– Summer 2009

Reading Zobernig Through Vaudeville: ‘My God, a black square.’

Mark Kremer

Tags: Heimo Zobernig

Heimo Zobernig's work exemplifies the potential and complexity of artistic practices that occupied a large part of the 1980s in Western Europe, a moment when artists began to take art history back on board. Growing up after the demise of Conceptual art, the Austrian artist is part of a generation for whom it was natural to reconnect with tradition, and in the mid-1980s Zobernig began an 'open artwork' in which various historical propositions of abstract art were at play (Constructivism, De Stijl, Konkrete Kunst, Minimal art). This led to a larger and lucid body of work that today covers an extensive array of experimental investigations in various media and exhibition making.

The return to tradition in the 1980s was fiercely attacked by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who accused artists of regressive attempts to restore the visual order to one that preceded Conceptual art.1 To Buchloh, the embrace of figurative painting signalled the art world's amnesia, and was a negative move rejecting the critical implications of Conceptualism's attempt to eradicate the visual from art practice - an act of artistic purification. But this is not the case with Zobernig, whose return to art history was done from a perspective sharpened by the Conceptual project. Zobernig's work embodies the ambivalence and hesitation with which certain artists of his generation used and processed arthistorical sources. Conceptual art had confronted the naïve belief in the power and expressive potential of images, and this 'negative conviction' was carried on in the progressive propositions of the 1980s. In the same manner Zobernig's work possesses an undertone of scepticism about form as carrier of meaning tout court - something always seems to get

  1. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting', October, vol.16, 1981, pp.39-68.

  2. Eva Badura-Triska (ed.), Heimo Zobernig. Austelung Katerlog (exh. cat.), Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2003, p.39. This catalogue tracks the genealogy of Zobernig's oeuvre. For what follows I have made ample use of the inventory presented in this book.

  3. 'Nachbau der Ausstellung in der Galerie Peter Pakesch, Wien, 27.1.-23.2.1985, 2003', ('Reconstruction of the exhibition at Gallery Peter Pakesch, Vienna, 27 January-23 February 1985, 2003'), MUMOK, Vienna, 2002-03.

  4. Dialogue by Henry Plaat and Cherry Duyns in the 1970s. See John Heymans, Herfstlied: Over Cherry Duyns, Amsterdam: Thomas Rap, 2006, p.110. Translation the author's.

  5. See Ibid.

  6. In 2004 the complete series was made commercially available on five DVDs.

  7. 'Heimo Zobernig and The Tate Collection', Tate St Ives, 2008-09 and 'Heimo Zobernig', Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 2009. These shows were based on a collaboration between the two art institutions, which also temporarily exchanged pieces from their collections.

  8. J. Heymans, Herfstlied, op. cit., p.108, note 4. Translation the author's.

  9. Heimo Zobernig, Stellproben, deSingel, Antwerp, 2008-09.

  10. Joshua Decter, 'Heimo Zobernig. Friedrich Petzel Gallery', Artforum, Summer 2008. Also available at http://i1.exhibit-e.com/petzel/7775f059.pdf (last accessed on 12 February 2009).

  11. See cover of E. Badura-Triska (ed.), Heimo Zobernig. Austelung Katerlog, op. cit.

  12. The case of the Dutch abstract artist JCJ Vanderheyden offers several poignant parallels. See Mark Kremer, 'The Miraculous Catch', in Roger Willems (ed.), JCJ Vanderheyden. The Analogy of the Eye, Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2009, pp.99ff.

  13. 'De Sculptura', Messepalast, Vienna, 1986.

  14. Email from the artist, 23 December 2008.

  15. Mario Praz, Het Europese binnenhuis, Utrecht: Oosthoek, 1965, p.66.

  16. Paul Valéry, Wat af is, is niet gemaakt (trans. Piet Meeuse), Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1987, p.12. Translation the author's.

  17. See Mark Kremer, 'Poldergeist', Klaas Kloosterboer: Shivering Emotions + Feverish Feelings, Karlsruhe: Badischer Kunstverein, 2003, pp.138ff.

  18. At the end of the 1980s Brethouwer destroyed the works as at the time nobody understood them, but just recently they were resuscitated in a suite of nine sculptures with a title borrowed from Søren Kierkegaard; The Cares of the Pagans(1984-89/2008) were exhibited in 'To Burn Oneself with Oneself: The Romantic Damage Show', de Appel, Amsterdam, 2008.

  19. The DVD is a recording of a one-time performance on 18 April 2008 at MUMOK Factory, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, in Vienna. It was made as a part of the performance cycle 'Nichts IST AUFREGEND. Nichts IST SEXY. Nichts IST NICHT PEINLICH', 2008.