Elke Krystufek

The day after the opening of Elke Krystufek’s recent show, there were more people than I had even seen in this space. Why was there so much fuss about an artist who is only twenty-seven? Krystufek is certainly the most successful Austrian artist of the decade, but better-known artists have shown their work at the Secession without inspiring so much interest. There must have been other reasons for the furor—perhaps the advance reports on an Austrian radio station, for example, that continually repeated the catchphrase, “masturbation performance.” In fact, Krystufek became known to a wider audience through such a performance in the Kunsthalle Wien over two years ago, which led to a political debate between the mayor and the minister of culture. This is not to suggest that voyeurism alone drew crowds; there are also more “sincere” reasons, namely, Austrian art-lovers’ taste for art that is bound up with the body and sexuality—for an eccentric and obsessive subjectivity. These impulses have often sustained Krystufek’s work. Based on a dialectic of exhibitionism and voyeurism, it could be called a modern variant on the work of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and Viennese Actionism.

This time, however, Krystufek ingeniously overturned one’s expectation of a spectacle, ensnaring the viewer’s desires in the process. The show’s title—“i am your mirror”—seemed based not only on the idea of the artist as a mirror of sexual fantasies, but also of the very voyeurism she fostered. Krystufek installed a forest of free-standing walls, leaving little room for passage and arranging the dividers in such a way that as one entered the show one saw only their blank backs. Although she has previously shown scatterlike installations, here she surprised the viewer with a coherent, formal presentation—lining up a group of 1800 photos, drawings, and paintings, all in the same format and frames. While the show suggested an outpouring of artistic subjectivity, it also had a documentary character. One overriding effect was produced by giving equal weight to all of the family photos—memories of youth and holidays; pictures of friends and lovers; and the stages of an art career. The private and the artistic were placed on the same plane, as Krystufek documented, in a seemingly objective fashion, the development of a subject, a woman, and an artist—beginning with the image of a fifteen-year-old resolving to become an artist.

While the mode of presentation was unusual, the basic sensibility was familiar, revealed in an incessant display of the body, sexuality, personal environment, isolation, suffering, and the “I.” But what was completely traceable for the first time was the origin of the exhibitionism of her performances, videos, and installations in the “normal” poses of a young girl before the camera, poses exploring a variety of roles. In many photos, the young Krystufek emerges as the seductive, erotic, grown-up Krystufek, and in keeping with her understanding of herself as the mirror of her beholder, her identity is defined by manifold forms of reflection: the mirror, the camera, friends, art scenes, publicity.

But what kind of subject did Krystufek document, or perhaps invent here? Insofar as her narcissism evoked the romantic image of the artist as exemplary subject, it was a subject straight out of Schiele; and insofar as the pose or the invention was always foregrounded, her work recalled Cindy Sherman’s photographs. But there was neither the fundamental distinction between person and role found in Sherman’s oeuvre, nor the lack of distance from self found in Schiele’s. This work suggests both a Schiele subject and a Sherman subject, just as the invented Krystufek is, at the same time, the authentic Krystufek.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.