Safety Curtain 1999/2000

Interview with Christine and Irene Hochenbüchler. When Ethics and Aesthetics Meet.

Marius Babias: In the Austrian pavilion at the Biennale in Venice you set up the prototype of a mobile refugee house with the title Mutter-Kind(er)-Haus (Mother and Child(ren) House), against the background of the war in Kosovo and primarily conceived for the Kosovo Albanians returning home. Why should artists repair the damage done by politics?

Irene Hohenbüchler: The invitation to the Biennale came at the same time as the beginning of the war in Kosovo. Of course we were affected by the pictures and reports from the war zone. And like many other people we also asked ourselves how one can and should react to a human catastrophe like this. Where does personal responsibility begin? Are there situations in life when you should react differently to the way you are used to? We thought about the fact that after the war a lot of single mothers with a large number of children would be left as one of the poorest social groups. How should a woman with six, seven or eight children look after them and at the same time earn enough to live on?

Christine Hohenbüchler: We don't think that as artists we should repair or improve something which is going wrong in politics or diplomacy. It would be presumptuous to think that. But as artists we can use the media interest in the Biennale to make a personal statement. Our model was the of the SOS children's villages. Together with the architect Martin Feiersinger we developed residential units for a mother and her children which were adaptable to the needs of the family. For Venice we produced a prototype of the smallest model for 7–9 people. Bathroom, kitchen/living room and bedroom. It is 40 square metres and an extra room can be added at any time. We wanted to build a house which can be easily assembled and disassembled and put up somewhere else, comparable with a snail's shell which moves with the wanderings of the snail. There are therefore no foundations, the house is built on wooden supports. We use pine or larch wood because it is light and easily insulated, creates a nice atmosphere to live in and is suited for modular construction.

MB: Is there any chance of realising the project on the spot now that the refugees have returned home? Or should the house be seen more as a statement which doesn't need to be realised?

IH: The house was bought by the Upper Austrian Raiffeisenbank at the art auction "Women Against War" and given back to be used in Kosovo. The money will be used to produce new houses. In co-operation with "Women Against War" and other charity organisations. The house will be made available to a mother in Kosovo with eight children. She will be able to stay in the house until she has her own house or flat again. In about two years the Mother and Child(ren) House should be the pioneer house for an SOS Children's Village. We are working with Martin Janda from Raum Aktueller Kunst in Vienna to ensure that our first building project doesn't remain the only one and that from the beginning the dream that we've harboured of creating a settlement can be realised.

CH: It's now a question of finding interested people and sponsors. It was important both for us and the architects that the house offers an alternative to a container. Although it isn't possible to compete with a container on price or transportability, we hope that our aim of creating a home fit for people to live in will be taken into account when the costs are calculated. The Mother and Child(ren) House is our concrete reaction to a dramatic situation and we have left behind the pure symbolism which is inherent in art.

MB: The media reaction to your project was totally negative. You were accused of political naivety. In the Mother and Child(ren) House I rather see the attempt to gain extended social terrain for art in a highly charged emotional field – and this explains the emphatic rejection.

IH: Reactions were not only negative. There were several attempts to approach the work from a neutral point of view. What was noticeable was that as soon as journalists confronted us personally there were fewer misunderstandings and prejudices. Unfortunately misguided statements, condemnations and stupid associations were dominant. It's also apparent that artistic work with children is automatically counted as naivety. Art critics hold on tight to the object character of art. If the object is not in the foreground or even dissolves, (as in the Biennale project of the "WochenKlausur" group of artists) resistance comes up immediately. Exhibition visitors also gave us positive reactions to the "social" aspect of this project, mostly women.

MB: I see the Venice Biennale project as following on from previous co-operation with handicapped people or prisoners – but this time without the direct involvement of the group you are addressing, namely the refugees.

CH: That's right. We find getting into contact with people and the communicative aspects of working together important. The final result, which until now has always been presented through an exhibition, was therefore the work process visualised. Until now we have had no personal contact with refugees who could live in a Mother and Child(ren) House but that will change as the project develops. We have painted with the children of refugees in the Mautner-Markhoff Hospital in Vienna several times.

IH: For us the Mother and Child(ren) House is a logical follow-on from the way we have worked and dealt with things until now. Basically we always react personally to the conditions of life, the various conditions of survival in our civilisation. Also we apparently have a strong sense of justice and a need for harmony. Even when we draw or paint, the work is only finished for us when it fits an inner "harmonious" feeling. We are interested in all points where ethics and aesthetics meet.

MB: How has it come about that abroad you are far more successful and have far more recognition than in Austria where there are strong reservations about your work?

CH: Maybe it has something to do with the Austrian mentality which, as Peter Huemer once said in a radio programme, has developed out of specific historical conditions of repression during the Reformation period. The way that people talk and criticise here is rather indirect. – And we don't exempt ourselves from this, we also learnt to speak this way. Abroad one is regarded more neutrally and not seen as competition.

MB: Parallel to the explosive Kosovo subject matter you have also worked on a project for the safety curtain of the Vienna State Opera. Can the two areas be strictly separated?

IH: When we are deeply involved in a subject we can hardly cut it out completely and turn "fresh" to the next project. One resulted from the other, so to speak. We tend to add, extend and connect. At first it was difficult for us to approach the different cultural level of the Vienna State Opera and its audience. Opera has a lot to do with illusion and entertainment. Going to the "opera" is also a social occasion. The auditorium with the velvet seats, indirect lighting and the reflections of the crystal chandeliers lets the audience immerse themselves in another reality. But still there are parallels to real life. The drama of the plot and the tragedy which is used as a means of catharsis in many operas is taken from reality. With the cross symbolism we wanted to bring a little memory of reality onto the stage.

CH: Emotions, love, hate, desperation and death are carried in the music, singing and powerful stage scenery. The audience is directly confronted with intense sensory impressions. We wanted to be as reserved as possible in the design of the safety curtain, to put across information and generally take up the theme of opera. What is coming is only alluded to through the abstracted drawing and does not compete with what is happening on the stage.

MB: The background to the safety curtain design is three different layers of drawn red crosses, over this hangs a transparent fluttering material. As a Christian symbol, isn't the cross too strongly loaded with religious connotations?

IH: The red cross is primarily related to the red cross symbol of the Red Cross Organisation. It also has an additional meaning – the succession of years. The cross is an extremely old which symbolises the passing of a year. Of course, in our culture the cross is especially loaded as a Christian symbol. However, it can also be seen as a crossroads, as an image in which various levels overlap one another and meet. The suggested textile structure is a reference to our earlier work with curtains where we consciously used transparency, writing and wind movement. The theme of curtains is familiar to us, as a surface which is drawn in front of something and covers it but still allows the curious glimpse through.

CH: Seen in this way the crosses represent time and history, overlaid with a textile layer as well as a chronological list of first performances and premières and their composers. On top of this there is once more the suggestion of a curtain. This work makes clear the way we work. First there was a basic which was portrayed by sketches and drawings and supplemented with the writing. It often happens in our work that one of us begins and the other adds to it, thinks further and works, and the reactions are visual. Mostly all this happens without us saying hardly a word, with full trust in the direction the other is leading.

MB: The curtain is a complex pattern with text areas consisting of the titles of first performances. This makes up a time diagram. Do you see the present as an historical puzzle?

IH: The text areas are made up of many different types of lettering. Almost every composer has his own lettering, a portrait so to say. I also tried to match the lettering to the composers chronologically and in terms of content. However, it was a purely subjective decision. All first nights and premières which took place under the auspices of the opera house were included in the statistics. Some performances were given outside the opera house such as at the Theater an der Wien, the Odeon, in Ronacher, in Parliament and so on. After the destruction in 1945 it wasn't possible to stage performances at the opera house for about 10 years and other locations had to be used. We are conscious that we are working out of a cultural heritage. Our concept of art, our way of acting and thinking have their roots in the past. We are not opera connoisseurs but we were interested in which operas were played and how often. We did notice for instance that from the beginning of the 20th century right into the late thirties there were many premières of works by contemporary composers. This tendency came to an abrupt end with the beginning of the war. It's also interesting from which countries the composers come. There is only one Romanian opera – "Oedipe" by Enescu which was first performed in 1997. There is not one single female composer.

CH: The repertoire consists mainly of what has stood the test of years, which is a pity because it excludes the present. In recent years the first performances have been "Die Blinden" (The Blind) by Furrer at the Odeon in 1989, "Kehraus um St. Stephan" by Krenek at the Ronacher in 1990, "Die Wände" by Hölszky at the Theater an der Wien in 1995 and also in 1995 "Gesualdo" by Schnittke which was the only first performance at the opera house itself.

IH: I don't think it's easy to manage and direct a big and famous opera house. But the fact is that it is hard to get young people interested in opera – and this can't just be because of a general lack of interest. Perhaps the house should not depend too much on tourism and the season ticket audience. However, one great step was to install the children's opera tent on the roof of the opera. The performances were immediately sold out, which shows how great the need is for a venue like this in Vienna.

MB: Recently you have cut back on your work with other social groups. Will you be following a more individual strategy in future?

IH: The main reason for that is that I gave birth to my second child two years ago and I generally have less time for work. Christine helps me looking after the children. For me personally the tendency to work with others and to be there for them has rather intensified because of this. The next projects are once again group orientated. In autumn we will be working with patients in a London hospital for a longer period. Then we will be working on various projects with students in Japan and Canada. We don't want to be confined too much to work with socially excluded groups. We also work with our younger sister Heidemarie and co-operate with other artists.

CH: You can't work on group projects without a break. This work requires a lot of energy because you are not only responsible for the way you work yourself but for the whole group. Dealing with people with disabilities or the mentally ill means there is a sensitive pattern of communication which requires a lot of attention, trust and care. Times of reflection and reappraisal are very important. After working with the Kunstwerkstatt Lienz for documenta X we had to reconsider the way we work. The question of making excessive demands caused us problems. How far are we overtaxing the audience, the group participants and ourselves? Is there any point in confronting such sensitive people with the hard criteria of art discourse? We are interested in social connections and their cultural effects in general, under-privilege and unjust distribution in particular. That needs time for orientation, research and courage. But despite all this, various reservations will not prevent us working with socially disadvantaged groups.

IH:There are always times when we are more occupied with our own and their realisation. We need this retreat into fantasy and the world of images in order to be able to collect for new projects. For this reason we enjoyed working on the opera safety curtain very much. It was the first picture for a long time which involved only our thoughts.