Vienna Art Week 2021

A collection of impressions and experiences from this year’s Vienna Art Week — The House of Losing Control and more.

by Julianne Cordray

Almut Rink, A Play, A Rock, A Line, A Book, A Path, A Home, A Raft, A Quest, 2021, Ausstellungsansicht House of Losing Control, Vienna Art Week 2021 © Wolfgang Thaler

The loss of control can be a frightening reality or, alternatively, a welcome release. Taking “Losing Control” as this year’s theme, Vienna Art Week engages this ambiguity in its central exhibition: House of Losing Control

Vienna Art Week turns a large part of its focus towards showcasing local and international emerging artists, both in its prominent Open Studio Days program, as well as in the central exhibition — where the work of emerging artists is presented alongside works by Erwin Wurm, Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman, among others. House of Losing Control, which sprawls a cluster of abandoned spaces, both industrial and residential, also offers a mixture of curated exhibition in the vast halls of a former car dealership and something close to an open studio format — where artists and collectives have taken over the rooms of a former apartment building and brothel, transforming them into sites of experimentation. The product of this is a certain level of chaos — buzzing with energy and very much aligned with this year’s theme. 

Considering the impact that the pandemic has had on events over the last year or so, the theme might also be understood to address the things that are outside of our control when organizing or participating in a large-scale art festival. It’s an idea that even seems to be built into the House of Losing Control: Navid Nuur’s smoke bomb painting, which introduces a hard-to-control element (smoke+bombs) into the process of the work’s production, in this case led to an unpredicted, somewhat destructive outcome. This was nonetheless embraced by the artist and the curators, drawing another layer of performance into the work and into the space itself, as a monument to the unexpected. 


Expectations are subverted elsewhere, too. Spaces keep going when you don’t expect them to, or end when you do, inducing feelings of disorientation and vertigo. In a darkened former club space still inhabited by some of its original furniture and fixtures, two installations — Hannah Neckel’s bulging, pink “Hyper Heart” and a kaleidoscopic video, “Visionium”, by Vidya Gastaldon — float and glow before mirror-paneled walls and columns, their reflections extending infinitely in all directions. The effect is almost funhouse-like — a labyrinthine maze of mirrors, the darkness serving to further complicate our relationship to the space. 

This effect is also echoed throughout one level of the upstairs apartment building, where AKT kollectiv has roughly cut out rectangular patches of wall in a series of adjacent rooms. When standing in front of these interior windows at just the right position, we can see across several layers of the space. Though we are quite literally seeing through walls, the framing and repetition can also seem like a dizzying mise-en-abyme, like looking through endless mirrors within mirrors. This simultaneous suggestion and absence of reflection occurs in another room in the house. In Timotheus Tomicek’s “Double Check”, a light bulb hangs in front of an oval opening in the wall; next to it, on the adjacent wall, hangs a small, dark photo of a person pensively sitting in front of their reflection while looking away from it. These elements are duplicated in mirror-image, hung on either side of the threshold and placed in just the right position to create the illusion of a reflection; however, when we place ourselves in this frame, our own reflections elude us. 

Hannah Neckel, Hyper Heart, 2021 / Vidya Gastaldon, Visionium, 2019, Ausstellungsansicht House of Losing Control, Vienna Art Week 2021 © Wolfgang Thaler

In a pair of rooms across the hall from one another, an easily missable doubling is also present in another curated exhibition within the exhibition, “Loosening Control”  by MUME — a nomadic anti-museum by artist Oscar Cueto. Tucked into unlit corners, the same painting can be found on the wall of two adjacent rooms — possible fixtures from the building’s former life, interacting with the video works now installed there. It’s perhaps incidental, but the uncanniness contributes to a sense of disorientation and uncertainty about where we are and where we’ve already been, collapsing past and present and entangling space.

The MUME exhibition, which is curated by Jose Springer, makes a direct connection to the former club below — namely to the women who worked there. The featured works largely present expressive bodies, contorting bodies, fragmented bodies. Larisa Escobedo’s video work, “A well-known secret”, for example, beckons us through a close-up, larger-than-life pair of lips that morph kaleidoscopically in at times grotesque distortions of flesh and teeth. The scale of the mouth and its closeness to the camera press whispered words up against us — like breath caressing our skin. 


Our own mouths were drawn into participation during a performance by Scott Clifford Evans, where he and his collaborators prepared and offered pizza out of a “Pizza Pyramid”: hot sauce and stringy, melty cheese inevitably leading to greasy hands and burnt mouths, in a messy mixture of delight and discomfort. 

In another performance, Vienna Art Week curatorial advisor and chief curator of Albertina Modern Angela Stief was put to sleep by artist Oliver Hangl in his “Sleep Show” — not only removing a powerful figure and a lead organizer from the event, but inviting the audience to watch her in this vulnerable state. It would seem that Stief was not in control, but she held a strange power over visitors who quietly entered the room and tried not to disturb her sleep, tentatively watching her as the artist hovered close by, watching them. Entering the room, we were immediately aware of our proximity to the sleeping body at the center, bathed in red light and draped in leopard print, her shoes placed on the ground to one side of the bed. At one point, Stief had turned over from her back — from a more exposed and vulnerable position — instead curling up on her side, covering her face with the blanket like a protective shield. Hangl commented on this unexpected shift, remarking: “I can’t control it.” Meanwhile, threatening to wake Stief, sound performances just outside the small room bled into each other, intermingling with the intermittent calls of “pizza!” that rang through the expansive halls.


Fanni Futterknecht, Kritzeln Is an Act of Protest, 2021, Ausstellungsansicht House of Losing Control, Vienna Art Week 2021 © Wolfgang Thaler

In contrast to the quiet and still power of “Sleep Show”, Fanni Futterknecht’s “Kritzeln (Scribbling) is an act of Protest“ offered a space for catharsis. The furious scratching sound of scribbles consuming the surfaces of walls, doors, and objects throughout an upstairs apartment privileged the expressiveness of gesture over words. An inscribed slab standing at the doorway emphasized this: 

Words can be corrected, diluted, deleted, overwritten. 
Words can be made illegible, resisted, erased and taken back.
Words can be fragmented, distorted and broken. 
Words can turn abstract, then we call words ‘Kritzel’….

To step outside of the House of Losing Control into another area of the VAW program, “Kritzeln is an act of Protest“ also felt connected to the paintings of Denise Rudolf Frank, who was featured in the Open Studio Days — likewise curated under the theme of “Losing Control”. Frank paints visceral, bold, loose and expressive images with thick, clotted paint, often applied directly from the tube or with fingers. The paintings are unrestrained; they take space, they announce themselves, loudly, in a language that turns words abstract. A welcome and necessary release. 

© Denise Rudolf Frank, Diary 22.10.20

Selected highlights from the VAW program and partner organizations:

Vienna Art Week runs until November 19, 2021.