“The Viennese taste in art has undergone a tremendous revolution: the salons of our ostentatious rich are furnished by Olbrich or Hofmann instead of Mr. Sandor Jaray; and Mr. Blaas’s youngest Ninetta and Friedländer’s oldest Invalids have been ousted by the most recent creations of Klimt and Engelhardt. What gives? Well, when gentlemen who are rich today and may be poor even tomorrow put part of their fortunes into art assets, they always buy with a view to the salability of their goods. And in the Viennese art market of recent years, many valuable assets have been seen to lose all value; speculation favors novel assets, and after prolonged resistance, even the conservative press has resigned itself to the change of direction: the art economist writing for the ‘Neue Freie Presse’ is “in bed” with modern art. Then, too, the scene of the art trade has shifted; the galleries of the Künstlerhaus lie deserted while the chattering crowds throng the hall of the Secession’s dainty temple to art. There is no need to fear that some strong arm might expel the merchants from this temple.”
From: Die Fackel 1, no. 29, 1900, p. 16
Verena Dengler makes art that is richly allusive, trenchant, and occasionally provocative. Astute observations of the art world with its mechanisms and historically contingent conditions as well as the artist’s own entanglements in it are often the subject of installations, objects, pictures, drawings, texts, videos (and a whole lot more) that offer reflections in which critique is leavened by humor and satire.
In the Secession’s gallery, the artist builds a “landscape” consisting of a pond and a surrounding overgrown urban wasteland or “Gstettn” that serves as the setting for other works and elements. The early days of the Secession with its lavishly flower-bedecked sales exhibitions was one point of reference as the artist drew up the plans for her show, developed in dialogue with the historian of religion Barbara Urbanic; so was her engagement with the “omnipresent Romantic legacy” (Urbanic). Characteristics attributed to Romanticism such as the emphasis on individuality and feeling and the quest for the sublime, but also its “dark flipside” of melancholy, social critique, and cultural pessimism: these form a—sometimes latent, sometimes manifest—ferment that is at work to this day in subcultural youth movements and countercultures, contemporary popular as well as classical music, and many other domains. The ideals of Romanticism and its aftereffects inform to this day social and political realities, including the leeway for individual configurations of life and work framed by social networks, the development of flexible labor relations—something that artists are only too familiar with—and the associated phenomena of relentless self-improvement. The works in the exhibition reflect the interplay between past and present, between hegemonic and repressed as well as subversive forces that undermine the powers that be.
The descriptive title outlines the exhibition’s thematic compass: “The Gallery Owner and the Beautiful Anti-Capitalist” points to a literary project set in the art world in which the artist avails herself of the stylistic conventions of the dime novel or penny dreadful. Working, through Skype, with the German theater and film actress Astrid Meyerfeldt and the artist Leon Kahane, she has adapted excerpts for
the “silver screen,” releasing the footage on her Instagram account. The clips offer a decidedly facetious take on mechanisms of the art scene and market and on artists’ attempts at social-media image-building and self-marketing.
The pond quotes the layout of the Hirschstetten swimming hole, a recreational area in one of Vienna’s outlying residential districts, where the artist herself lives and gestures toward the implicitly hierarchical distinctions between periphery and center, between natural and man-made landscapes—concerns that are also at stake in the trope of the “Gstettn.” The peculiar interpretation of the latter as a “Gothic Gstettn” blends the image of the urban wasteland with Romantic-era depictions in which the natural landscape is steeped in mystery and deeper meaning and the notion of nature as pristine to obtain an emblem of an anarchic counterculture. Its original vegetation ousted by rampant weeds, Dengler’s “Gstettn” is a distinctly political scene, in no small part thanks to the implicit reference to Maderthaner and Musner’s Die Anarchie der Vorstadt. Das andere Wien um 1900: documenting subcultural and political working-class movements that emerged on the urban fringe around the turn of the century, the book shatters the elitist fixation of conventional historiography to paint a much broader portrait of the period’s cultural scene.
The bronze sculpture represents a woman holding a bouquet in one hand and an iPhone—the display is recognizably broken—in the other to take a picture of the flowers. The figure strikes the characteristic pose that Barbara Urbanic, the self-described “hobby horticulturist with creative urges and revolutionary zeal,” assumes when she snaps flowers for her Instagram account @stadtblume_wien. The grand piano in the exhibition stands for quality, the proud embrace of tradition, and cultural values, yet it is also an indicator of the challenges of a global market: the “Secession,” whose design was inspired by characteristic elements of the building’s architecture—most saliently, the leaf pattern of the dome—is the first collector’s item in Bösendorfer’s new “Architecture Series.”
The mock trade fair stands and booths in the exhibition, which Dengler built out of modular wall system components, make for a deliberately heavy-handed allusion to the commercialization of art and its commodity status. In fair booth H88 on the right, Galerie Meyerheim presents blue-chip art; across the room, the same enterprise, now styling itself galerie.meyerheim projects_, showcases the work of hip young artists. The curtains between the booths partition off storage rooms holding art that has been brought to the scene but is not on display. The name “Meyerheim” for the gallery is taken from the “Meyerheim-Poem” by Theodor Fontane; it is an anti-Semitic code designating a Jewish capitalist.
Finally, the coinage Dengvid-20 in the title, unmistakably a play on Covid-19, anchors the show in the present with its sweeping measures enacted to curb a global pandemic. The crisis has had an immediate and especially severe impact on many freelancers; reality has borne out Dengler’s critique of the economic framework in which art is created and the precarious circumstances in which artists often live. The pun Srecession, meanwhile, only thinly disguises the specter of a prolonged economic downturn, which might be precipitated by many causes, a pandemic among them.
Over the years, Dengler’s creative practice has in-creasingly built on networks and cooperative structures, and so this exhibition is the fruit of diverse collaborative relationships, including with Barbara Urbanic; Itai Margula (exhibition architecture); Astrid Meyerfeld, Leon Kahane, Marlene Engel (the “art-world dime novel”); Katarina S childgen (publication); the band gebenedeit (Lydia Haider, Josua Oberlerchner, Johannes Oberhuber) and Steffanie Ergen (opening reception live acts); MOB Industries (sales performance during the opening reception); and many more.
Expanding on the presentation, an artist’s publication in magazine format will contain contributions by Barbara Urbanic, Diedrich Diederichsen, Anna Gien, and Leon Kahane and extensive series of photographs.