VIENNA A 9 hour journey which wrapped across the earth and warped my sense of time took us from Chicago to Vienna. For a few small eternities of stuffy dimness and dreamless breaths, I sat through simultaneous realities of plexiglass sunsets, tiny trays, and stiff limbs of renegade daydreams indulged in the night. 

In the final week of September, 2019, I took a trip with several other students to the Austrian capital on a mission to acquire work for the Smart Museum from the art fair, ViennaContemporary. However, we also visited several other art institutions and enjoyed the Baroque reliefs and sculptures sharing the narrow streets of Vienna with a smattering of graffiti and tastefully vandalized political posters.

Vienna Contemporary:

Assunta Abdel Azim Mohamed, image courtesy of Dahshan

Like doves we were let loose through Austria’s largest art fair to roam among the hundreds of booths representing galleries and art spaces from across Central and Eastern Europe. One particular display that attracted me was the Galerie Ernst Hilger booth, which presented works by Assunta Abdel Azim Mohamed, an emerging Egyptian-Austrian artist based in Vienna. Abdel Azim Mohamed’s monochromatic ballpoint drawings employ memento mori symbolism and portraiture in a form of existential satire that targets the profoundly dramatic tragedy of human life. 

Work by Thomas Geiger, image courtesy of Dahshan.

Another body of work I was drawn to was a solo-presentation of an Austrian artist’s interactive “stages” -essentially assemblages of bricks on the floor. One particular stage invited visitors to present pocket offerings: as the performance wore on throughout the fair, everything from trinkets to rubbish, small rubber hands to destroyed credit cards, occupied the installation. It was thought-provoking to visit the Sperling booth everyday and see the spontaneous new additions to the piece. What were people willing to give up? What are the different systems we use to assign worth to things? 

Work by Caroline McCarthy, image courtesy of Dahshan

Irish painter and installation artist Caroline McCarthy was represented by the Dublin-based Green on Red Gallery. Her works at the fair were essentially acrylic paintings rendered in such a way as to give the illusion that the canvases were collaged with different packaging tapes. 

Meanwhile, Austrian photomontage artist Anita Witek’s work as shown at the London-based l’étrangère booth. Witek collects found images from newspapers, magazines, and other publications and reassembles them into complex arrangements teetering between abstraction and coherence. 

Vienna Contemporary venue,  image courtesy of Dahshan

Fortunately, our rampant wanderings were supplemented with some more structured curator-led tours. Tevž Logar, for one, walked us through NSK State in Time in the fair’s Focus section. The Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) movement emerged in Yugoslavia in 1982 as a collaboration between various groups bridging the worlds of theatre, music, visual arts, and design. In response to Eastern European political tensions in 1992, the movement formed NSK State in Time, something between a conceptual art project and a virtual nation-state which would come to comprise 15,000 citizens, many of them artists. Originally a challenge to xenophobic, fascist, and nationalistic geopolitical paradigms, the project becomes increasingly relevant now with its rejection of territory to offer a state exisiting purely in time. As a citizen, you are issued a passport and invited to participate in state functions. These bureaucracies were carried out at the ViennaContemporary booth, where, naturally, this writer became a citizen of NSK State in Time.

Vienna Secession:

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, video courtesy of Dahshan

Founded in 1897, Secession is a contemporary art space created by a group of artists seeking to break away from the conservative art establishment. The group was led by Gustav Klimt, whose Beethoven Frieze, made for a 1902 exhibition honoring Ludwig van Beethoven, still stands in the building. Allegorical, mythological, anthropomorphic, and dramatic, the Frieze departs from Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and tells a story symbolic of humanity’s search for happiness.  

Alexandra Bircken sculptures, image courtesy of Dahshan

Ever-dedicated to the elevation of contemporary art, Secession also featured exhibitions of work by installation artist Alexandra Bircken and filmmaker Korakrit Arunanondchai. Limp, deflated pink and blue body suits populate Bircken’s installations in Unruhe, while multiple mirrors implicate viewers’ own bodies in the corporeal constellations, tying them into her investigations of autonomy, vulnerability, and the mechanisms that gender our bodies. Meanwhile, Arunanondchai’s Together with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names functions as a living and growing filmic archive which has been mutating and expanding since 2012. The interdisciplinary performance and video work reflects on the political shifts, technological advancements, cultural changes, and ecological crises of the anthropocene.


Bridget Riley, Blaze 2, 1963, image courtesy of Dahshan

This whirlwind of a trip continued on the third day, which sent us spiralling into the mumok: a brutalist, basalt block of a museum located in the middle of Vienna’s Museumsquartier, home to several other art institutions. However, the vertigo didn’t stop there -in fact, it only escalated. Named after the dizzying phenomenon, a special exhibition at the mumok surveyed a broad art historical swath of work that bamboozles the eye and mind, focusing on the Op Art movement originating in the 50’s but also exhibiting older tromp de l’œil works as well as newer, more immersive installations. Highly sensory, Vertigo spanned multiple floors and stretches the limits of your perceptual abilities with after-images, stroboscopes, lasers, and illusions. 

Leopold Museum:

Oskar Kokoschka, Pieta. Poster for his play, Murderer, Hope of Women at the Internationale Kunstchau, Vienna, 1909, and Egon Schiele Self Portrait, image courtesy of Dahshan

The Leopold Museum’s extensive Vienna 1900 exhibition traces the roots and development of Viennese Modernism through the artworks, design works, and other cultural products that came out of the period. These include novel Expressionistic experiments by the likes of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele as well as the birth of design groups like Wiener Werkstätte, a collective of artisans, architects, and designers that would prove a pioneer of modern design, influencing the Bauhaus and Art Deco movements. A defining aspect of the contemporary zeitgeist was the Gesamtkunstwerk -a total, or universal work of art which permeates across all disciplines and encompasses life totally.

Kunsthalle Wien:

Kunsthalle Wien, courtesy of Dashan

A stone’s throw away from the mumok, Kunsthalle Wien stands out against its neighbors as a non-collecting curatorial platform championing education and the negotiation of current issues through art. During our sojourn, one of the exhibitions on view at the space was Hysterical Mining, which takes the stereotyped gendering of technologies -the skills needed to use them, affinities towards them- as a point of departure. The group show employed 70’s techno-feminist theories in an investigation of the ways the proliferation of technology throughout all aspects of human life, from employment and education to political dynamics, has carried with it the aforementioned gender divisions. Throughout a cavernous network of navy blue rooms, viewers could move from one video work to the next, pausing to examine tech- and tool-based installations in the intervening spaces.

Albertina Museum:

Maria Lassnig, Woman Power, 1979, image courtesy of Dahshan

During my visit, the Albertina Museum, among several other shows, was holding a retrospective of Austrian artist Maria Lassnig’s work concurrently with what would have been her hundredth birthday. Although awarded a Golden Lion lifetime achievement award in 2013, the painter went unappreciated for decades. Her practice of “body awareness painting” visualized emotional states and sensorial experiences as surrealistic alterations to her body. Besides Lassnig’s path blazing work, the Albertina also exhibits a wide collection of European modern art, including works by mainstream figures such as Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, and René Magritte

Public Art:

Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library, image courtesy of Dahshan

Our tour began with a discussion of Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka’s 1991 Memorial Against War and Fascism, a contentious sculptural arrangement which has been the topic of much debate, scholarship, and performative interventions, and even changes throughout the years. The controversy centers around the undignified depiction of a “Street Washing Jew,” in response to which a push was made towards a public work that was dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazism.

The result was was British artist Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library, also known as the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial. Located in the eponymous town square, the reinforced concrete memorial appears as a library whose walls are made of bookshelves, inverted in such a way that their spines -and contents- are hidden. Engravings on the memorial’s base honor the memory of the lives lost to the Holocaust. 

A short walk away, Jessica Stockholder’s Slip Slidin’ Away features a car (seemingly misshapen, engulfed), a flickering street lamp, an undulating street sign down which a steady stream of water trickles, and various other compositional elements. With bright bursts of color, the sculpture swims between urban familiarity and abstraction, inviting viewers’ curiosity and probing (we spotted a few children scaling and walking across the car.)

The Catacombs of St. Stephen’s Cathedral:

With a craving for the darker side of Vienna, some of us headed to the catacombs of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A transcendent gothic marvel above ground, the landmark’s underbelly offered morbid tales of war, death, and the Black Plague. As we descended deeper and deeper, ornate sepulchral displays gave way to tight passageways leading to rooms with walls of skulls and tales of the macabre. Picture-taking was prohibited.

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All images courtesy of Dahshan.