Josef Ortner (1956–2009)

(09-08-1956 – 30-03-2009)

Josef Ortner, born in Tyrol, grew up with the lively 1970s art scene in Innsbruck and was familiar with contemporary art through living in an artists’ commune and working in the legendary Galerie Krinzinger. He later studied graphic art and painting with Oswald Oberhuber at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and was Hermann Nitsch’s private assistant for two years. He always had a strong affinity with architecture, both material and immaterial, and saw himself as a concept artist and “artist entrepreneur”.

In 1978 he met Kathrin Messner, and they remained as a couple until his sudden and completely unexpected death on 30 March 2009. They worked together constantly and created Die Bar, a cocktail bar and artists’ meeting place in Vienna’s 1st district with the interior architecture designed by themselves. In 1988 they opened Mavo near the Naschmarkt, with a club-bar in the large basement and one of the first Japanese restaurants in Vienna above it. A special feature of the concept was the fact that the artistic design was already incorporated in the architecture, and artworks were integral components of the interior. For example, the ceiling paintings were by Franz Graf, the curtains by Peter Kogler, the seating by Mathis Esterhazy and the drinks menu by Gerwald Rockenschaub, to mention but a few elements. Both the overall effect and many details of the timeless ensemble bore Ortner’s handwriting. After a few years both Die Bar and Movo were rented out.

After these material architectural projects, Ortner created an immaterial version in 1990 in the form of museum in progress, an innovative museum model that offers media spaces for contemporary art exhibitions aimed at making modern art accessible to the public. In practice, museum in progress is media-specific, context-dependent and temporary. Artworks are presented directly in everyday situations and without recourse to traditional art outlets in newspapers and magazines, on posters and large surfaces, in the Internet or on television. It is not unusual for the presentation of art in a public medium, in a place where the observer might not expect to be confronted by art, to cause friction, but this only reflects museum in progress’ broader conception of art. Although seen or misunderstood by some people as political agitation, the aim has always been solely to present artistic activity at the interface with everyday life.

The museum in progress exhibitions are organised by way of innovative cooperation models between art, business and the media. From its small and flexible basic structure in Vienna, museum in progress has developed over the years into an international cooperative network of artists, curators, art institutions and business and media partners. With a feel for contemporary trends and a positive vision of the future, Ortner was working hard in the weeks and months before his death on the further development of the museum in progress concept, his “museum of the twenty-first century”. This work, whose foundations were laid by him, must be carried on without him.

Already in the 1980s, Messner and Ortner had the idea of organising initiatives in another culture parallel to their activities in Austria. They chose Sri Lanka, where in 1984 they built the Bogenvillya guesthouse in Wathuregama, a small rural town on the island’s southwest coast. After several years of preparation, they founded the one world foundation in 1995 to promote education projects in Sri Lanka. It is financed primarily by revenue from the guesthouse. The creation of free education units enables children, adolescents and adult women in particular to obtain free education and vocational training. It is hoped that the education level in rural areas of Sri Lanka can be improved through systematic development and the continuity of a diverse school curriculum. The one world foundation is a fair-exchange project: capital and know-how acquired in Europe are invested in the development and maintenance of education structures in an underprivileged society. This makes for an exchange of experience and knowledge between different cultures, intercultural dialogue in a globalised world – symbolised and represented by one world.

The first one world foundation free education unit school opened for around one hundred students in 1995. By the end of 2004 the school had been steadily enlarged to around 700 pre-school children and students in English, computer and dressmaking classes (women’s cooperation), before the tsunami of 26 December 2004 almost completely destroyed the owf site, which was right next to the sea. The foundation was rebuilt thanks to energy of its members and with the aid of generous donations and willing supporters. The teaching continued provisionally in rented buildings, while Ortner, together with the architect Carl Pruscha, devised a modular building structure capable of horizontal and vertical extension for the new owf school campus built on a site in Ahungalla, a village one kilometre further inland. It was officially opened in December 2006. By early 2009, around one thousand students were being taught at the main owf campus in Ahungalla.

Through the museum in progress and one world foundation, Ortner and Messner have created social sculptures. This is his legacy, which must now be continued with the positive energy that he represented.

(April 2009)