Safety Curtain

Revealing by concealing

The rhythm of performances at the opera is determined by the opening and closing of the curtain, revealing and concealing what lies behind. The same applies to the safety curtain introduced by law into Austrian theatres after the Ringtheater fire in Vienna in 1881. The Safety Curtain art project by museum in progress at the Vienna State Opera gives the safety curtain between the stage and the auditorium an additional function as an exhibition space for contemporary art, revealed when the curtain is closed and the view of the stage concealed.1 In moments of great tension and expectation – before the start of a performance and during the intermission – the Safety Curtain unfurls its emotive sensory power. Moreover, the same picture accompanies a wide range of different performances. Designed specially for the opera auditorium, the pictures become an integral component of the space in which the ephemeral theatrical experience takes place and of the content of the performance itself. The giant images (176 m²) – a different one every year since 1998 – are hung in front of the safety curtain with magnets and remain in place for eight to nine months. An independent jury, currently consisting of Daniel Birnbaum and Hans-Ulrich Obrist,2 chooses the internationally renowned artists, whose works are then seen during the season by over 600,000 opera-goers.

Works by the following artists have been shown to date: Pierre Alechinsky, Tauba Auerbach, John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, Thomas Bayrle, Tacita Dean, Cerith Wyn Evans, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Christine & Irene Hohenbüchler, Joan Jonas, Jeff Koons, Maria Lassnig, Oswald Oberhuber, Giulio Paolini, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rosemarie Trockel, Cy Twombly, Kara Walker and Franz West. During the 2002–2003 season, a safety curtain by Elmgreen & Dragset was also shown at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In order to offer visitors to the Opéra Monde exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz the possibility of experiencing the singular impact and quality of the art project without having to travel to Vienna, the work Helen & Gordon by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, created for the Vienna State Opera for the 2015–2016 season, has been adapted for the Metz Opera, the oldest surviving opera house in France, for presentation there in 2019.

The museum in progress art initiative, founded in 1990 by Kathrin Messner and Josef Ortner in Vienna, seeks unusual presentation platforms for contemporary art. Inspired by Joseph Beuys’s extended definition of art, the non-profit art association re-examines the notion of a museum and through its activities transforms the public and media space into a “museum” for its art projects. Through exhibitions in media and public spaces – newspapers, magazines, billboards, building façades, concert halls or television – museum in progress integrates art into daily life and reaches a far larger audience in this way than conventional museums. The Safety Curtain exhibition series turns the opera house temporarily into a museum and the auditorium into an exhibition space for a single picture. The art experience surprises many visitors, who are held captive by the direct “monumental frontality”3 of the works and spend much more time in front of it than they would normally do with individual works in a museum.

In the Vienna Opera House, the Safety Curtain covers not only the safety curtain but also the picture by Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger from the 1950s. The museum in progress project offers a contemporary artistic alternative to Eisenmenger’s work with its problematic sociopolitical and art historical background.4 The concealment of his picture by the Safety Curtain exhibition series is not intended as a fig leaf covering today’s embarrassment at the work, but on the contrary serves to focus attention on the work underneath. By changing the picture every year, the discourse is constantly re-animated and the point of view repeatedly changed and updated.5 As a link between the deficits of the past and their contemporary reappraisal the art initiative thus explicitly turns the making of an exhibition into a sociopolitical act.

The interplay between revealing, concealing and revealing concealment makes the Safety Curtain into an interface between performing and visual art, the distinction between these two forms of art functioning as a connective and innovative “threshold”.6 This also unexpectedly breaks down the wall between art and life, creating a space in which the full impact of contemporary art can evolve.

(2019 published in: Opéra Monde. La Quête d'un Art Total, ed. by Stéphane Ghislain Roussel, Centre Pompidou-Metz, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Metz: RMN 2019, p. 72)

1 For detailed information on the Safety Curtain art project and individual works, see Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl/Dominique Meyer, eds., Curtain – Vorhang: A Living Museum Space – The Vienna State Opera Safety Curtain (Vienna: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2017).
2 Former jury members have included Robert Fleck, Kasper König, Akiko Miyake and Nancy Spector.
3 See Bice Curiger, “Monumental Frontal”, in Curtain – Vorhang, p. 10.
4 The Austrian artist Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was director of the Vienna Künstlerhaus from 1938 to 1945 and created various propaganda pictures during this time. After the war he was able to continue his career practically without interruption. Following a drawn-out selection procedure he was chosen for the prestigious task of designing the safety curtain in the reconstructed opera house. Even at the time, the choice was strongly criticised in the media, not because of his Nazi past, however, but because of the conservative subject matter. For further details see Christine Oertel, “Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger and his safety curtain”, in Curtain – Vorhang, pp. 198–201.
5 The need for this discourse is also demonstrated by the acts of opposition – such as the collection of 22,000 signatures against the art project in 2002, or a question in parliament by the right-wing populist FPÖ party in 2010.
6 The term “threshold” refers to Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Suhrkamp 2373 (Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp, 2004), pp. 356ff.