Tomorrow Never Dies

Kate Sutton at the 10th ViennaFair

Left: President Heinz Fischer with ViennaFair's artistic director Christina Steinbrecher. Right: Mumok director Karola Kraus, artist Cosima von Bonin, and the 3 Ypsilons' Mary Messhausen. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

THOSE TEMPTED to compare the art world’s fall fair calendar to a roller coaster might reconsider the metaphor after meeting artist Julijonas Urbonas. The son of a Soviet theme-park manager, the Vilnius-based artist has parlayed his childhood fascination with the thrill rides into his proposal for “The Euthanasia Coaster.” “It’s designed to deliver the passenger the most pleasant and perfect death possible,” he beamed, while talking me through a scale model, one of the main attractions at Galerija Vartai’s booth at last week’s ViennaFair.

Now a decade old, the Austrian fair has recently careened through its share of loop-de-loops. In 2012, it was purchased by Russians Sergey “Skate” Skaterschikov and real estate developer Dmitry Aksenov, who brought in ArtMoscow director Christina Steinbrecher and dealer Vita Zaman to oversee the fair’s program. One year in, Skaterschikov ceded his share. Then this September, a month before the fair, Zaman stepped down to focus on her own curatorial pursuits—namely an LA-based initiative called “The Perpetual Experts.” “The fair has built up such a strong team now,” Zaman told me. “I just felt like I had given what I could and now it’s time to take on new projects.”

One thing that’s staying put is the fair’s accent on central and southeastern Europe—a “Europe” that, notably, includes Russia. This emphasis may set ViennaFair apart from cookie-cutter competition, but it also left some wondering if the dozen or so Russian galleries and nonprofits would make the trip. Rumors of impending capital controls (aimed at damming up the floods of foreign investment leaving the country) have sent the ruble plummeting. These economic woes ostensibly caused the collapse of ArtMoscow, but on the other hand, this September saw a successful second coming of Cosmoscow, resurrected after a four-year hiatus. “The only problem I had at Cosmoscow was keeping enough Tanya Akhmetgalieva works to show here in Vienna,” Saint Petersburg–based dealer Marina Gisich reported. “It’s about to get really rough in Russia,” a noted Moscow-based collector confided to me later. “But right now we still don’t feel it.”

Left: Artists Heimo Zobernig and Florian Reither. Right: Artist and activist Ilya Budraitskis with curator Viktor Misiano.

As for Aksenov, his money is tied up in the RDI Group, an art-friendly development company that has underwritten exhibitions and even collaborated with Moscow’s plucky Ad Marginem to publish titles by Boris Groys, Katya Degot, and Viktor Misiano. RDI received a boost earlier this fall when Sberbank stepped in with an increased credit line to help RDI fund its ambitious, architecture-driven suburb Yuzhnaya Dolina (“Southern Valley”). The announcement went out just a week before Japan joined the US, the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, and Canada in slapping sanctions on what is Russia’s largest lending bank; in the week since, Sberbank reported their worst quarter in years.

Of course, the foremost bank at ViennaFair remains Erste, who for ten years has picked up the tabs for many of the exhibiting Central and Southeastern European galleries. The fair is not shy about tracing emerging art scenes back to natural resources; its OMV oil company–sponsored series is bluntly titled “New Energies.” This year’s spotlight was on Romania, with a selection of seven spaces including Cluj pioneer Plan B and Bucharest’s Anca Poterasu. (Others like 418 Contemporary and Ivan came on their own steam.) The danger of the boutique sensibility of these special programs is that it drives some of the Viennese galleries into the cheaper “Zone 1,” solo stalls prime for token participation. As critic Sabine Vogel pointed out, “It’s great to have something unique about the fair, but what does it mean if the local galleries aren’t willing to pay for the real booths?” Still, with roughly one-third of the exhibitors coming from Austria and the largest plots filled by Krinzinger, Galerie Nächst St. Stephan, George Kargl, Gabriele Senn, Ernst Hilger, and Christine König, Vienna was at no risk of underrepresentation.

Speaking of representation, during the fair’s Wednesday preview, I was at König’s booth admiring a Thomas Hartmann painting when who should arrive but Austrian president Heinz Fischer, a radiant Steinbrecher on his arm. I trailed the president’s entourage over to Viktor Bucher, where Fischer started ribbing artist Justin Lieberman about his willingness to let artist Alfredo Barsuglia suspend him from the ceiling for a performance. Afterwards, a visibly stoked Lieberman assessed the blasé attitude of other onlookers. “It’s like, in Vienna, everyone has met the president…” “I’ve met him twice,” Barsuglia corrected, in complete earnest. (“Austria has a chancellor who does most of the actual governing,” one of my dinner companions would explain later. “The president’s job really is just to go places and be really friendly, like those people outside Walmart.”)

Left: Dealers Thomas Krinzinger and Ursula Krinzinger. Right: Kunsthalle Wien curator Nicolaus Schafhausen with artist Liam Gillick.

Fischer certainly would have provided a warmer welcome than Vienna’s new branding campaign, which plasters airport escalators and city guides with the curiously ominous slogan “Vienna: Now or Never.” Fatalism aside, the phrase jives well with the burgeoning scene of upstarts and artist-run spaces, many of whom pronounce “Christian Rosa” like it was “Carcosa.” I encountered some of these sensations-in-waiting that night at Neuer Kunstverein Wien, where collector Amir Shariat had put together “Eye Know,” a group show of artists like Alex Ruthner, Lilli Thiessen, Mario Nubauer, Jannis Varelas, and JPW3. “I guess these are the names I should know in two years?” I teased Shariat. “Are you kidding?” he shot back playfully. “These artists are already on ArtRank! The Rubells have bought them! You should know their names now.” As conversation slipped more seriously into sales, I edged in the direction of a kindly older gentleman, whom I wagered might not be the ArtRank type. “You’re American?” he began. “My daughter has been to Silver Spring in Maryland.” Relief came only down in the basement, where Gerald Matt had organized a gleeful Mary Reid Kelley show, packed with a more palatable perversity.

Thursday morning, the fair’s talks program kicked off with “Biennial Culture: What can the Spectator learn from a Biennial?,” which saw curators Kasper König, Adam Budak, and Nicolaus Schafhausen bickering over Artur Żmijewski’s Berlin Biennale and Manifesta—“I’ve seen every one except for yours,” König apologized. “I didn’t see yours,” Budak shrugged—with just the skimpiest mention of the newly revamped Vienna Biennale. As the three men duked it out onstage, collector Alain Servais intervened to reminded them that the discussion was supposed to be about the spectator, not the curator. Schafhausen chuckled, “Here’s our dilemma in a nutshell: Do we give the audience what it thinks it wants or what we think it needs?”

Servais would have his own chance at the mic, for an hour-and-a-half talk that Bozar adviser Rita Janssen proclaimed “absolute brilliance!” First, however, the intellectually scintillating Beatriz Colomina headed up “The Century of the Bed,” a panel that explored her thesis that technology has gradually eradicated the Industrial Revolution’s divide between home and the workplace, giving way to a whole generation of freelancers who toil in bed. “The place that used to be the most intimate, the most private, has become a public space for exposing yourself through social media,” Colomina observed.

Left: “Curated by” curator Luca Lo Pinto. Right: “Curated by” curator Beatriz Colomina and artist Dorit Margreiter.

This thesis was to serve as the basis for the sixth edition of “curated by vienna,” an initiative that mobilizes Vienna’s gallery network, recruiting curators to mull over a given theme. At Galerie Meyer Kainer, Liam Gillick and Rachel Harrison’s self-curated entry was haunted by the spirit of the Murphy Bed, while holding court in the upstairs speakeasy were John Kelsey’s watercolors of Lindsay Lohan and James Deen, screen stills from The Canyons. Sex and superficiality were the main motifs at Kerstin Engholm, where Carson Chan’s “Surface Modeling” paired Britta Thie and Jon Rafman with Jeremy Shaw’s eight-channel video of revelers coming off DMT. Over at Christina König, Luca Lo Pinto’s exhibition-as-image, “In Real Life,” reduced the installation of works from the likes of Darren Bader, Antoine Catala, and Adriana Lara to a single life-size photograph spanning the length of the gallery. “We had to stage it in the Generali Foundation, so there would be enough room to get the scale right,” Lo Pinto admitted. Too late to get into Galerie Nächst St. Stephan (“They have old clients, they close early,” an artist reasoned), I ended the evening at Emanuel Layr’s, where curator Egija Inzule opted for five mini-exhibitions, including a franchise of Sarah Staton’s SupaStore and a sneakily riveting, Japanese bathhouse–inspired installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

Friday morning, curator Viktor Misiano moderated a conversation on protest in contemporary Russian culture. Those who came expecting PowerPoints on Pussy Riot were greeted with a theory-heavy reckoning of Moscow’s failed protest movement, which, as artist and activist Ilya Budraitskis explained, basically boiled down to “atomized individuals” momentarily united by the neutered abstractions of “free elections” and “peace” but had, ultimately, nothing substantial to bind them.

The adjective “atomized” stuck with me as I made my way through Parallel Vienna, an alternative fair set in an old customs building in the third district. Inside, collectives, galleries, and individual artists crammed into five floors of tiny office spaces that all smelled of eau de unplugged refrigerator. Amid the sensory overload, I did brake for Bar du Bois and Tutti Frutti, which was showing recent paintings by Béatrice Dreux. More of Dreux was on view at “Let’s Mingle,” a group show put on by Zaman in a private riverside space just across from the Jean Nouvel–designed Sofitel. I walked in while Zaman was showing an adviser one of Rosa’s spare paintings. “This isn’t from the new series you were talking about?” the advisor asked, her brow knit. “No, this is an old one!” Zaman assured her, turning the frame slightly so we could see the signature and date. “See? 2013.”

Left: Dorotheum's Martin Böhm and dealer Gabriele Senn at a dinner at Dorotheum. Right: Perpetual Experts' Vita Zaman with artist Béatrice Dreux.

So maybe Cosima von Bonin was spot on when she subtitled her latest exhibition “Hippies Use the Side Door” with the conclusion “The Year 2014 Has Lost the Plot.” The spunky survey opened Friday night at mumok with performances by “Canadian-German neo-drag” collective the 3 Ypsilons and the Ypsilon Five, a group comprising artists Oliver Husain, Claus Richter, Sergej Jensen, Stefan Müller, and Simone Junker. I lingered as long as I could before returning to the Messe Hall, where Sberbank was hosting an elaborate “collector dinner” that doubled as a birthday party for Aksenov.

With a guest list six hundred strong, the organizers gave up on seating plans, encouraging new arrivals to “Please, feel free to sit where you choose.” Surveying the room full of Sberbank, I was relieved to spy an unclaimed chair beside a few international critics and one of the more prominent Viennese dealers at a table near the front. Just as we were about to dig into our Arctic char, however, we were interrupted by an elegant Russian-accented brunette, flashing a Post-it note inscribed with the number seven: “I’m truly sorry, but I believe this is our table?” In the name of graciousness, we decamped to a large vacant table in the back corner to pick up where we left off. As our new digs filled out, however, we started to field increasingly hostile glances from our Sberbank-speaking tablemates, who had come up a few seats short for their late-arriving acquaintances. Eventually, a brusque blonde came over to deliver our eviction notice: “This is not your table. You need to leave.” “Oh, how quaint, an annexation-themed dinner party…” one of my companions purred, as we considered our options. Thankfully, a flustered fair organizer caught wind of our situation and rustled up seven spots around curators Iara Boubnova, Hedwig Saxenhuber, Russia’s National Center for Contemporary Art director Mikhail Sidlin, and bon vivant Nic Iljine. (Incidentally, we got seconds on char.)

After the meal, a macaroon-encrusted birthday cake was wheeled out for Aksenov, who took to the stage to thank his wife for her support before encouraging diners to enjoy their coffee and dessert out in the fair aisles. (The announcement prompted a few shocked looks from participating dealers. “To the booth!” one barked at his director, only half in jest). As guests filed out and plates were cleared, I noticed our place settings were in fact ViennaFair “Save the Date” cards. Impressed at the fair’s resolution to press on despite economic uncertainty, I pushed the card toward my companion, who promptly pointed out that it was for the current edition. Now or Never?

Left: Collector Alain Servais. Right: Dealer Christine König with collector Carter Pottash.

Left: Nic Iljine with Moscow's Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance chief curator Maria Nasimova. Right: Moscow Museum of Modern Art Director Vasily Tsereteli.

Left: Curator Andrey Parshikov and Moscow Muzeon director Elena Tyunaeva. Right: Curator Adam Budak.

Left: Dealer Kathrin Klein at Parallel. Right: Bard du Bois install at Parallel.

Left: Dealers Deniz Pekerman and Rosemarie Schwarzwälder. Right: Dealer Emanuel Layr with critic Aaron Bogart.

Left: “Curated by” curator Carson Chan with artist Britta Thie. Right: Artist Dmitry Gutov.

Left: Dealer Joana Grevers and Antonella Grevers. Right: Collector Vladimir Smirnov with ViennaFair’s Dmitry Aksenov at a dinner at Dorotheum.

Left: Artists Nicu Ilfoveanu and Zoltan Bela. Right: Dealer Marian Ivan.

Left: Dealer Volker Diehl with artist Olga Chernyshova. Right: Dealer Hans Knoll.

Left: Artists Siniša Ilić and Žolt Kovač. Right: Dealers Mihaela Lutea and Mihai Pop.

Left: Curator Ekaterina Perventseva. Right: Artists Nick Oberthaler and Chris Goennawein.

Left: Artist Erwin Wurm and dealer Ursula Krinzinger. Right: Belvedere's Agnes Husslein and curator Peter Noever.

Left: Artist collective Société Réaliste's Jean-Baptiste Naudy. Right: Dealer Marina Gisich.

Left: Dealer Ekaterina Iragui. Right: Artist Gyula Várnai and dealer Orsolya Hedegüs.

Left: Artist Julijonas Urbonas and dealer Laura Rutkutė. Right: Artist German Titov.

Left: Artist Klaus Pamminger and dealer Josephine Wagner. Right: Dealer Felix Gaudlity.

Left: Artist Ustina Yakovleva. Right: Artist Petra Feriancová with dealer Alberto Matteo Torri.

Left: Curator Gerald Matt with Neuer Kunstverein Wien's Katarzyna Uszynska. Right: Curator Kasper König.