Why should it not be possible to intimate the theme of national idiosyncrasies without being obsequious, Markus Schinwald may have asked himself when he was invited by "Commissioner" Eva Schlegel to create the art for the Austrian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennial. As in any good detective story, the traces he lay down lead back into the past, or rather into the days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the 19th century, when a writer such as Adalbert Stifter penned "Hagestolz", bourgeois interiors hit a new peak, and Sigmund Freud lent his ear to the so-called hysterics in Berggasse in Vienna.
Until recently it was considered good form to don the mask of institution-critical artist for the celebration of the carnival of culture that takes place every second years in Venice's Giardini, to question the validity of the very concept of nation. Today, this gesture has evidently been exposed as being a matter of too much academic practice and a strong yearning for applause, and thus has become obsolete. Instead of remaining lodged in negating national ties, Markus Schinwald openly professes to be shaped by language, traditions and standards.
Any pathos is foreign to him. And even if he makes use of both painting and sculpture, of video and installations, Schinwald is anything but a multimedia artist. He is someone who feels it necessary to watch, to rethink and to modify what exists. Be it fashion articles – and this led a few years ago to a hybridization of sneakers whose irritating dysfunctionality seemed to offer the ideal footwear for the contortions of a running-shoe generation hell-bent on success. Or the TV formats such as the sitcom that he re-staged in 2009 in Kunsthaus Bregenz in order to take the theatricality of contemporary art to a point of no return. This time he can rely on the Austrian Pavilion as a backdrop, built in 1934 to plans by Josef Hoffmann and subsequently supplemented by wings and an inner courtyard.
Schinwald relies on the art of blockage to create an awareness of corporeality in the neutralizing Modernist architecture. The entrance is blocked by a high white wall, complete with a narrow vertical slit. Anyone squeezing past this illusion enters a space into which a kind of carton world has been implanted. A labyrinth not of dividing walls, as in trade fairs and exhibitions, but suspended structures that end at navel height. Viewers wander silently and reverently through this "corset of attentiveness", as Mirjam Schaub describes it in the catalog. Fixed on the images and objects in the narrow corridor they occasionally miss the fact that they have long since themselves become part of the art. Because from the others' point of view, they are headless beings, who can be observed in a strange mixture of discretion and voyeurism as the real attraction, gliding from wall to wall. The legs in motion, be they smooth or hairy, covered by skirts or pants, ending in sandals or high heels, always moving forward, and corresponding to motionless table legs along the walls that qua constructivist corner reliefs disguise the limits of the space.
Markus Schinwald acquired the lathed items of furniture and the Biedermeier oil paintings that have found their way into the pavilion at auctions. Hardly anyway else wanted to own such outdated relics of bourgeois life. Until Schinwald sawed them up, rearranged them or painted over them. In the course of which transformative process he teased out their immutable anthropomorphic qualities (Erich Kästner for one wondered, as he wrote in "Emil and the Detectives" that he had for so long not noticed that chair legs have calves.) However it now becomes clear that the faces of 19th-century ladies and gentlemen, calmly presenting their social status and seriousness, are held together by metal clamps, chains and strips. Are these applications jewelry or prosthetics? Has the artist really retouched things? Or perhaps exposed mechanisms that were always there but decently tucked away under a layer of varnish?
Nowhere is there certainty. Not even where Markus Schinwald uses contemporary media. "Orient" is what he calls the two video pieces that are housed in the pavilion's annexes. After all, you can't stand forever on one leg. "Legs, legs/Legs pushing/Legs grabbing/Legs outstreched/Legs knotted up in violence/Legs dangling in helplessness/suspended in mild complicity," a disembodied voice declaims while the nameless actors on the stage of a disused factory seek to keep their balance. On which leg is their weight? Is this contraposto? Given the ruinous setting, these men and women without properties have been stripped of any sense of the possible of which Robert Musil once wrote. Are they the protected few of a species threatened with extinction? The last upstarts of an industrial culture doomed to decay? No detective will manage to unravel this story and will probably have a tough time even finding out whether this is meant as a comedy or a tragedy. One man's leg has got stuck in a vertical crack in the wall, and for all the streaks of slapstick, can simply not be extricated. Another lacks his necktie, a third finds his trousers falling down because his body no longer conforms to the standard of the day, and a fourth finds that doors are not a way out but merely an occasion for an absurd kind of physical exercise. As throughout the pavilion, in the video there is no inside or outside, no inner life and no collective, only a generally accepted status as accomplices. Along for the rise. Given this panorama, one may find oneself resorting to the full repertoire of psychoanalysis, of body discourses and spatial theories. Not that this will help much. The oppressive familiarity that Markus Schinwald's rooms and images exude remains your constant companion.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner