Letter from Vienna

The Prater, Leopoldstadt, Vienna. Photo: Nuit Banai.

LAST MONTH WAS SUPPOSED TO MARK the grand opening of the Albertina Modern in Vienna. Instead, the city’s last public gathering took place just days before the museum’s scheduled opening, on March 8, when the Croatian curatorial collective What, How, and for Whom (WHW) inaugurated their exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien with nearly two thousand visitors who hugged, kissed, drank, and sang songs of solidarity with the self-organized anti-fascist polyglot choir Hor 29. Novembar. Since then, the habitually sleepy capital of the Alpine state has gone into a state of near-total social and civil hibernation. In this moment of juridically enforced containment, the one conceptualized by Giorgio Agamben as the “state of exception,” it appears that we are experiencing the emergence of a new political paradigm of life and death.

The present continues to make visible its own internal fragmentation of time and space, especially since March 16, when the government decreed that we shelter in place under the rules of Ausgangsbeschränkungen. Composed of the German words Ausgang—meaning “exit” or “furlough”—and Beschränkung—“restriction” or “constraint”—this term differs from the wartime decree of Ausgangssperre, with sperre meaning “ban” or “lock.” The government reminds us that we are living in a period of restrictions, not a total lockdown. There are no curfews, sirens, blackouts, or air raids, nor racialized ghettos in the wartime sense of forced confinement. For those who have the privilege of home, property, and legal status, time has merely shrunk, it has not been interdicted; space retracted, not outlawed. As the invisible enemy of COVID-19 could transform us at any moment from so-called “forms of life” to “bare life,” we are careful not to take up too much time or space. We ration.

Yet even as the mandate of thinking about the material and epistemological yet-to-come becomes more urgent, maintaining some kind of equilibrium is an ethical imperative. The elasticity of time and space as it is enforced by the state, on the one hand, and as it is experienced by individuals, on the other, reminds me of Paul Celan’s poem “Corona.” A Romanian Holocaust survivor, Celan wrote the verses in Vienna between December 1947 and June 1948, when he was beginning his romantic involvement with the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.

In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.

My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,

we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.

We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,

time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.

It is time.

I find myself returning often to Celan’s uncanny articulation of time as an experience of doubling between interiority and exteriority, intimacy and distance, embodiment and metaphor. Even as he makes claims for a temporal reordering in the wake of historical catastrophe (it is time it were time… it is time…), the poet also asks us to remember that we are bodies who sleep, love, and yearn. We occupy space, and, as we uncertainly amble along the perimeters of closed public parks, gardens, and playgrounds (Anlage gesperrt), we are reminded of the boundaries that crisscross and demarcate the interiors of administratively sealed territories.

I write this brief from Leopoldstadt, the city’s historically Jewish district, where more than 350,000 refugees migrated from the eastern region of the Habsburg Empire following the outbreak of World War I. Poverty, unemployment, and prejudice awaited these Ostjuden (Eastern Jews), who were integrating into a society in the throes of a historical transformation, from Empire to Republic. Today, as the state of exception continues indefinitely and instantiates new bio- and necropolitical forms of discipline and racism, it is worth revisiting life’s basic bodily conditions, as articulated by Celan. Hopefully, it might lead us to reflect on the diversity of humanness currently experiencing Ausgangsbeschränkungen as singularly inscribed borders within varying hierarchies and precarities of time and space.

Nuit Banai is visiting professor of contemporary art in the department of art history at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna.