Leaving for Another City
Cornelis van Almsick, 2014
‘[…] I don’t expect it to explain all that much, but what’s a story anyway, except one of those connect-the-dots drawings that in the end forms a picture of something? […]’ asks Aloysious Christopher Parker in his introduction to Permanent Vacation. A quote deeply relating to Wolfgang Lehrner’s works, forming a bigger picture through seemingly countless video works shown in the context of VIE CEE.
As Aloysious states in Permanent Vacation, Wolfgang Lehrner is a flâneur. He started working on VIE CEE in July 2012. Unlike Jarmusch’s protagonist from Permanent Vacation, Lehrner is less of a drifter for much of his urban flânerie. The starting point for VIE CEE was his home base Vienna and over the next year he would take several trips to East European cities not more than a day’s bus trip away: Budapest, Belgrade, Lviv, just to mention a few of the thirteen cities he visited. These were journeys to discover how similar the Austrian capital and cities formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire still are. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has not existed for almost a hundred years, the Iron Curtain has been wrapped up for over twenty years; new bonds were established while old structures still existed. A portrait of Vienna, which is never to be seen, which just exists in VIE CEE through impressions of actual sights and their counterparts in other cities, reminders of historically parallel developments and influences on a regional level. Therefore it is a deeply rooted local project, in a regional, historic and geopolitical context. Deeply rooted in the local, because who else would recognize the parallels between the portrayed similarities than local Viennese people? Otherwise one would drift like Aloysious and say: ‘Let’s just say I’m a certain kind of tourist…’ Implying both that you are on a visit to Vienna and that at the same time, while seeing the exhibition, you are a tourist in all the other cities portraying Vienna.
Even though VIE CEE references a docu-mentary approach, like its thematic structure, there is clearly an abstraction to it which makes the project less target-oriented. The approach is similar to some of Francis Alÿs’ video works, like Railings (Fitzroy Square), where he executes the simple kind of absurd action of hitting a drumstick on a fence, while circling around the entire fenced-off premises. While Alÿs is doing that, things happen around him, such as a dog barking and chasing after a crow, a swarm of pigeons nervously taking off as he approaches or a crooked old lady who walks just by the fence and whom he has to let pass. Alÿs though is an active protagonist to his own story, while Lehrner is really the flâneur who does not get involved in the situations or urban panoramic scenes he witnesses and records. Neither is he ever a gaper, carefully selecting unique, off-the-grid situations, close to the New Topographic Movement. As Victor Fournel stated: ‘[…] The simple “flâneur” is always in full possession of his individuality, whereas the individuality of the “badaud” disappears. It is absorbed by the outside world […] which intoxicates him to the point where he forgets himself. Under the influence of the spectacle which presents itself to him, the “badaud” becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a human being, he is part of the public, of the crowd.’ Lehrner is a detached observer and through his works states his individual viewpoint.
Further exploring the concept of the flâneur, Lehrner’s work closely follows the approach of psychogeography, a follow-up of the concept of the flâneur, defined in 1955 by Guy Debord. It accentuates the animated exploration of urban environments. With VIE CEE Lehrner is creating ‘a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities... just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape,’ as Joseph Hart states in A New Way of Walking, published in 2004. Lehrner actually expands this instruction to a global level. This can be seen in the ongoing project of his World City, where he takes on a similar approach to VIE CEE: Launched in 2008, he starts from a random location outside a city and walks towards its center. His camera captures moments of these journeys. While filming, the camera is never in motion or zooming – it is the protagonists who are in action. Therefore one could say Lehrner creates moving photography. With VIE CEE he is not only tying into this concept, but defining it further. Through the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he is allowing historical and geopolitical stories to link to these excursions.
By the time Lehrner and I started collaborating on the show, he had concluded his project VIE CEE, having shot some 500 video sequences. The space Franz Josefs Kai 3 seemed to be an adequate platform to present the project in its vastness. The architecture of the exhibition space offered a variety of rooms with different characters, interweaving old and new, ideal to set up a sequence of spaces inheriting the narrative for the complexity of the project. This also made it possible to randomly visit the individual spaces, as if squares in the city were rooms in this building: leaving the exhibition visitor to follow in Lehrner’s footsteps, becoming the flâneur.
Entering the exhibition one would see The Diplomat Suite, the most luxurious suite of the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade, and its counterpart The View, a single-channel video installation showing five videos filmed from this suite. It showed Belgrade as special in terms of its history, since it never belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire except for a short period of time during World War I. It was the capital of the former Yugoslavia – a state that stood out from other Eastern Bloc states due to its independence from the former Soviet Union and existing mostly through the time of the Iron Curtain. Ruined by Miloševic and his followers, it was finally broken into pieces by its former republics by the end or during the Yugoslav Wars. What was left further broke apart until only Serbia remained, which now takes on an unfortunate outsider’s position in terms of EU membership negotiations. Considering this background, Lehrner takes on a completely apolitical standpoint. He shows the diplomat suite as having a somewhat classy, decorative interior, one that could be found anywhere from Moscow to Washington. In a blatant contrast to its interior, one sees a flashy, Japanese children’s movie with rabbits who are rope jumping while absurdly cheerful music is playing in the background. In contrast to that, The View shows a city shaped by Modernist architecture and its highly urban environment. While Lehrner remains apolitical, through his portrait of Belgrade in his two installations he still acknowledges its importance for Vienna, its role as the former capital of Yugoslavia and the cultural impact of the numerous immigrants from this state forming a significant minority in Vienna.
The second space revealed a one-channel installation showing thirty videos called The Promenade. Here as well in the space where Metropolis was installed the films were played in a random order of black-and-white and color films, bringing the original historical context to mind. By any means The Promenade references the Empire also known as the Danube Monarchy; images of Budapest, Prague and any of the cities with access to the Danube were to be seen. The visitor, while facing the installation, would also face the Danube and the Danube Canal, which was just some twenty-five meters away from the projection. The installation showed videos of life on the promenade of Central East European cities along the Danube, which were more progressive in terms of developing a connection to their waterfronts. This did however foreshadow Vienna’s fast and vast development of its waterfront over the past ten years.
The central space with its old industrial glass roof revealed eight stills of buildings and structures painted partially or fully in the famous yellow Habsburgergelb, a somewhat early trademark developed by the Imperial & Royal monarchy. Also known as Schönbrunner Gelb, the color is still part of the Brazilian flag. Indeed, Empress Maria Leopoldine von Habsburg married into the House of Braganza, namely Dom Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil (represented by the green). The prints show that the color was very well taken up after the fall of the Empire in 1918 – it found its way into modern architecture where one can see it on industrialbuildings and even on socialist apartment blocks.
The last space on the ground floor, facing Wiesingerstrasse, incorporated the three-channel video installations called Metropolis. Sound also to be heard earlier was more striking here, where one could hear traffic noise and police sirens. The space itself faces the city. The vis-itor was surrounded by the video installations on three sides and Vienna’s first district on the fourth side. Images showed great similarities with Vienna’s cityscape, although like all the other videos in the show, none were filmed in Vienna. An alleged former Südbahnhof and some benches surrounded by socialist buildings looking just like parts of the fifth district appear. Viennese streetcars move through Sarajevo – a humanitarian project organized by the Austrian government just after the War.
The basement space presented a Star Wars-like situation or supposedly an animation. Like stars passing the protagonist on their way to another dimension, the end of the video shows that it was filmed from the back of a Viennese subway train. It was filmed just after the subway train left the city of Vienna. Placing it in the basement, like the other rooms in the exhibition, it took note of its relation to the city: Here it was underground. The Starting Point marked the end of the exhibition.
Visitors to VIE CEE would all have had a different view of the exhibition, owing to the random order of most videos that were played. The impression was similar, but never the same. Just like in most cities, where most buildings do not change for decades, but everything else around them is in constant flux. Having visited the show, one could conclude, as Allie states in Permanent Vacation: ‘[…] like a series of rooms, just like all the places where I’ve spent time. You walk in for the first time curious about this new room — the lamp, TV, whatever. And then, after a while, the newness is gone, completely. And then there’s this kind of dread, kind of creeping dread. You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. But anyway I guess the point of all this is that after a while, something tells you, some voice speaks to you, and that’s it. Time to split. […]’ Time to leave for another city to explore.