collected by the Hauptplatz work’s on-site invigilator. Most of them concern money: that these objects are too valuable to simply be thrown away. One Graz resident even suspects that the festival might cash in on the Nazi memorabilia to raise funds for next year’s program. But the question of value, as many pointed out, pertains not only to money, but to cultural and historical significance, as well. While the work initially appears to scorn the existence of such artifacts, Niwa’s prompt soon became just as controversial as the propaganda trinkets themsleves. And for good reason: the legacy of fascism is not defused by erasing its historical traces, but by confronting what remains. What goes in the dumpster is important testimony to something we mustn’t forget. “But it’s not about the objects,” Degot said, “it’s about the people, about how they interact with the container; it’s about having this very conversation.” It’s also about catharsis, Platz added, about the reality of trauma, and how we let go of it because we have to.

Milica Tomić’s contribution reverses Niwa’s gesture. For Exhibiting at the trowel’s edge (2018), truckloads of soil from the site of a former Nazi labor camp were transported into the chic Forum Stadtpark gallery along with a vitrine display of archeological findings. Its scientific organization suggests a clear message being delivered. But what was truly transmitted was an outline of lost knowledge. As part of the public program for this work, Michael Shanks, a professor of archeology from Stanford University, provided a sort of key for both Tomić and Niwa’s projects: “An archeological encounter is always with enormous amounts of material,” he lectured, “You can’t keep hold of everything – you’ve got to let go – but of what?” Shanks cited “the vast emptiness of the quotidian,” and pointed to how, in many Germanic languages, the word for “thing” also means “gathering.” The object itself – whether it’s masses of soil or your Nazi-uncle’s hat – may be both empty and plentiful, but it remains a trace of the past around which we congregate.

Steirischer Herbst is a rare example of a thoroughly political project that is poised intelligently on its own fence. I realized this when, for a moment, its careful ambivalence faltered. Nicoline van Harskamp’s play My Name is Language (2018) takes place in a waiting room setting, where a multicultural row of protagonists, seated among the audience, take to their feet one after the other to deliver monologues on the etymology and geo-political entanglements of their names. It’s a highly engrossing piece that presents van Harskamp’s thorough research in the field, its finale a mesmerizing, sermon-like thrust of Irish Gaelic. During an analysis of the working-class connotations of the name Kevin in German, one of the actors freestyled an uncomfortable, arguably classist joke. Van Harskamp, after the play, said that she would tell the actor not to do that again. Fair enough, however the incident highlighted the fact that no other utterance asked for anything but tacit agreement. Hers was a plot with no conflict, and only an invisible, structural enemy – and what is a chamber play with only agreeable characters?

Elsewhere in Steirischer Herbst, the Northern European predilection for the male enfant terrible was alive and well (figures like Lars von Trier and Otto Muehl jump to mind, as context). A delirious, bearded, cane-carrying dandy, the Oslo-based artist Lars Cuzner, staged a series of actions to promote his single-platform “Intelligence Party,” which offers a parodic right-wing argument for the extension of voting rights to non-citizens in the EU, under the slogan “I understand white people.” Mind you, Norway is not in the EU; Cuzner, cloaked in the ugly underbelly-aesthetics of the alt-right, is deliberately shooting blanks.

Laibach, “Laibach’s Sound of Music,” 2018. Photo: Jasper Kettner.

The Slovenian music group Laibach is similarly known for their playful provocations. For the festival’s opening night, their martial, industrial-rock renditions of well-known tracks from The Sound of Music underscored the deep contradictions of that story, wherein a pastoral Austrian nationalism incongruously appears to be in conflict with German National Socialism. At the intersection of sentimental grandeur and flippant provocation, Laibach’s performance was, well, tacky. But dated demonstrations of masculinity aside, there was a profound streak of insanity to both Cuzner and Laibach’s presentations. In a climate where looming right-wing populism has caused a hyper-cautious sanitization of the cultural sphere, their pointed madness comes as something like relief. The immediate downside, however, is how easy it is to laugh off ludic gestures (as the far-right politicians present at the opening concert no doubt did).

In 1988, no one was laughing when in the final days of the festival, a public installation by Hans Haacke was fire-bombed. The work, named after a Nazi military honor, Und Ihr habt doch gesiegt (“And you were victorious after all”), is a reconstruction of an obelisk originally erected to celebrate the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Haacke added one crucial feature: an epigraph around the base, naming the victims of Nazi aggression in Graz. It was a deliberate test to the Verbotsgesetz, a law passed after the war which prohibits the display of Nazi-related symbols or imagery. The law makes notable exceptions for art and science, which are considered forms of “civil enlightenment.” But must art always be enlightening? Is that what we need it for? The Nazis were among those who mobilized art to such ends, after all. As a reply to this instrumentalization, it seems to me that instead art ought to embody a kind of enlightened uncertainty – if it’s forced to stand for anything at all.

The discussion of Niwa’s container took up similar themes. When a portrait of Hitler leaves a dusty attic and travels on a bus through town, is that a violation of the Verbotsgesetz? When is visibility also complicit in the promotion of an ideology? Is it true, as the saying goes, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? The same square where Haacke’s obelisk stood thirty years ago – and the Nazis’ fifty years before that – this year hosts Rosella Biscotti and Kevin van Braak’s installation The Standing Wave (2018). Submerged in a muted fountain are matte-grey models of the seaside holiday resorts that were built all over Italy during fascism, to offer vacations to the poor in exchange for ideological indoctrination. In Italy, fascism and modernism went hand-in-hand, while in Austria the Nazis favored a hills-are-alive, Dirndl and Edelweiss kind of aesthetic (Laibach’s point exactly). Removed from their native context, Biscotti and van Braak’s familiar forms – symmetrical, streamlined, proto-International Style complexes – appear as blank tombstones. They impart little meaning at all, and certainly no immediate ideology. Petrified in the still water, the models seem to absorb all sound and movement, reminding us (as I’ve argued before) that objects aren’t fascist, people are.

Henrike Naumann, “Anschluss ‘90,” 2018. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

The too-welcome annexation of Austria by the Third Reich is known in German as Anschluss: the “joining” of Germany and Austria. The title of Henrike Naumann’s work Anschluss ’90 delivers a tongue-in-cheek reference with grave implications. Naumann imagines that Austria too was absorbed in the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany into the east after 1990. Slyly reusing the term draws attention to an implicit truth in a terrible echo: while “joining” in 1938 had meant the permeation of fascism, in 1990 it was a final win for capitalism (to recall Haacke’s title at this moment is especially chilling: “And you were victorious after all”). The installation is a perfect furniture showroom as it would have looked after reunification: pastel-colored budget postmodernism. A postcard from the exhibition shows the cover of IKEA’s 1990 catalogue with the text “It wasn’t all bad.” Naumann has a great sense of humor, but not only that. Reclining on a purple sofa in this gloriously hideous interior, I recall Michael Shanks’s notion of the emptiness of the quotidian. Perhaps it’s never clear what should be saved and what destroyed. Archeology, he claimed, means caring enough about the future to dig into the past.

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