Das Glaserne U-Boot


Das gläserne U-Boot (The glass submarine) is a transparent vessel in a transparent medium—at least as defined by John Hilliard in his catalogue essay for this exhibition. This poetic metaphor was offered as inspiration to 27 artists who were invited to indulge their wildest and freest associations on the subject. The exhibition space, an old tobacco factory in Krems, a wine-producing region 40 miles west of Vienna, was like a tourist dream of the 1950s. However, Richter/Gerngross, the exhibition architects, provided a rather tight corset of sheet metal and concrete for the building’s three stories.

An outside elevator took visitors to the top floor, where their still-innocent eyes were instantly blinded by a harsh spotlight. This severe, almost crude treatment was not unappealing; however, it monopolized the viewer’s attention to the detriment of the artworks. Indeed, such ambivalence in judgment was the specific trademark of the entire show.

Marcel Odenbach offered a friendlier welcome with Der Duft von Freiheit und Abenteuer oder der Geschmack von Freiheit und Abenteuer (The fragrance of freedom and adventure, or the taste for freedom and adventure); the title was written in large letters over the seven-part video installation. Each monitor screen was subdivided into three parts, combining work processes in the factory, tourist reminiscences of Vienna, and glimpses of everyday life in the Stein Penitentiary located next to the factory. Various turning motions (the prisoners in the yard, the machines, the ferns wheel) relate work and leisure, the dream of freedom and the reality of confinement. Peter Weibel employed two monitors, one showing microbes, the other showing the entire globe via satellite. He confronted the monitors with one another by inserting them as fingernails into two gigantic papier-mâché fingers that pointed at one another.

The best piece was by the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl. Through a telescope, one saw a vintner’s cottage that the artist had built in one of the surrounding vineyards; the piece imaginatively expanded the boundaries of the exhibition space. Equally beautiful were Hartmut Skerbisch’s simple, yet monumental vessellike zinc sculptures, which hung like wasps’ nests in the attic. Georges Rousse’s installation had more to do with the glass submarine; his theme was not so much transparency as the relationship between the visible and the invisible. All one could see was the light-mirror projection of a Rilke text about “pure space”; the real space was visible only in the catalogue reproduction. Giulio Paolini, Vettor Pisani, the Poiriers, Marie Jo Lafontaine, Johanna Kandl, and others contributed good, somewhat familiar works, whose thematic integration seemed dubious.

It was certainly Hilliard who culled the most precise vision from the theme. He pictured the glass submarine as an automobile at night, with only its inside light on. As a highly private space that was nevertheless visually accessible on all sides, it evoked a complex chaos of feelings: the interior seemed secluded, claustrophobic, the exterior voyeuristic and ominous. Hilliard pasted four gigantic photocanvases on two parallel walls in the middle of the room, showing two views out of the car into the darkness and two views into it. Images of a woman lying on the front seat, a face outside the capsule, and a sadistically shredded doll suggested a mysterious story, which was given added suspense by the leap into the vaster realms of film and advertising.

All in all, the exhibition (which included an extensive performance program) offered a quite lively reprise of a kind of ’70s extravaganza. Still, the exhibition’s level of intellectual inquiry, deviation from traditional exhibition format, and general quality of work would have to be better realized for the planned continuation in two years to be considered worthwhile.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.