Steirischer Herbst 2018

October 4, 2018
Laibach - The Sound of Music, as you've never heard it before

In the words of Thomas Bernhard, Austria’s greatest novelist of the late 20th century, the city of Graz was “a nest of Nazis”. In a speech of last year, Georg Friedrich Haas, Austria’s foremost living composer, reeled off a list of Nazis that had remained faithful to the Führer in post-war Graz, including his own father and grandfather.

What do you do if your historic city is overrun with unrepentant fascists? In 1968, Europe’s year of near-revolutions, Graz decided that the best wedge against evil wearing a mask of respectability was to start a radical arts festival. Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn) was born at a time when right-wing nationalism was undergoing a resurgence. Today, with the western world witnessing a re-legitimation of extremist politics, the festival has taken on a new sense of urgency.

This year’s theme, devised by Russian director, Ekaterina Degot, is Volksfronten – a word that conjures up populist movements from both the left and the right. Although the term “Volk” holds memories of Nazi ideology, the idea of a people’s front is more readily associated with left-wing dreams of revolution.

Roman Osminkin’s ‘Putsch (after D.A.Prigov)

The ambiguity was crucial to the festival, repeated in work after work. The director made no apologies for the nature of the performances and exhibitions. “I agree that art can be disruptive and sometimes unpleasant,” she said in her opening speech. “This is, actually, how it should be – to shatter our beliefs and to propose new visions, to destroy in order to create.”

This strategy was intended to expose the nature of the ugly politics that have returned to the world stage. The pervasive irony and absurdity, the play of distorting mirrors, was reminscent of movements such as Dada, French situationism, or the Italian Autonomia movement of the late 70s.

Fascism is an assault on the truth, a reshaping of the world in relation to a mythical golden age. The Fascist ideologue appeals to a disaffected mass audience, identifying an enemy within: the Jews, the muslims, global capitalism, immigrants, refugees, etc. Salvation lies with a strong leader who will deal ruthlessly with these elements and restore the nation’s greatness. Does this ring any bells?

The festival began with a gathering in Europaplatz, in front of the train station, and became a procession through the city led by the Bread and Puppet Theatre of Vermont, USA. A brass band played, huge effigies of the devil and a green man were paraded down the main street, mock sermons were read out in opposition to “the rotten idea”, which was given a symbolic funeral before bread was distributed to the audience.

The speeches were crude and simplistic, the performance ramshackle, but the event had an infectious energy. As the procession made its way towards the medieval centre of town, it kept growing, with people spontaneously joining in.

Parading through Graz with the Bread and Puppet Theatre

The opening set the tone for what followed, with the walk through the streets serving as a introduction to the schizoid nature of Austria’s second city – a place that retains many elegant architectural remnants of the Baroque; that served as a residence for the Habsburgs, and acts as a gateway to eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was also the Austrian city that most enthusiastically embraced the National Socialist program.

Graz is a city torn between past and present, between reactionary and progressive viewpoints. The greatest symbol of this schism may be the 2003 Kunsthaus designed by British architects, Colin Fournier and Peter Cook. A prime example of so-called “blob architecture”, it dominates one bank of the river: a cross between a spaceship and a monstrous sea slug. It looks amazing but is one the most impractical museums imaginable when it comes to hanging a show. Paintings are displayed on makeshift racks, or dangle from the ceiling in mid-air. The curved walls are useless for display purposes, and the lighting is atrocious.

Colin Fournier & Peter Cook’s understated Kunsthaus, Graz

These features could not spoil the vibrance of the exhibition, Congo Stars – a sprawling survey of art from the broken heart of Africa. Nobody in Australia, with the exception of the late Ray Hughes, seems to have taken a serious interest in modern African art, but it’s an electrifying subject: a bubbling brew of political chaos, folk traditions, animism and hedonism. Painters such as Chéri Samba and Moké are figures of worldwide significance, while Bodys Isek Kingelez, a maker of futuristic model cities, is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Congo Stars.. dressing sharp in Africa

In the context of Steirischer Herbst, the Congo show was the perfect riposte to a rising tide of xenophobia. The show next door, in the Camera Austria gallery, was completely different in conception but utterly complementary. In its relentless interrogation of historical photos Ines Schaber’s Notes on Archives, showed how every image removed from its historical context becomes subject to a wide variety of ideologically motivated interpretations.

Few genuinely cerebral exhibitions are so engaging. Schaber’s skill lay in her choice of images, from a misinterpreted photo of a 1919 street battle in Berlin, to dual portraits of an Arab Ladies Union Group, taken in Israel, c. 1944. She demonstrated that by uncovering the truth about the past we reveal insights about the present.

Ines Schaber, The Arab Ladies Union Group c.1944

One of the ‘blockbuster’ performances on opening night came from poet, Roman Osminkin, who used the staircase of the Schlossberg, a fortified 475 metre-high hill that arises in the centre of town, as a venue for a piece called Putsch (After D.A.Prigov). Performers held up letters deconstructing words such as “revolution” and “putsch”, to the backdrop of a commentary that recalled the word experiments of the early Russian avant-garde.

On top of the Schlossberg the evening ended with a concert by Slovenian rock band, Laibach, who performed their own version of The Sound of Music – the legendary musical and movie that presented Austria as a country of cheerful innocents dragged into the second World War by the Nazis. Needless to say, the deep, grating vocals, guitars and synthesisers gave a very different impression to the Julie Andrews version.

kozek hörlonski, from ‘Demonic screens’

There was much more that’s worth discussing but I’m only able to scrape the surface of an event that bills itself as Europe’s oldest festival of new art. One final, utterly irresistible exhibit was Demonic Screens – a series of short horror films by the duo, kozek hörlonski, in collaboration with Austrian composer, Alexander Martinz. Each screen showed a perfect vignette of a different horror genre, set in a local landscape, that echoed the work of directors from Carl Theodor Dreyer to George A. Romero.

Reflect for a moment on the aesthetics of the horror film, and how we take pleasure in being scared. Perhaps we’re beginning to get the same thrills from scary politics, or “fascinating Fascism”, to use Susan Sontag’s term. The difference is that when we leave the cinema the horror movie is over, but when we embrace the politics of fear and hatred the horror has just begun.

Steirische Herbst 2018
Graz, Austria
20 Sept – 4 Oct, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October, 2018