Safety Curtain

The Safety Curtains at the Vienna State Opera

The decision by my predecessor Ioan Holender in collaboration with the non-profit art association museum in progress and based on a concept by Kathrin Messner and Joseph Ortner to cover the large surface of the safety curtain with an annually changing subject as a contribution to the discussion of art was important and right. I also regard this 176 m² temporary exhibition surface as a necessary contribution to the concept of opera houses in general and the Vienna State Opera in particular as a gesamtkunstwerk. It offers visitors an ideal way of seeing familiar old and challenging new subjects, traditional and modern ideas, in a hopefully enriching context. Music theatre is not just about music, costumes and set designs. Without awareness of the environment in which the performance takes place, namely the auditorium, the experience does not become the special event that a visit to the opera represents nor can its inherent value be appreciated.

The much acclaimed “Safety Curtain” art project provoked fierce controversy when it was launched in the late 1990s. Over the last twenty years, with active support by the Bundestheater-Holding, it has itself become a widely recognised and appreciated tradition, without losing anything of its incisiveness and relevance. More than 600,000 visitors attend the opera each season, with the result that the project in the Vienna State Opera is seen by a much larger public than most (art) exhibitions. Opera lovers are often surprised by the powerful and multifaceted presence of the artworks, which thereby enhance and enrich their opera experience. Conversely, an interest in visual arts can incite art lovers to visit the opera to see the “Safety Curtain” for themselves. The outstanding artists chosen by an independent jury (currently Daniel Birnbaum and Hans-Ulrich Obrist) interpret the exhibition context in diverse and inspiring ways. Their works are embedded harmoniously into the architecture of the Opera, turning the proscenium arch into a monumental picture frame. The “Safety Curtains” offer a new prism through which to view music theatre and the individual performances, and the sight of the large-format image before the start of the opera, during the intermission and after the applause has died down offers a rhythmic accompaniment to the evening.

Since 1998 works have been realised by the following artists: Kara Walker (1998/1999), Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler (1999/2000), Matthew Barney (2000/2001), Richard Hamilton (2001/2002), Giulio Paolini (2002/2003), Thomas Bayrle (2003/2004), Tacita Dean (2004/2005), Maria Lassnig (2005/2006), Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006/2007), Jeff Koons (2007/2008), Rosemarie Trockel (2008/2009), Franz West (2009/2010), Cy Twombly (2010/2011), Cerith Wyn Evans (2011/2012), David Hockney (2012/2013), Oswald Oberhuber (2013/2014), Joan Jonas (2014/2015), Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (2015/2016), Tauba Auerbach (2016/2017) and John Baldessari (2017/2018).

The Vienna State Opera is proud to accommodate this unique art initiative, whose form, duration, quality and consistency are un­paralleled as far as I know in the world. This publication and the special exhibition in the Marble Room of the Opera, both realised by museum in progress under the direction of Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl in cooperation with Alois Herrmann, offer a welcome and remarkable overview of this ongoing long-term project. It has always been stressed – and it does no harm to stress it again – that art in all its forms can only be kept alive, through constant confrontation with the unusual, unknown and unexpected, by venturing into new fields, and through contrasts and innovation, so that, as Hans Sachs says in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, “in the dull course of habit its strength and life doesn’t get lost”.

(Dominique Meyer, Director, Wiener Staatsoper, 2019)

This text originates from the publication "Curtain – Vorhang", 2017, Verlag für moderne Kunst, p. 9