Marine Hugonnier

Kerstin Engholm Galerie

The candle burning in Marine Hugonnier’s exhibition in Vienna was first lit in the year 2000, at the Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris. At that time the point was the fragrance it released: that of a candle that has just been extinguished. Hugonnier had used a similarly paradoxical tautology in an earlier work: Flowers, 1996-2000, a bouquet in a vase standing on a pedestal. The flowers’ yellows and whites were especially strong because the artist had treated them with paint. This kind of pictorial manipulation, occurring as it does not on canvas but on the object itself, adopts the philological differentiation between signifier and signified that has been such an inspiration to the conceptual branch of modern art history. References to the two-sided nature of signs are a striking trait of Hugonnier’s works, as is a poetic repackaging of nature as a set of signs.

The linchpin of this exhibition, however, was a work that abandons this pattern of doubling. It is a project that came about after the journal Camera Austria, on the occasion of the formation of the new right-wing government in Austria in the winter of 2000, invited several artists to provide a statement. Hugonnier declined to produce anything for the magazine but was moved to invite a holocaust survivor—the pianist Anna Hanušová, now a resident of Brno, who was interned at Theresienstadt as a child and played the piano in the concentration camp’s orchestra—to play a piece on Austrian radio. Hanušová’s performance of one of Arvo Pärt’s early serialist works was broadcast across the nation; in the gallery space her performance could be heard on a small radio standing like a readymade on a pedestal. The video projected on the wall showed Hanušová performing in the recording hall of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation. The music could be heard even when there was nothing to see on the wall; at times the pianist reappears, but mostly one sees nocturnal views of Vienna, accompanied by the sounds of the piano, without commentary.

In the evening, when the gallery was dark, the scented candle burned in the background, and then its light blended with those seen in the video—the brightness of the radio studio, cinema advertisements, the sea of lights at an oil refinery or the illuminated garlands of Viennese streets as seen from above. Hugonnier challenged the observer to consider the political symbolism of light—and to think of an autumn evening in 1993 when the heart of Vienna seemed to be burning. Ten thousand people had gathered in the center of the city to protest against the so-called Ausländer-volksbegehren—the far-right Freedom Party’s petition against further immigration. They all held candles in their hands—pitting naive symbolism, according to critics, against the radicalized rhetoric of the right-wing populists. The candle in the video, flickering romantically on its own; the relationship, remarked by the artist but not elaborated upon, “between technological progress and the architecture of the ’final solution’ ”; the free association between the Nazi past and the present day—these are political forms of pathos in Hugonnier’s project. There is all too strong a scent of what is intended here. Perhaps she would have done better with a different rhetorical figure—as Paul Celan began his poem about the Shoah, “Todesfuge” (Death fugue), with an oxymoron: “black milk.”

Matthias Dusini

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.