Safety Curtain

The Vienna State Opera as Picture Frame

A contemporary work of fine art surrounded by gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and plush? Abstract forms and reduced silhouettes combined with critical content and controversial discussion topics – to be seen shortly before the glittering celebration of "grand opera" – can that work?

Instead of the former function of fine art to follow the context of architecture, i.e. to give the opera house a motto, to celebrate the opera as a multi-media work of art consisting of music, theatre, dance and architecture or pay homage to successful themes or commendable heads with ornaments, sculptures, reliefs and emblems, the current design of the safety curtain of the Vienna State Opera by Kara Walker stands in brusque contrast to its surroundings. With the unconventionality of art a frontal collision of new forms and content does not seem to be a problem in this location. After all, with its far-fetched themes from all cultures, countries and epochs and its combination of music and images the opera is deeply connected to the historical "mixtum compositum". The real question is about the function of fine art in the context of an over-extravagance of stylistic and contextual references.

Where does art belong? As a result of the development of contemporary art, it certainly no long only belongs in museums. The neutral walls of art institutions today are no longer the proper place for advanced art. A wide range of artists have already denounced the sale of "autonomous" works of art to collections or for ornamental decoration as a market economy trap. So where does art belong?

One possible answer is – in public space! But where is public space? Does public space even exist? It is not only property rights and reduced opportunities for access in face of the privatisation of state or municipal and other "public" spaces which causes problems. The situation is complicated by the institutionalisation of supposedly public space for individual functions. Nobody wonders that use of the public space of a school is restricted to the pupils or that of an art gallery to an art audience. However, nobody would regard these institutions as "public" space. At the same time no-one notices the way in which advertising, car-parks, information kiosks etc. occupy street space which is seen as "public". The public for any location is always limited. In this case the correct answer would be that art must always look for its appropriate public space.

This balancing of suitable recipients and relevant themes has concerned art for years. With their interest in various aspects of everyday life and the processing of specific content the necessity arose for artists to inform themselves on the spot and also imagine artistic transformation there – meaning not in galleries or other art institutions. Presenting art works on the spot creates the opportunity for art to have a direct share in public discourse and to put new life into it. Racism, for instance, is a social problem which can be discussed most effectively on the streets and with the media of the streets. Sensory experience is an important part of our leisure time enjoyment and therefore also has its place as artistic transformation in cafés and clubs. The recipients of traditional high culture should also be made aware of the dangers and effects of cultural imperialism. The wish to interest an existing audience in different themes and ways of approaching them also seems to be connected to all this.

One expression of this wish is the use of the safety curtain of the Vienna State Opera House for contemporary art. The apparently daring setting for contemporary fine art in the middle of a space which is already crowded with various echoes is not an arbitrary placing of the new among the old. It is the result of a precise analysis of opportunities to appreciate art. Hardly anywhere else can a picture be better seen than on the total height and width of a stage but nevertheless the feeling of emptiness and impatience is almost tangible when the curtain is closed. At the same time, nowhere else is the attention of an audience so concentrated as shortly before the curtain rises. In contrast to theatre and opera, the cinema and rock concerts and also sports events have long made use of the space and the expectations of the audience. Whereas theatre and opera create a mood of inner reflection similar to before a church service and only set the scene for what is to come with a prologue or an overture after the doors have been closed, contemporary event promoters also use the arrival and waiting time, that is the time when the curtain is closed, for information, entertainment and advertising. The clear visibility and the attention of the audience explain the interest of artists in showing their works on the surface of the safety curtain. Although opera-goers are not a targeted art audience there are not many places in the city where such a receptive audience can be found. The visual power and strength of content of her work leave it to the audience to decide whether a longer term relationship will develop from a chance encounter. Because of this – and not because of the decoration of the building with ornaments, sculptures and emblems – the opera house has also become a location for fine art.