– Summer 2013

Josef Dabernig: A Sort of Introduction

María Berríos

Tags: Josef Dabernig

Josef Dabernig, excursus on fitness, 2010, Digital Betacam, black and white, silent, 12min, still. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna; and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam

A beautiful protocol, an exact protocol. I will write a protocol of the sort that one doesn’t experience everyday.
– Town clerk in Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: Every Man for Himself and God Against All, 1974)

A famously characterless mathematician, in preparation for the necessary remodelling of his house, reflects on a maxim formulated by a ‘leading architect’ of the time: ‘Modern man is born in hospital and dies in hospital — hence he should also live in a place like a hospital.’1 The mathematician accepts this axiom with indolence rather than compliance, and ipso facto makes a link to a statement from another architect, a ‘reformer of interior decoration’ who ‘demanded movable partition walls in flats, on the grounds that in living together man must learn to trust man and not shut himself off in a spirit of separatism’.2 The mathematician dwells on how new times need new styles, and begins to devise the transformation of his own living space. However, his initial projects of grand solidity suddenly come across as bulky, and he quickly imagines different, more adequately slim and functional solutions, although those too are later dismissed as he considers alternate possibilities. All the inventions he comes up with seem to him easily replaceable for others. Finally he gives up ‘inventing anything but impractical rooms, revolving rooms, kaleidoscopic interiors and adjustable scenery’.3 The mathematician’s multiple designs thus irremediably morph into the most pragmatic, albeit extreme solution: the decision to do nothing at all.

The above episode comes immediately

  1. This is a scene from the chapter ‘Ulrich’, in Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, vol.1: A Sort of Introduction. The Like of it Now Happens (1930, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser), New York: Capricorn Books, 1965, p.16.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., p.17.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Dabernig’s approach differs significantly from the nostalgic (or critical) replay of modernism that has, for almost two decades now, been a successful trope of contemporary art. His highly subjective ‘rationalism’ is quite distant from Le Corbusier’s functionalist promise of efficiency in his ‘machines for living’. Nor is he interested in modernism as a thematic reference.

  6. Musil writes in a letter from 1914: ‘My attitude and my work tend rather more towards the severe… I do not mean to suggest that I have no feeling for what remains stronger and wiser than the individual, but only that it is on the whole difficult to find the right social measure for one as for the other. Granted the ability, granted also the possibility of making mistakes now and then, it seems to me that what is decisive is the passionate seriousness with which one sets about one’s job and subordinates material…’ Quoted in E. Wilkins and E. Kaiser, ‘Foreword’, in ibid., p.xviii. Emphasis the author’s.

  7. See Barbara Steiner (ed.), Dabernig, Josef. Film, Foto, Text, Objekt, Bau (exh. cat.), Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2005. See also the artist’s web page, available at http://www.dabernig.net (last accessed on 27 March 2013).

  8. The German word ‘Bau’, literally ‘building’ or ‘construction’, has to do with the notion of the builder (the bricklayer, carpenter or engineer) and with the work, craft and practical knowledge of construction. It is distinct from the idea of architecture as design and from the slick image of contemporary architecture firms.

  9. This is the title of a lecture course and seminar that Roland Barthes gave at the Collège de France between 1976 and 1977. See R. Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces (2002, trans. Kate Briggs), New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

  10. Rather than a thematic focus on modernism, Dabernig’s films share a concern with (and maybe have a small crush on) spaces ignored by or unconcerned with that particular tradition and its aftermath — in some cases due to never having been touched by its rationale despite deceptively compliant façades, in others as a consequence of tragic misunderstandings of the new style.

  11. ‘Individual Systems’ was an exhibition curated by Igor Zabel for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. Dabernig was commissioned to conceive the exhibition’s architecture, which became a serial variation of wall heights and widths — permeable ‘white cubes’ as spaces for participating artists. Dabernig’s piece in the show was Envisioning Bucharest (2003), a project that ensued from his collaboration with Rudolf Prohazka in 1966, and which obeyed the unspoken agenda of literally covering up the urbanistic disaster created by Nicolae Ceausescu’s megalomaniac Casa Poporului, or People’s House, which contains the Romanian Parliament. Five years later, Dabernig’s architectural design for ‘Individual Systems’ was re-staged for an exhibition within the Brussels Biennale 1 (2008), but this time without the original artworks. See Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova (ed.), Once is Nothing: Individual Systems (exh. cat.), Utrecht and Eindhoven: basis voor actuele kunst and Van Abbemuseum, 2008.

  12. See http://www.dabernig.net/film/hotel-roccalba (last accessed on 27 March 2013).

  13. The exceptions are: Dabernig’s debut film, Wisla (1996), which was shot on standard 16mm stock; Parking (2003), shot on video and then transferred to 16mm; Lancia Thema (2005), Aquarena (2007) and Hypercrisis (2011), all shot on Super 16mm colour stock; and excursus on fitness (2010), shot on Digital Betacam.

  14. Andréa Picard, ‘Viva Voce: Josef Dabernig’s Operatic Avocations’, in Peter Tscherkassky (ed.), Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen and sixpackfilm, 2012, p.256.

  15. These rare moments of dialogue are caught by the camera from a distance, and are shot from the position of a non-participating spectator who cannot hear what is being said.

  16. A. Picard, ‘Viva Voce’, op.cit., p.256

  17. The term ‘conceptual humour’, referring to those rare instances when one is liberated from the dogmas of rationalism through a fleeting belief in the absurd (‘a miracle of irrationalism’), was coined by the Argentinean lawyer and writer Macedonio Fernández in his 1940 essay ‘Por una teoría de la humorística’ (‘For a Theory of Humorism’). See M. Fernández, Obras completas, volumen III, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1974, pp.259—308.

  18. This definition of play is loosely based on sociologist Roger Caillois’s, who also considers play a fundamentally unproductive activity: ‘play is an occasion of pure waste’ as it does not produce anything new, even in the case of games of chance, where occasionally ‘property is exchanged, but no goods are produced’. However, in the end the author speculates on the possibility that play might be a mere ‘trap’ that encourages an ‘illusion as to the supposed kinship between disparate forms of behaviour’. R. Caillois, Man, Play, and Games (1958, trans. Meyer Barash), Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001, pp.5 and 162.

  19. While openly indebted to Structuralist film as well as Minimalism, Dabernig’s objectivist stance has always questioned the anti-narrative dogma present in both.

  20. Dabernig’s project was made one year after Kunsthaus Graz was opened as part of the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2003, and shown in an eponymous exhibition at Grazer Kunstverein(4 June—25 July 2004). His project thus served as a comment in absentia of the strident design by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier for the Kunsthaus but also, as Dabernig admits, as a more general questioning of the reduction and transformation of museum and exhibition cultures to a post-industrial tourist spectacle of postmodern architectural ‘bigness’. See Josef Dabernig, Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, not further developed (artist’s book), Graz: Grazer Kunstverein, 2004.

  21. Padre Pio (1887—1968) was a charismatic and extremely popular Capuchin friar from the province of Puglia, in southern Italy, who was hailed as a saint during his lifetime and believed capable of achieving miracle cures.

  22. A selection of Dabernig’s sports-grounds panoramas has recently been shown in the exhibition ‘Josef Dabernig: Panorama’ at Kunsthaus Graz and Neue Galerie Graz (1 March—28 April 2013). See Katrin Bucher Trantow and Peter Pakesch (ed.), Josef Dabernig. Panorama (exh. cat.), Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2013.

  23. See the works Täglicher Zigarettenkonsum (Daily Cigarette Consumption, 23 September 1979—22 September 1980), Tankstellen- und Benzinstatistik für LANCIA THEMA i.e. Katalysator (Statistics of Petrol Stops and Petrol Consumption for LANCIA THEMA i.e. Catalytic Converter, 20 July 2000—13 April 2007) and Dokumentation besuchter Fußballspiele in Form exzerpierter Texte von Eintrittskarten (Documentation of Football Games Visited in the Form of Text Excerpts from Entry Tickets, 1989—2002).

  24. Dr. Mayr developed his digestive cleansing system in the famous Karlsbad spa in what is now the Czech Republic. His book became a bestseller immediately after its publication in 1920. An introductory text to the Mayr therapy, from one of the many health centres and spas offering it today, opens: ‘As a child, F.X. Mayr (1875—1965) developed a good nose for identifying the best cows. At that time, cows were selected by lifting their tails and examining the anus. If that area was clean, it was assumed that the rest of the animal was also healthy. However, as he later discovered, no such standards existed for the evaluation of the human digestive system.’ According to the same source, ‘A patient considered healthy by orthodox standards may still be unhealthy by Mayr standards.’ See http://www.newhealthmed.com/mayr_therapy.html (last accessed on 27 March 2013).

  25. This is a paraphrase of Walter Benjamin’s take on Robert Walser: ‘What we find in Robert Walser is a lack of style that is quite extraordinary and that is also hard to define.’ W. Benjamin, ‘Afterword’, in R. Walser, Microscripts

  26. See http://www.newhealthmed.com/mayr_therapy.html (last accessed on 27 March 2013).

  27. Originally conceived in the early nineteenth century by Charles Fourier, the phalansteries were buildings designed to house self-contained utopian communities.

  28. R. Barthes, How to Live Together, op. cit., p.6.

  29. The film was shown as an installation in an eponymous exhibition at the Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK), Vienna, from 7 April until 12 September 2010.

  30. Interestingly, Ulrich the mathematician refers to Vienna, where Dabernig’s non-digestive ailment was acquired, as one of the metropolis of ‘Kakania’, meaning something like‘shitsville’. Musil’s name for the ‘exceptional state’ comes from the informal reference to the Austrian-Hungarian dual-monarchy during the Court of the Habsburgs (1867—1918) as kaiserlich und königlich (‘imperial and royal’), typically abbreviated as ‘k. u. k’. See R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, op. cit., p.29.

  31. Ibid., pp.31—32.