Safety Curtain 1999/2000

Safety Curtain 1999/2000 by Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler


130 years have passed since the Vienna State Opera House was opened. Which opera was chosen to do justice to the magnificence of the occasion? This could be a quiz question for opera-goers during the interval. Some would probably guess the answer, even if they were not well up on the history of the opera house. Mozart's "Don Juan" was on the programme on 25 May 1869.

The writing of history always highlights particular events in order to answer different questions and throw light on different contexts. The academic priority of the chronology of ruling dynasties and their conquests, successions of rulers, wars and revolutions has long been set aside. The writing of history can illuminate individual destinies or international treaties, cite technical inventions or economic figures. The reading of such historical segments is, of course, always supplemented by the knowledge one has. When thinking of the premiere of Salmhofer's "Ivan Tarassenko" on 9 March 1938, who would not involuntarily think of what happened three days later and of the caesura with all its implications for the history of Austria?


For their picture which takes the place of the safety curtain during the 1999/2000 season, Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler have taken the subject of the history of the opera house on the Ring. Like every large theatre the Vienna State Opera house is literally its "own world" – an extraterrestrial place of exquisite illusions. However, the realia of the world do not stop at the entrance ramp. The choice of works to be performed, for instance, can be seen as a reflection of a political climate if one takes into consideration possible interpretations of the material – one thinks of the celebration of freedom in Beethoven's "Fidelio" which, incidentally, was on the programme two weeks after the opening "Don Juan" on 10 June 1869. On the other hand, perhaps the proportion of contemporary works also gives some indication of the ruling spirit of the house. Each opera-lover will draw their own conclusions.


With the help of the dramatic producer, Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz, a committed keeper of the archives, the Hohenbüchlers have compiled a list of all the premieres and first performances at the opera-house. Each composer is given a different type of lettering to give them their own voice and character. This text is the framework for a pictorial portrait of the institution which is constructed in transparent layers. A recurrent element is a blood-red cross – the cross as a Christian symbol which encompasses different ages, signals death and symbolises faith – but which also brings to mind the very topical role of the Red Cross in the war zones of this world. For their contribution to the Biennale in Venice, Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler reacted to the war in Kosovo. With the architect, Martin Feiersinger, they designed a mobile "Mother and Child House" for the displaced, which is intended to be put at the disposal of refugees.


The Hohenbüchlers have continually developed their artistic practice as "multiple authorship". Their work, which is often realised as complex installations, has, since the beginning of the 90's, been produced with so-called marginal groups in society – with handicapped people, prisoners, psychiatric patients, but also with children. They develop an intensive dialogue with their artistic partners and present their works with and in their own objects and environments. They often create using rich finds from their cultural treasure house with many references to art history, literature, philosophy and contemporary social theory. In earlier works references to Fra Angelico, to Philipp Otto Runge, to Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Michel Foucault or Elfriede Jelinek are placed as a layer of text over drawings, objects, furniture and walls – open and secretive, clear and opaque at the same time.


In their work for the Vienna State Opera House the Hohenbüchlers visualise the layers of time and leave it to the public to immerse themselves in the chronicle and draw their own conclusions. It is a very theatrical trompe l'oeil which the artists have created for the covering of the extremely heavy safety curtain dividing the stage and the auditorium. The overlaying of colour elements, created on computer, blends in with the text-graphics giving the appearance of an extremely delicate cloth. It seems to puff out in the wind – the wind, which in Walter Benjamin's famous image, propels the angel of history backwards into the future, the past in front of wide-open eyes: "That which we call progress is this storm".