José Carlos Diaz on a city boasting more than beer, cake, and Klimt…
Just as the Beatles are a part of Liverpool’s heritage, one cannot escape the influence and legacy of Gustav Klimt throughout Vienna. This year marks the 150th birthday of Klimt and the city is filled with his presence. However there is more to Vienna than just Klimt. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere, one made up of the unrestrained beauty and exuberance found in the art, architecture, cuisine and music of Vienna. From a slice of cake to the opulent palaces, Vienna is an over-the-top kind of city.
My day began writing postcards to friends back in the ‘Pool from the popular café chain Aida. What is there not to like about baby pink décor and reasonably priced cakes and coffees? My creamy and fragile slice of Esterházy torte didn’t stand a chance. After pampering my appetite I walked to the Museums Quartier Wien, a city centre complex housing several modern and contemporary art galleries.
I visited the museum of modern art, mumok, to see the new exhibition Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties. Ironically I confronted Floor Cake. Other giant ‘soft’ sculptures followed: toilets, tools, and electric plugs! The prolific Oldenburg is primarily known for his sculptures inspired by mundane objects, however this travelling exhibition highlighted other aspects of his career including performance, film and the unrealised Mouse Museum, a Mickey-Mouse-shaped metal structure housing kitsch objects and personal treasures.
Next door to the mumok my old friend and American artist Clifton Childree was busy installing an artwork inside The Kunsthalle Wien. He and co-curator Verena Konrad gave me a sneak peak at what promises to be one of Austria’s best contemporary exhibitions this year. The show, The Circus as a Parallel Universe, is one of wonder and delight exploring the spirit of the circus.
The large blockbuster exhibition features many artists including Diane Arbus, Matthew Barney, Charlie Chaplin, Jeppe Hein and Cindy Sherman. The space was not quite finished but included photography, paintings, sculpture and installations, as well as a large collection of puppets and curio objects from Pop artist Sir Peter Blake. Daniel Firman’s life-sized elephant was scheduled for installation that day too. Seeing is definitely believing when one witnesses an elephant floating in the air belly-up with its trunk inserted into the wall. This horizontal obstacle is one of the many wonders inside this menagerie of artworks.
Konrad described Childree’s installation as “a wonderful mixture of illusion and the typology of the clown. It is a reference to the culture of Vaudeville and Circus, that is highly present in the work”. Fascinated by the macabre, the old fashioned and discarded, Clifton Childree’s current body of work is interested in making turn-of-the-century arcade machines. From found objects and supplies purchased at a weekly Vienna flea market at the Naschmarkt, (where you can also find some of the hippest restaurants in town), Childree has built an atmospheric tent titled Clown Alley, after the traditional area where clowns would assemble and prepare for performance. The area is dark with clown accoutrements scattered about.
You almost feel like you shouldn’t be there! A broken red and gold carriage is surrounded by wooden furniture, make-up, dirty glitter, classic comedy props, and costumes. The carriage is a hybrid of an organ on wheels and displays a 16mm film featuring Childree humouring the viewer in classic clown garb and performing a comedic act typical of the silent film era. The room and film are comical and conversely eerie. Childree explained, “I think I’ve always been attracted to old handmade objects, abandoned buildings and the history of a place. Perhaps part of this was growing up in a household full of antiques and books on various subjects like the silent film era, the history of the circus and great classical composers. I sense that antiques and old buildings contain emotional elements of their own history.”
Childree later guided me through Vienna’s Prater amusement park located within the limits of this sprawling city. This large urban park was originally a royal hunting ground, which in 1766 was turned into a leisure park for the citizens of Vienna by Emperor Josef II. The amusement park features hundreds of attractions, many built at various stages since the eighteenth-century and are aesthetically trapped in time: fun houses, ferris wheels, haunted rides, shooting galleries, pony rides, roller coasters and dodgems. After riding Dizzy Mouse, a spinning roller coaster, Childree selected a strange fantasy ride called the Altwiener Ghost Train. A bit of a misnomer, we rode this very slow train into a colourful and dark cave looking left and right at bizarre dioramas made from creepy old dolls exhibiting fairy tale and fantasy narratives. His own artwork carries this aesthetic widely explored in the Kunsthalle Wien show.
We came to rest in the shaded courtyard of the popular Schweiserhaus beer garden. There we gulped frothy pints of Budweiser and watched time fly. Childree told me, “Walking through the Prater is like stepping back in time. Some of these rides are a century old. Many … have been strangely updated but retain the original tracks, wooden steps, and facade. You can somewhat sense all the prior events that happened in these spaces before. I try to recreate that feeling in my own work. My sculptures are usually made with antique objects from many different eras and places. I want the viewer to first think my work is an original antique and not a contemporary art piece. I go a little further and purposely deteriorate my sculptures to visually help with the idea of time.”
José Carlos Diaz
The exhibition The Circus as a Parallel Universe opened on 4 May 2012 and will be on view through 2 September 2012