Safety Curtain

Monumental Frontal

It is the nature of the encounter that is the first thing that makes the art presented here so special – the monumental frontality of a unique work of art in a format of overwhelming proportions. And at the same time, there is always a mood of expectation (of something different) in the air. We are sitting in a theatre, in the deep seats of the Vienna State Opera, a place of high visuality. It makes perfect sense that visual art, which traditionally focuses on the sense of seeing, should be shown in a place dedicated to performing art, setting free new potential for the appreciation of art. The works are presented outside the usual framework for viewing art, but also not just anywhere on the street or in a private context.

Another clearly defined framework is at work, which has to do with the “fourth wall”, a term that in classical theatre refers to the imaginary boundary between the stage and the auditorium. The fourth wall in the theatre is charged, and both the red velvet and the “Safety Curtain” function a little like a generator that creates a warm and expectant atmosphere, particularly in the face of such a striking picture. In some performances this wall is permeable, but we are talking here of the opposite, a safety curtain designed to prevent a fire – a real one – from breaking out.

There is time to contemplate the work of art, seated rather than standing. The picture presents itself directly – in your face, as the expression goes. And yet every artist who has designed one of these “Safety Curtains” will know that the viewer’s attention can be distracted in the general atmosphere of seeing and being seen, while the musicians tune their instruments and the air begins to crackle.

The conditions for confronting the work are nevertheless excellent: at the very least, the viewer is dealing with non-authoritative, unconventional monumentality. In spite of this power, however, the pictorial message has to come through, not least because of the potential for distraction and the heterogeneous audience. Cartoon-like exaggeration is perfectly natural – after all, we are in the theatre, a place for acting. And we are also actors, reacting to the opportunity for experiencing art outside of a museum environment.

It is not therefore surprising that Cerith Wyn Evans formulated in-structions for the way into the unknown: “Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation, another way of acting within the historical and psychic geographies in which the event of your own reading is here and now taking place; here, and now taking the place of other ways of making passionate and energetic connections between us. Imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in.” This instruction was posted in black and white on the “Safety Curtain” in 2011/2012.

The black peepshow box, however large it might be, is a black hole. Is it an abyss, a gullet? In the theatre, the possibility of an artistic disaster is omnipresent, which makes the triumph at the end all the more immense. Rosemarie Trockel presented a black void, eerie enough in its own right, streaked with bits of spiders’ webs. Or is this a gently malicious dig at the frequently criticized anachronistic aspects of opera? Far from it! The fine white threads are part of a reproduction of a black wool picture by Rosemarie Trockel, transformed into a spatial trompe-l’oeil flip image.

Richard Hamilton created a further picture puzzle, a distorted symmetry, a confusing reflection displaced in time and space. The pictured auditorium is the Scala in Milan, as it appeared on postcards in the 1950s. The title, “Retard en Fer” (delay in iron), is no doubt a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s famous work “The Large Glass”, which he subtitled “retard en verre” (delay in glass). But “en fer” also sounds like “enfer” (hell). We gladly take advantage of this respite, not least as journeys to hell are not uncommon in opera.

John Baldessari also deals fateful and slightly eerie cards. The harmless picture of an academic celebration is the starting point for associations at times entertaining but also disturbing. The ranked protagonists recall a classical choir. The tragicomedy takes its course with a few brightly coloured splashes, which the artist has added to the picture. Who are the chosen ones who have been – yes, what exactly? – designated, overpainted or obliterated? We are immediately confronted by a classification – the grey and the coloured. Or are they the faceless repressed figures together with those who have been spared, ranked together in a pack?

Franz West’s “Drei – Vom Vorgang ins Temperament“ is a bucolic fantasy. The golden yellow of the ground, lots of blue sky – we are in Arcadia and are looking at a constellation consisting of one woman and two men. Opera is full of such relationships. The figures follow the collage principle, which produces lots of space between the naked bodies, which at the same time radiate a sense of close intimacy. How much of the picture is photo fragments, how much overpainted and how much poetic painting? The rest is an illusion with all of its Viennese Freudian perils. The figure in the middle poses unselfconsciously like a candle with his legs pointed to the sky. The second man holds a leaf in front of him like a “cache-sexe”. Is it so farfetched to point out that covering up is in fact a typical feature of this venue, the Vienna State Opera? The various works conceal a pudeur that is not sexual, namely the work by Rudolf Eisenmenger, which was originally on the safety curtain. As its presence caused political and artistic embarrassment, it now slumbers, hidden underneath the new works presented by our contemporary artists. But in fact, this covering up has turned out to be a piece of good fortune.

Now we are sitting in the opera, listening to the musicians tuning up and looking forward to a live and animated experience, but in front of us we have Rirkrit Tiravanija’s contribution, a huge television test card. The broken German “Angst essen Seele auf” (fear eat soul) is written across the stripes, a reference to the melodramatic 1974 film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Tiravanija’s artistic gesture is efficient and elegant. The coloured stripes evoke a world of news, politics, real and fictional atrocities and horrors – from afar, from television. At the same time, they are a reminder that art is part of the reality of life – as in Fassbinder’s film about the soul of a cleaning lady and a Moroccan immigrant.

In her outsize self-portrait, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster slips into the role of the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011). “Helen & Gordon” recalls a photo by Gordon Parks for “Life magazine” in a momentous report in 1957, in which five young women artists were presented, all under thirty-five years of age at the time. In the opera, this symbol of the breakthrough of women in art recalls the early emancipation of the muse to become an actively contributing artist in the role as singer. While the painter sits in the flowing colours of her three-dimensional picture, could she not be a critically wide-eyed singer, whose singing is now visualised, reproducing an idea of all of the fioritura, coloratura, trills and cadences?

But imagine the pseudo-profound comment written as recently as 1961: “The last question, as to whether a woman is allowed to look into the abyss as men like Beethoven have done remains open.”¹ Kara Walker, the first artist to be invited to contribute the “Safety Curtain” project in 1998/99, gave a clear answer to this question. As a woman and Afro-American, in what looks like a playful Biedermeier cut-out work, she presents anything but an encouraging view of the low points in the history of humanity – in the form of a globalised alpine mental geography.

The safety curtain on which the works are hung by means of a magnetic structure is said to weigh sixteen tons. In “A Flexible Fabric of Inflexible Parts III” Tauba Auerbach produces an image that gives us the illusion of sitting in front of a flexible curtain made of metal elements. At the same time, it is a radiant spherical picture, a wondrous work of spirals, hinges and instructions – a mechanical, dynamic, kinetic and thus purely physical world, a universe in which small particles interlock in a precise choreography. It may also be understood as a metaphor for the pure beauty and precision of the orchestra and the performance. Tauba Auerbach also said: “I am in awe of the helix. To me it is the cosmic gesture.”    


¹ Eberhard Preussner, “Die Frau in der Musik” in “Beiträge zur Festschrift 1961”, printed in “Die Frau in der Musik: Die internationalen Wettbewerbe für Komponistinnen 1950–1989”, a documentation by Leni Neuenschwander (ed.), (Mannheim 1989), p. 41.