When Gesture Becomes Event at Künstlerhaus Wien

 Anna Artaker, THE CLOTH OF STATE, 2020, Installation view

By LARA PAN March, 31, 2021

Ko gesta postane dogodek/Wenn die geste zum ereignis wird (8. 12. 2020–5. 4. 2021 at Künstlerhaus Wien gallery) is an intermedia collaborative art exhibition in Vienna made in collaboration between 16 Slovenian and Austrian women artists. The exhibition was designed on the behalf of the director of Austrian Artists’ Society Tanja Prušnik by Alenka Gregorič and Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein as a part of the year of Slovenian-Austrian neighborhood dialog. Or as City Art Gallery Ljubljana puts it: »[The exhibition] is primarily dedicated to construct a space for discourse, but also to exhibit contemporary work and highlight the collaboration in art and culture.«

The title of the exhibition is partly a tribute (and a reference) to the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who uses the phrase »when gesture becomes an event« in her more recent essays on the topic of body between language and performance. The exhibition thus outlines (in a very creative and polifonic way) the strategies for feminist solidarity in the art system and beyond, and brings to the fore the most important moment of mutual solidarity – a gesture. Inspired by sociologist Heinz Bude's rethinking of the concept of solidarity, the exhibition tries to outline a more expansive and less strictly defined concept that is less demanding or fixed in its application. Whereas previously solidarity has been linked to the question of class struggle or the division of labour, this more expansive reconfiguration enables the artists to engage with a broader notion of solidarity, i.e. solidarity for no reason or solidarity-in-itself.

Therefore, the various artists at the exhibition try to initiate a new grammar for a so-called »groundless solidarity«. Solidarity conceived as a simple gesture that can trigger a catalytic event of global change in a time when the question of it is no longer strictly bound to the human and when the whole world is in a state of heightened vulnerability and the need for care. Within the exhibition, the artists face this risk and wonder whether and under what conditions an individual gesture can interrupt the seemingly natural course of things and how this act can consequently become an event or a connecting force between people or people and things or entities.

Sixteen polyphonic, critical, constructive, and imaginative voices created a feminist vocabulary that encompasses strategies, forms of action, and utopian approaches that allow for collective action, collaboration, solidarity, and coexistence to be rethought. Artists of different generations were invited to participate, from the more established Renata Bertelmann, Marjetica Potrč, Magdalena Frey, Polona Lovšin, Anne Jemolaewe, Roberta Lima and Katharina Cibulka to younger artists working in Slovenia: Maja Smrekar, Nike Autor and Lane Čmajčanin. The Society for Moving Images, Art and Media: THE GOLDEN PIXEL COOPERATIVE also participates in the exhibition.

The architecture of the exhibition was designed by Dorit Margreiter and is based on the concept of space presented in the feministly-connoted film Constanze Ruhm Pearls without Cords. In it, human and non-human actors throw free pearls into the open space, which is presented in the film as a ground plan of the exhibition spaces of the Künstlerhaus gallery. With random but repetitive gestures, the new layout of the spaces develops into a common rehearsal space for the female artists. Ruhm and other artists of the exhibition wonder whether and under what conditions an individual gesture interrupts the seemingly natural course of things and how it can consequently become an event or a connecting force.

How difficult it is to find or nail a gesture of solidarity is shown in the work of Anne Artaker: The Cloth of State. The installation thematizes the June 8, 2020 event, when Democratic congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives donned Ghanaian kente-cloth stoles – a symbol of African and African-American identity – and then knelt silently in memory of George Floyd. This performative gesture of politicians was widely reported and criticized by the media, and it was also met with disapproval among representatives of blacks, natives and some other minorities.

Another example is the work of Maruša Sagadin, in which she created a group of benches: Laro, Luiso and Juliano entitled SCHLECHTE LAUNE OHNE KIOSK UND KÜCHE that encourage people to use the space, invite friends to sleep, smoke and/or socialise. Benches are supported by the figurative elements of arms, feet and chests. The gesture of homeliness is transformed into a symbolic gesture for more accessible infrastructure in the public space.

Maruša Sagadin, Schlechte Laune ohne Kiosk und Küche, 2020, Installation view

Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein Interview – 3/29/21:

Felicitas, you are known for your immense contribution, involvement, and engagement with women artists. You are a professor at Vienna Academy, as well as a curator at the Austrian pavilion at the last Venice Biennale presenting Renate Bertlmann. I see this exhibition as a long reflective process. It is almost as if you and Alenka are rethinking new dialogues and approaches through feminist artforms. And it’s not only feminist art, but the solidarity that links all women across various artistic fields and media. Please talk a little bit about your personal approach to this exhibition. 

It was indeed an intense and enriching exchange of thoughts that Alenka and I had, both being very aware of the problematic history of the term solidarity, and how it is highly impacted. The process started way before Covid-19, and the increasing topicality of the subject during the preparations, including lockdowns and shifts, forced us to look even more closely and keep the concept in constant motion. Finally we came to the conclusion that the term solidarity per se cannot be replaced, at least not right now. So we decided to go with the concept of groundless solidarity of Diane Elam, which means sustained, ongoing commitment, with difference, divergence, and vulnerability at its core. The show, therefore, maps a possible input for the transformational solidarity of 16 artists with queer-feministic backgrounds, whereby the works have an emphasis on kinship and collective liberation. Transformational means understanding that all issues are intertwined and work in balance with each other – a holistic concept which becomes evident in the show.

Marjetica Potrč The World in the Age of Stories, 2020; The House of Social Agreement, 2020, Installation view

Are there particular artworks that you want to mention? And what is their impact on you? 

Each and every work in the show is outstanding and peerless, while existing in a perceptible resonance with the other works. To choose one position is nearly impossible, as the works form an orchestrated view on the potentials, imponderabilities, and gestures that result from an intense collaborative process. But I think that the installation of Anna Artaker, THE CLOTH OF STATE, is exemplary, both conceptually and aesthetically, for the complexity and rigor of the works. The canopy made of strips of fabric and printed with kente patterns spans the staircase of the Künstlerhaus, welcoming the visitors. It refers to the political gesture made on June 8, 2020 by Democratic members of the US Congress who donned Ghanaian kente-cloth stoles before kneeling in silence in memory of George Floyd, the African American killed on May 25, 2020 by a white police officer kneeling on his neck. This performative move, organized by the Congressional Black Caucus, was widely discussed in the media and criticized by both sides of the political spectrum. Objections were voiced by

many people of color. The title, however, refers to the baldachin placed or carried over the throne of the monarch, thus exemplifying the privileged position most visitors to the

exhibition are likely to occupy in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. These references to a controversial show of solidarity speak impressively about the difficulty of making appropriate gestures something we have to be very aware of – especially in terms of solidarity. 

Roberta Lima, Ghost Plant, 2020, Installation view

I think it will be interesting to do these types of collaborative exhibitions, not only with neighboring countries, but across an even broader range of cultural diversity. It’s an important part of cultural exchange, especially these days. What country would you love to explore and discover the female art communities of? 

Constanze Ruhm in her filmic installation Pearls without a String makes clear that the practice of exhibition-making is beyond doubt a collective effort, in which artists, observers, and curators create in the best case an open, many voiced situation. I definitely cannot pick out one specific country. Each and every project implies the potential to reflect and sharpen my gaze on varying cultural backgrounds and knowledge. It’s a constant process of learning, the best profession I can imagine. 

It’s now March, International Women’s Month, and the exhibition will be up until end of April. Do you have plans to bring this beautiful exhibition to on the road? And with the end of these challenging times coming into view, what do you think we can do better to participate in solidarity amongst women in art communities around the world?

The exhibition will travel to Ljubljana and we just got another request from Carinthia, south of Austria. The current situation shows that we face a severe gender equality backlash. We have to understand that the idea of feminisms is an inclusive and holistic concept, which bears the challenge of finding various ways of being interlinked, sharing existence, and negotiating and working things out at once, partaking in a sustained, ongoing commitment. Women movements are more powerful together than separate. We have to move further at once! 

 SOLANGE (Netz 14), 2020, Embroidery on scaffolding protection net with pink tulle and cable ties, 1400 X 1500 cm Courtesy of the artist 

Alenka Gregorič Interview – 3/29/21:

Alenka, please talk about the beginnings of this collaboration between you and Felicitas. The exhibition is about solidarity – solidarity between women with a strong feminist message, to be precise. Can you please tell us about the process that went into it? How exactly have you selected the artists that are featured here? 

I got an invitation from Felicitas to collaborate on an exhibition. First, we met briefly to see if we shared common ground on basic issues. After half an hour it was clear to both of us that this could be the start of beautiful friendship. And it was! First of all, we clarified the perspectives both of us have on solidarity within the geopolitical discourse, and the understanding of solidarity as a basic human instinct. The former is connected to the historical, social, and political backgrounds of both Felicitas and me; and the latter is about society in general. Although we were born in neighbouring countries the term “solidarity” can be a subject to different interpretations – in the post-communist east it still has the ideological and political connotations of “the old socialist times,” while in the capitalist west it is usually seen just as something we all do and practice in our everyday lives. In our private discussions, and later in the exhibition, we challenged both these notions. We started to talk about solidarity between artists, curators, and all culture workers, but ended up talking about about solidarity on a basic human level – solidarity as voluntary social cohesion or support between people, between humans and the environment, and even between humans and other species. And while we talked about it the Covid pandemic arrived and changed a lot of things. 

Pollinators Collective, 2016, Installation view

Soon you’ll start as the director of a new art center that will open in Ljubljana this fall. It is a former sugar factory (cukrarna.art). What are your intentions for the mission of this space? Can we expect collaborations similar to this recent one between you and Felicitas?

I am sure we will work together on some project in the future. When you find somebody who both complements and challenges you on many issues and topics, it is only a matter of time before your paths cross again. 

Eternal Vomit Ground of Reality, 2020, LED screen, 300 x 200 cm, Courtesy of the artist

This beautiful exhibition dedicated to women was also born from lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What is your perception of the new reality, and how do you see the solidarity between artists and cultural workers shifting in this new paradigm?

We have to think about how we as curators, institution leaders, and policy makers, can act responsively, both within the field of art and beyond. I believe the Covid pandemic is affecting everyone in the art world, but it is having a disproporitonately negative effect on the artists themselves. Therefore the most important thing, in these precarious times, is our personal, professional, and institutional responsibility towards them. It’s not only a matter of surviving the pandemic, but surviving beyond it, to help make their living and working conditions secure and sustainable. WM


Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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