by Vidur SethiAug 20, 2022
I was fortunate to once again spend the first two nights of my recent trip to Vienna in the third-district loft of my artist friend, Marlene Hausegger. Staying with her when I travel to the Austrian capital has become something of a habit and a ritual. I sleep wonderfully on her sofa-cum-bed, and I love waking up to the sunlight slowly flooding the room. Her quirky artistic eye manifests in every detail, while her walls and shelves are witnesses to the relational network, she has built among her artist peers, revealed through accumulated objects, from artworks hanging on the wall to ceramic objects to books. It has all the flair of an apartment inhabited by an artist. For me it is special because being there always reminds me of the circumlocutory set of circumstances that ignited our friendship, and how her loft gradually became my portal into Vienna, my personal milestone from where I measure all other landmarks in the city. This visit was particularly special because we were launching her recently published catalogue, which included my essay on her practice, at Belvedere 21, with her public participatory sculpture, Platz an der Sonne (Place in the Sun), stationed fittingly as the backdrop. Had I not been staying with her, I would probably not have known about the unveiling of her partner, Hannes Zebedin’s public art installation at Graben, an area that’s home to all the same luxury labels you are likely to also find in the Dubai Mall, scheduled a day before her launch. Yet, given its prime location in the heart of the first district, chances are I would have chanced upon it anyway, and I did, without even intending to, on the morning of July 5, the day of its inauguration. Around then the wall text had yet to be installed. Its absence allowed for a welcome opportunity to engage with it without conceptual crutches, thus allowing to be succumbed purely to the power of visual suggestion, a rare gift in these times of over-saturated artwork descriptions.
The installation consists of two structures, a cemented square with a raised border that invites you to a leisurely sit-in, shadowed by a rectangular wall upon which three designer items of clothing are inserted into torso-sized niches. Upon the floor of the cemented square lie strewed clothes alongside a pathway that connects two of the square’s ends. The awkwardness of this makeshift route contrasts against the symmetric nature of the installation, drawing one’s attention to the deliberate use of parallel lines. It is at the height of the raised border that the rectangular wall is constructed, so there is a direct confrontation between the two structures. The deliberate use of designer clothes with their labels suggesting their value acts as an immediate signifier of value, but it also alludes to the shop-window aesthetic that is a feature of a high-street fashion zone such as Graben. The clothes on the ground seem discarded in comparison, but not necessarily because they are value-less, but as if they had to be left behind in the act of fleeing.
It seemed to me that the installation was a commentary on consumptive practices in late-capitalism, but also a critique of the function of designer clothing, which is often a stand-in for gratuitous spending. I felt instantly reminded of the many visuals that percolated into mainstream media in the aftermath of the global pandemic, when retailers realised it was more valuable to dump unsold clothing in garbage heaps rather than sell them off at discounted rates or even donate them to those in need. I also thought, simultaneously, about the scene from the Netflix film, Maid, when the lead character walks into a store offering clothes to women who were victims of domestic violence trying to rebuild their lives. The shop mimics the architecture of a boutique store, and even though all the items are free for the women in question, the ritual of paying at the counter is play-enacted, to allow them to partake of the deceit of normalcy and make the charitable process less awkward. I was also reminded of an artwork by Kamruzzaman Shadhin I had seen at a show called fabric(ated) fractures, curated by Diana Campbell-Betancourt, in collaboration with the Dhaka Art Summit, at Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai—a quilt constructed of garments shed by Rohingya refugees upon reaching Bangladesh from Myanmar, bound using the kantha stitch by a community of migrant women who were themselves victims of climate change. Of course, thinking of Bangladesh also led one to contemplate how dependent the First World is on the devalued labour of Third World women, many of whom tailor the fast-fashion clothes sold globally.
Later that evening I found out that the work is titled VOR ORT in German, (NON)-PLACES in English. “Downtown Vienna also is full of clothes that are not (yet) needed. And yet, there is a desire to see bodies wearing the clothes on display. Aside from the necessary financial means, the people who feel it have, above all, one thing: the right passport,” Zebedin is quoted as saying in the wall text. I asked him later what the point of origin of the installation was. It had to do, he said, with the fact that he spends most of his time in Slovenian Karst. “This area named after the special land formation on the borders between Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy,” he wrote to me in an email. An avid hiker, during his long treks he found he was not the only one walking those parts. It was, in fact, a migration route. “The last years I regularly noticed clothes left behind beside walking paths. In my mind there was always the question of the missing persons, who used these clothes. Instead of taking photos, which I found too obvious, I wanted to integrate these situations in a sculptural setting, when the time should be right for it,” he explained. The invitation to do a public commission at Graben counted as such. Zebedin was well aware of the district’s reputation for glamorous, expensive clothes. “Being before an area of well-known Viennese tailors, it developed over the years to a location for the famous international brands, who made the Graben exchangeable with any other luxury shopping zone,” he said.
The idea, however, was “to confront the desire for seeing one’s own body in luxury clothes with the missing bodies of many thrown-away clothes,” he explained. “First there is the choice of the clothes: both, the luxury and the not-needed clothes are bought second-hand, to not support the global production chains, which I am critical about. I decided to confront the horizontal embedded “cheap” clothes with the expensive ones in vertical position, a kind of stopping the horizontal development with a wall. To make this clear, I had to build quite big, so I decided to use all the possible space. There, there is an under-construction of wood with a cement surface, to undermine the massivity (sic).” I asked him if he had intended for it to be a provocation, a claim he refuted. “I just want to compare one site with another one, who are depending on each other. The design and size of the base zone of the work invites people to sit down.”
The exhibition ‘(Non-)Places ‘by Hannes Zebedin is on view at Kunst im öffentlichen Raum Wien, Austria, till November 8, 2022.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)