Atelier Augarten Zentrum für Zeitgenössische Kunst

Through the centuries, the theme of pathos has become rarer in art. Today it is almost taboo. At the Österreichische Galerie in the baroque Belvedere Palace, one sees how in classical painting and sculpture death and loss leads to transfiguration and victory. But mourning in contemporary art? In “Trauer” (Mourning) their manifold contradictions have been productively addressed by the gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Thomas Trummer, who in his catalogue essay measures the representability of mourning and tragedy by way of such texts as Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Derrida’s “The Death of Roland Barthes,” developing a phenomenology of loss.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s minimal “Untitled” (For New York), 1992, gives particular insight into the exhibition. It is one of a number of strings of lightbulbs that would be nearly identical but for their titles, which Gonzalez-Torres associated with memorable events, places, and people. More obviously a memento mori is the Cuban-born artist’s lapidary photograph, also from 1992, of colorful flowers stuck into the ground; only the work’s subtitle discloses that they were placed on the grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

The 1975 disappearance in a sailboat off Cape Cod of Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader remains a mystery to this day. In his film I’m too sad to tell you, 1970–71, he cries, silently and heartrendingly, for nearly three and a half minutes. Ader never provided any explanation for this dramatically portrayed breakdown, though he did name as a historical precedent for his tears the melodrama of the Renaissance, as in certain works by Rogier van der Weyden or Giovanni Bellini, as well as the grieving women in Picasso’s Guernica. For his concentrated form of mourning, Ader uses an explicitly narrative medium, film—only to refuse, just as explicitly, to fully exploit the medium’s narrative potential.

Mourning has a clear personal basis in Gonzalez-Torres but is inscrutable in Ader. Other works “operate with history, political disappointments and collective images of departure,” as Trummer writes in the exhibition’s catalogue. Tacita Dean, for one, has brought together historical war photographs. In the series “The Russian Ending,” 2001, she transposes images of explosions, sinking ships, and detonating munitions to the obsolete medium of photogravure and provides these with comments that seem to belong to a screenplay: Each postcard would function equally well as the finale of an imaginary film with an unhappy (i.e., not lighthearted and American), “Russian” ending. Zeno Writing, 2002, is an eleven-minute animated film by William Kentridge based on a novel by Italo Svevo. It tells the story of the titular hero, Zeno Cosini, who prophylactically broods over his own impending breakdown against a background of tragedy, the dissolving Hapsburg Empire.

Belgrade artist Zoran Naskovski provided not just one of the show’s most impressive works but also its most topical. Naskovski edited together a documentary of John F. Kennedy’s death in Dallas using vintage video and film footage as well as photographs. The images, formative for the collective memory of a generation, were accompanied by the Serbian dirge “Smrt u Dalasu” (Death in Dallas) by Jozo Karamatić, who mourns in this speech-song the 1963 death of the American president. But how one scenario resembles another! The iconography of the grieving wife with both children that established Jackie’s fame found its spooky counterpart in the widow and family of the “Serbian Kennedy,” Zoran Djindjic, murdered last March.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.