Secession’s monsters

SecessionThe ‘Golden Cabbage’ glitters under the pale morning sun. It’s Sunday and the streets of Vienna are almost empty, even the marketplace of Naschmarkt, yesterday heaving with locals and tourists rummaging among displays of delicatessen, exotic spices and fancy chocolate, is desert and quiet, except for one cleaner and a couple of joggers sweating their way through the dusty alleys. I walk slowly, crossing the large avenues, not waiting for the green man. Not that I normally do this in London, but here people seem so respectful of the little fellow that I hesitate before jumping the lights. Today though, it feels so easy to reach Karlplatz from where I can admire the delicate splendour of the Secession building.

Vienna OwlsThis key work of Viennese art nouveau, completed in 1898 by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, was built to house the exhibitions of the revolutionary ‘Association of Visual Artists of Vienna Secession’ during the first decades of the next century. Its rather rigid structure, based on simple geometrical forms, is smoothed out by flowery design and sculptural features – the three intertwined Gorgons above the entrance were designed by Othmar Schimkowitz and the sweet, round-eyed jugendstil owls at each side of the building, were attributed to Kolo Moser. I roll the lens of my camera along them, following the sinuous, carved lines that seem to branch out in the trees brushing the walls, and fall on unusual patterns of fallen leaves and branches on the path around my feet. However, it is the shiny vegetal cupola, formed by 3000 golden gilt leaves and 700 berries that draws the eyes onto the building and gave it its derisory nicknames of ‘temple of bullfrogs’, ‘head of cabbage’ or a ‘cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace’. Such were the contemporary reactions towards this outstanding novelty, standing alone and proud among the baroque, neo-gothic and neo-renaissance eclectism that made the urban landscape of conservative fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Similar fearful reactions hit the exhibits currently being shown inside the building as part of CINEPLEX, a selection of recent experimental films from Austria addressing the history, techniques, iconography and dramaturgic conventions of the medium. The curators wanted to divert the focus, directed on film installation during the last few decades, back to linear cinema and put each artist’s film into its own black box. In there, nothing can distract the viewer from wandering outside the screen – except for other viewers who stumble through the corridor, chatter in the dark and obscure my vista. I spray my legs as far and wide as possible and huff and puff loudly in order to disperse the intruders. Fortunately there is no need for my efforts as they leave as brutally as they have entered, stunned by the incomprehensible visual and aural gibberish rolling in front of their half-open eyes. Apart from a couple of student girls, they are mostly Sunday trollers and tourists coming up, like I did, from viewing Klimt’s Beethoven frieze in the basement, the main attraction for a visit inside the Secession, and wandering the building to make the most of the pricey exhibition ticket they had to pay for. The first film I watch convinces me to stay here rather than wandering off to the Albertina as planned. When I enter a claustrophobic room up the stairs, the floor is shaking and I instinctively walk across the room, past the black box on my left to the half-open window. The vibrations are becoming more intense, accompanied with the bass sound of machinery – I try to open a door but it is locked. I decide to face the box and fumble my way through a dark hole at its side leading to a small cinema-like interior. Is there someone in the corner? The light emanating from the screen is so dim that I can’t tell. My feet touch a hard surface and I sit on it. The vibrational noise stops at once and silence makes me jump. The credits roll: I will be starting the ride from scratch. The film opens with a scene in the forest that reminds me of a painting I have seen the day before. Forest at Dusk by Albin Egger-Lienz, a beautiful, dark green leafiness with a sinister depth – a place you wouldn’t want to get lost in when night falls. The thought made me shiver as my eyes wandered endlessly over the painting yesterday. On the screen, the scene in the wood is filmed in the bright daylight, the sun flashing through the branches. It is quiet and spacious enough to feel at peace. However, this calm is momentary as I notice that the camera’s lens keeps zooming back and forth, ever so slowly at first, then increasingly faster. It feels a bit like being hypnotised. Through a series of dolly zooms, a technique using a succession of camera movements of forward and backward motion, caught in individual images while simultaneously zooming in the opposite direction, Johann Lurf’s Vertigo Rush destabilises the normal human visual perception and provokes a kind of dizziness in the viewer. While the leafy background is forever shrinking and swelling, the front trees remain the same and my brain is getting confused, losing its sense of perspectives, while being compulsively attracted and repelled by the pendulum movement of the image. I originally thought it had been digitally manipulated. Hitchcock first used the technique in his film Vertigo, developed further by the New American cinema experiments in the 1960’s. Instead of the usual symptoms of increased heartbeats and moist hands and feet,  however, I get a headache and a churning stomach. In any case, it does convince of the spectacular potential of this simple cinematographic ‘craft’. When the speed of the back and forth movement reaches that of a TGV, the image suddenly forms a dense darkness from which the light flashes in patches and the silhouette of a tree passes by, once in a while, in apparent slow motion. The sound becomes unbearably intense like a concert of Sunn O))) and the image starts to flicker into splashes of nothingness. A re-enactment of the Big Bang viewed through my deceptively safe, little black hole. Blown-out, I hold onto my seat till landing and reluctantly step out of my space-traveling machine into 21st century Vienna.

Vienna SteamBelow in the main hall is another peculiar machine that arouses my aural senses. A bright, uniform white light emanates from the double-glazed roof of the main room, empty except for a couple of weird inky blobs on the walls with what looks like analytic sheet of data stuck next to them. I follow the swooshing sound that becomes heavier as I walk towards the adjacent room. My hair immediately frizzes as I walk in. In the middle stands what looks like the monstrous steam engine in benoit Sokal’s video game Syberia, with pressure air powerfully shooting from both sides. Incidentally, Micol Assaël’s experimental machine, Fomuska, is based on a Russian test facility for simulating lightning discharges. I approach the fuming beast and my body reacts instantly to the electrostatic field produced by the steam machine. All my sensory perceptions are being activated from head to toe. A rusty, mineral smell filters through my nostrils, my skin dampens and my ears pulsate. If Vertigo Rush slowly builds up to a thick and intense sonic fog, Fomuska gives the impression of swimming in an aural sea whose tidal waves are dangerously swelling to breaking point. I’m hooked, wet, electrified.

Contrasting with Assaël’s installation and Lurf’s film, the work which also gets under my skin is far more subdued, internal and raw. Annja Krautgasser’s Innerer Monolog scans the façade of a concrete, 1970s building and exposes its surfaces and holes, by night, like she would expose herself in the naked flesh. A female voice brushes over, both frank and thoughtful, remorseful and indifferent – she’s older, nothing has changed except for the passing of time. I can still hear her voice a long while after my visit, while walking in the streets, while packing my bag – I’d like to change my mind if I like… you’ve improved so much, you used to be so plain… shouldn’t have said that… what happened?… is there a difference?… how come we’ve never been here before? The images overlap with the voice in a surprising synthetic language as in an attempt at concretising her psychological meanderings. I wander in my own thoughts, create my own narrative and, as often with women’s films and video work, find the experience satisfyingly therapeutic.

On my way out, I share a thought for Typhon, Klimt’s endearing monster in the basement and decide that his highly decorative piece of work lacks the depth of a chef-d’oeuvre made in honour of Beethoven’s powerful musical creations – some of the contemporary art I have seen today do it more justice in terms of emotional depth and gesamtskunstwerk power – with a little help from technology. The Secession art education programme offers a singular mix of art nouveau, architecture and contemporary art which works surprisingly well, probably due, in part, to the building’s white cube environment and to its rebellious place in the history of modern art.

Vertigo rush

Micol Assaël, Fomuska and CINEPLEX at the Secession, Vienna from 11 September to 8 November

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~ by lavivette on September 25, 2009.

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