What Freedom Costs

Photo/Politics/Austria at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien; panel representing the year 1947 with photograph by Ernst Haas: “Smiling ear to ear, a war returnee is confronted with an old mother holding up a photo of her missing son” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

VIENNA — Photo/Politics/Austria at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Mumok) is an exhibition that I had decided to skip. Described on the museum website as “an attempt to visualize Austrian history of the last 100 years using selected photos or photo series that show special events or situations,” it seemed a little too inside-baseball for a foreign visitor, especially with the short amount of time I had in the city.

But the striking installation — 100 vertical, khaki-brown panels with attached vitrines, one for each year, fanning out across the floor — pulled me in. The first thing I encountered was a wall text quoting the French Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière (b. 1940). The text, taken from his essay “Senses and Figures of History,” which was written for the catalogue of the exhibition Face à l’Histoire at the Centre Pompidou in 1996, reads in part:

Those who tell us to look closely at representations of the abominations of the twentieth-century and to meditate carefully upon their underlying causes so we avoid repeating them forget one thing: the times of memory-history are not the same as those of truth-history.

The exhibition at Mumok is a counterweight to forgetting, through which, as Rancière observes, “the memorial [becomes] more and more like an empty temple of what is meant to remain unrepresented.”

While a good half of the exhibition is focused on internal affairs, the storyline it creates, and the at times monstrous role played by media manipulation in the shaping of Austria’s political life over the course of ten decades, carry with it a sense of foreboding for the present day, moving from hope to despair, then back to hope and quite possibly to despair again.

World War I, precipitated by the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, rapidly escalated the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On November 11th, 1918, the day the war ended, Emperor Charles I abdicated, and on the 12th, German-Austria was declared a republic. What followed was a perilous ride through years of recovery, depression, unrest, assassination, war, and renewal, as documented by the photographs, posters, scrapbooks, and ephemera in the exhibition.

The descent of Austria from electoral politics to authoritarianism and Anschluss uncannily parallels the Roman Republic’s slide into civil war and tyranny, fates that hinged on the assassination of a dictator: Julius Caesar by a conspiracy of Senators and, almost 2000 years later, Engelbert Dollfuss by a conspiracy of Austrian Nazis.

After the cataclysm of World War II, the country embarked on a campaign to rehabilitate its image in the form of enlightened socialism, a legacy currently under assault by the emergence of the far-right Freedom Party, one of the nationalist factions on the rise across Europe.

To take in the full scope of this sweeping exhibition is to apprehend the fragility of democratic structures, and how skillfully memory-history can be distorted to drive a destructive course of action. As the wall text on the panel representing the year 1946 states, “One of the Allied powers’ biggest concerns was educating the populace, indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda, about the real extent of the atrocities.”

It’s chilling to contemplate the magnitude of effort needed to convince a deluded public of the fallaciousness of its beliefs, especially in our current predicament, in which the spread of disinformation is decentralized and pervasive. Photo/Politics/Austria may be an exhibition of visual history, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the impossibility of putting the genie back into the bottle.

Andreas Siekmann, “The Economic Power of Public Opinion & the Public Power of Economic Opinion – Think Factories, Think Tanks and the Privatization of Power” (2013), stage pedestal with miniature set consisting of 18 buildings and ten cars, as well as 34 wagons on track elements addressing 23 topics; wood, metal, paper, photographs, mixed media, 600 × 100 × 103 cm, courtesy Kunsthaus Bregenz (image courtesy Belvedere 21)

On the other side of town, a heady, sprawling group show, The Value of Freedom at Belvedere 21, grapples with the human desire for self-determination vis-à-vis the insidious currents engineering public opinion and subverting the popular will.

Curator Severin Dünser has pulled together a full spectrum of media and processes, from painting and sculpture to installation, video, digital art, performance, and viewer interactivity, with offerings that careen without warning from buoyant to facetious to grim, especially those that deal with the criminality of power.

SUPERFLEX contributes “The Corrupt Show” (2009/13), in which museum-goers are encouraged to sign a contract binding them to commit fraudulent or illegal acts, while Teresa Margolles’s “Cuando la mayoría éramos Sandinistas (When Most of Us Were Sandinistas)” (2014) presents an embroidered fabric that, as the wall text explains, is “permeated with blood from the body of a woman assassinated in Managua, Nicaragua.”

“What Is Democracy?” (2007–09) is the title of an installation by Oliver Ressler, as well as the question he put to activists from 18 cities around the world, whose videotaped discussions about representative and direct democracy play on a roomful of monitors. And anarchy makes an appearance with a sculpture by Hannes Zebedin called “Section of a brick window #1 (When Freedom Exists, There Will Be No State)” (2016/18) — the parenthetical declaration being a quote from Vladimir Lenin, who was paraphrasing Friedrich Engels.

The work itself is a reiteration of a form of 19th-century Alpine folk art, a brick wall with latticework letters spelling out Lenin’s phrase; the irony of bricks and mortar announcing the dissolution of the state is plain enough, yet it has been compounded, like so much else, by the political circus in the US, where the wall has brought the state to a halt.

The title of Andreas Siekmann’s large tabletop tableau, “The Economic Power of Public Opinion & the Public Power of Economic Opinion – Think Factories, Think Tanks and the Privatization of Power” (2013) draws attention to the unelected power brokers who shape governmental policy through lobbying and public relations — a fact of late-capitalist life that returns to the question of how to extract a modicum truth from a thicket of self-serving assertions, shaded facts, and outright lies.

The crowded complexity of The Value of Freedom, which features the work of more than 50 artists and artist groups, is itself a testimony to the multivalent belief systems orbiting around an all but indiscernible nugget of reality. And as we grope our way through the first half of a new century, with the word “freedom” being co-opted by both the right and left, the fog of words feels as thick as it’s ever been.

Photo/Politics/Austria continues at Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Museumsplatz 1, Vienna) through February 3.

The Value of Freedom continues at Belvedere 21 (Quartier Belvedere, Arsenalstraße 1, Vienna) through February 10.

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