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Coup de Graz

Kristian Vistrup Madsen at Steirischer Herbst
Steirischer Herbst director Ekatarina Degot at Grazer Landhaus. All photos by author.

“STYRIAN AUTUMN SOUNDS LIKE BEER TENTS AND NATIONALISM,” a bike messenger said to me upon my return to Vienna from Graz, where I attended the Fifty-Second Steirischer Herbst, Europe’s oldest contemporary art festival. “It’s precisely the opposite,” I retorted. “Think cool graphic design and radical leftist politics—you can add quotes around ‘radical,’ depending on your temperament.” But is this time-honored event actually so incongruent with its rustic surroundings, the undeniably progressive typeface aside? Graz is a place where everything, including Ekaterina Degot’s program, walks the line of propriety; too big, too long, ill-mannered, and slightly crude. Fighting fire with fire, vulgarity with vulgarity, was a strategy established by Degot with last year’s edition, but it’s one that has lost no steam in the wake of this spring’s Ibiza scandal, which pushed Austria’s right-wing government to meltdown, and the Vengaboys to the top of the charts. Leading up to the early election on September 29, campaign posters everywhere promise a return to sauber—clean and sober—politics. This year’s Steirischer Herbst, appropriately titled “Grand Hotel Abyss,” distributed hotel-style “Please Clean” hangers to attendees, but its real success is that it isn’t afraid to get dirty in the process of tidying up. 

“It would be naive to think we could change history by negating it aesthetically.” This is one of the piercing lines from Jasmina Cibic’s film The Gift, a commission for the festival. In it, she considers culture a political gift with many strings attached. What do benefactors ask in return for the gift of beautiful public art and architecture? What structural action does culture take the place of?  

Curator Branka Benčić and artist Jasmina Cibic.

Keti Chukhrov and Guram Matskhonashvili’s The Global Congress of Post-Prostitution premiered on Friday night with darts thrown at tits, and a Paul Preciado–like caricature mumbling neologisms over Skype. Unfinished, deranged, and, as such, refreshing, the play satirizes International Art English and the various posts of emancipatory theory in the context of the former Eastern Bloc. As another of Cibic’s characters counselled, “If the people don’t understand our language, we will be accused of insult.” The themes of The Gift loomed large over all of “Grand Hotel Abyss.”  

Today, Europe sees itself as a champion of an educated sort of hedonism, Degot pronounced from the epic baroque balcony of the Grazer Landhaus, but one that “involves enjoying bitter medicine.” Her introduction was followed, from the same balcony, by an operatic cacophony of unhinged political speeches orchestrated by Zorka Wollny, and not dissimilar to those of Nigel Farage’s in Jeremy Deller’s Brexit reportage. Putin’s Happy, as Deller’s new commission is called, was more of the usual fuel to the appalled Guardian-reader’s fire—an act of rebellion about as bold as someone’s dad starting a band, as critic Rahel Aima pointed out.

Jule Flierl at Opening Extravanganza.

But the increasingly sentimental British tin drum gained new nuance in the context of Riccardo Giacconi’s research-heavy exhibition at the Grazer Kunstverein, focusing on a different moment of fraught national belonging. In the 1940s, German-speakers of South Tyrol were given the option of leaving for Nazi Austria or remaining in Mussolini’s Italy, a choice between fascism and fascism. Such historical perspective offers some much-needed critical awareness of the “bitter medicine” those of us irreparably locked to the continent will have to continue enjoying.    

“This party is like the bar mitzvah I always dreamed of,” said Daniel Mann of the evening’s “Opening Extravaganza.” Mann’s collaboration with Eitan Efrat, on view at the Forum Stadtpark, thematizes a radioactive spa established by Nazis deep inside an Austrian mountain—most people’s nightmare. As we spoke, Jule Flierl sang Isolde’s “Liebestod” by Wagner and climbed onto a big sculpture of Beethoven plunked in the center of the grand staircase. “Did you kiss it?” I asked her later. “No, no, I drooled on its head,” she assured me. Manuel Pelmus had staged a performance around the canapés, which he admitted “takes courage to eat.” One Roquefort on a severely un-moist blini later, I had to concur. On Pelmus’s instructions, the waiters sat on the floor and closed their eyes. “He’s a Marxist in practice, not just on paper,” said Frida Sandström, a Stockholm-based critic who lovingly bossed everyone around until she ran into a glass door on Saturday morning.

Miss Universe Jekaterina Übelacker and artist Jakob Lena Knebl.

Then I met the five strongest people in Austria. On the invitation of Jakob Lena Knebl, the incredible bunch flexed and posed to a soundscape by Markus Pires Mata while holding wild ceramics of the much-loved West German sort. Among the bodybuilders was Jekaterina Übelacker, the reigning Miss Universe—the first to win the title for Austria since Schwarzenegger, and the only woman. What company to be in! Knebl’s work is about classical beauty ideals, but here, the vases and athletic bodies of antiquity are shown in eccentric proportions, much queerer and more human. 

The coolest bar in Graz is called Cafe Wolf, and everyone goes there. It’s Gatsby meets Heidi from the mountain, except the reason Heidi has to look after her grandmother is because she is drunk. I bought pear schnapps made by a woman who happened to be smoking at the bar. What’s a diary without some regional booze? A young woman wore passport-size photographs of a lady with a quiff as earrings. “Is that La Roux?” I asked. “It’s Hannah Arendt,” she said, and my friends suggested it was time to go home. There I was, ill-mannered and slightly crude, again—Graz, it turns out, is contagious. I remembered another line from Cibic’s film: “Even if the people find it ugly, they’ll admire it.” Let’s hope so.

Artist Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze and Arts of the Working Class editor Maria Inés Plaza.
Artist Jule Flierl and Steirischer Herbst managing director Dominik Müller.
Artist Manuel Pelmus.
Artist Nedko Solakov.
Artists Daniel Mann and Eitan Efrat.
Maria Inés Plaza and writer Rahel Aima.
Grazer Kunstverein director Kate Strain.
Jakob Lena Knebl and Markus Pires Mata performance.
Kevin Space directors Carolina Noebauer and Fanny Hauser.
Writers Skye Arundhati Thomas and Rosanna Mclaughlin.
Verein K directors Dejan and Jelena Kaludjerovic.


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