“The Death of the Audience”

The Vienna Secession filled the difficult art-world summer gap with revolutionary panache and imaginative profundity. Curator Pierre Bal-Blanc, head of the Centre d’Art Contemporain in the Paris suburb of Brétigny, called with impeccable logic for the death not of the author but of the audience. Why should the public any more than the artist be compartmentalized or privileged?

The thirty-five artists included are all over fifty years old, having lived through and possibly been influenced by the rebellions of the 1960s; marginalized both by institutions and by the art market, they have cultivated practices that distance them from authoritarian artistic gestures and the notion of the artwork as masterpiece. Their work is therefore concerned with ruptures, radicalism, and utopias. But Bal-Blanc’s show reframed these pieces in surprisingly new, witty ways, launching an intellectually challenging journey through some fascinating regions off the beaten track.

The Secession’s architecture played its part, from its basement to the glass ceiling of its main room (partially opened up by Franziska & Lois Weinberger, who installed dead tree fungi on the roof’s metal armature). Meanwhile, other artists set motorized walls in motion (Robert Breer, Moving Wall, 2009) and let visitors (now mutated into part of the artwork) loose in a labyrinth of paper strips (Gianni Pettena, Paper/Midwestern Ocean, 1971/2009). There were heart-wrenching moments, like Július Koller’s Glass Clean Water (Idea-Object), 1964; and anarchic ones, such as Bernard Bazile’s demystification of Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), 1961, with a can opener in his Boite ouverte de Piero Manzoni (Open Can by Piero Manzoni), 1989; and just plain messy ones, like the crumpled-up paper scattered about untidily in Sanja Iveković’s 40 Pages of ENAR Report on Racism in Austria, 2009. Yet modernism’s first white cube has never been stripped so bare, so naked, down to the exposed electrical plugs. What a virtuoso performance on the part of the curator (himself also displaced), who layered and sequenced his messages, distributing them across the space. Marie Antoinette’s portrait (ca. 1769) by Franz Xaver Wagenschön (from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) gazed down at Les Manifs (Demos), 2009, the cacophonous video Bazile made from footage he has been shooting of Paris demonstrations since 1990. Beside it hung a drawing by Spanish architect Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, Building for the Unemployed, 1984. The strange wavy lines in the sketch do not represent architectural details but rather, perhaps, paths down which bored job seekers might stroll.

The show’s opening featured some delightful live performances. Projet de la matière (Materials Project), 1993, the slanted training wall erected by choreographer Odile Duboc, provided a backdrop for a dance performance choreographed by Saskia Hölbling, and Nicola L., one of the earliest French conceptual artists, accompanied nine performers holding aloft her Secession Evolution Rug, 2009, as they made a circuit through the building. No one, however, had a firmer grasp on the show’s concept than Franz Erhard Walther. Working in provincial Germany back in the 1960s, Walther began to eliminate the separation between audience and artwork, redefining the observer as an actively contributing participant in the shaping of a work. Here he placed his Zwei Schreitbahnen, gegenüber. 5 Segmente, 3 Segmente. (Two Paths for Striding, Opposite. 5 Segments, 3 Segments.), 1975, made of Cor-Ten steel, at the foot of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1902, housed in the Secession’s basement. Each visitor could introduce his own stride pattern, inventing a new work by using his body, time, and space, thereby becoming something quite different from a member of an audience. It would be difficult to imagine a livelier approach to art.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.