Dabernig’s Buildings

Architecture is certainly one of the most essential aspects of Dabernig’s work. To understand the role it plays in his art we should be aware that we cannot consider it as an isolated and closed field. The issue of architecture (and urban planning) runs through most, if not all the different fields he is interested in, from objects and drawings to photography, film and the books he copied. Therefore, if we speak about his buildings, we have to take into account other fields of his art as well. I believe that we cannot properly understand his architectural projects if we do not realise that his proposals and solutions are based on his multi-directional reflections about form and space and their functions.

One thing we notice immediately is that Dabernig’s works indicate a taste for rational, formally minimal and precisely ordered structures. In general one could say that it is modern architecture that represents the centre of his interest. He does not seem to be interested in learning from Las Vegas. Nevertheless, it might seem a paradox that the issues of complexity and contradictions in architecture remain central for his dealing with it. He is somehow able to discover them even in the most strict and rational architectural concepts and forms, like the modernist gridlike façades. These complexities and contradictions are not merely formal (although they are often formal as well); in fact, he has never been interested in buildings and other spatial structures only from the formal point of view. In his works, architecture stands for social and political history, different ideas and ideals of social order, different ways of understanding and interpretation, diverse understandings and reactions, and it is this network of meanings and interpretations that creates the complexity.

Let us take as an example his work Berlinführer (1996). The work consists of a series of strictly frontal photographs of modernist façades from Berlin, and of several manuscript pages copied from Berlin architectural guidebooks. The work displays very clearly his interest in modernist architecture and its most fundamental forms, such as the grid. The gridlike façades arouse particular associations; as we see them, we may think of offices, social housing, corporations, perhaps industry. Thus they are not mere visual forms, but rather visual equivalents of social forms and orders. In a sense it seems that the work refers to the idea of modernity that makes itself visible in the façade grids. And yet what the artist also displays here is the actual diversity of this fundamental form. There is another important aspect: the photographs present architecture from both East and West Berlin, and if one is not familiar with the buildings it is hard to say which are from the West and which from the East. The photographs are somehow mirrored in the different descriptions copied from the guidebooks, in the diversity of ways of understanding and appreciating, even of seeing, the same buildings. The form of the grid seems to be repetitive and unchangeable; and yet different grids acquire different meanings and values in these descriptions - according to the writer’s point of view and his/her aesthetical and ideological preferences. Rosalind Krauss in her well-known essay on “Grids” pointed to the internal contradictions of the grid as a basic form of modernity: “Therefore, although the grid is certainly not a story, it is a structure, and one, moreover, that allows the contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism, or rather its unconscious, as something repressed”1. They are these repressed contradictions (not only contradictions of science and spirituality, but also other inherent contradictions of modernity) that Berlinführer and other Dabernig’s works disclose with seemingly distanced and impersonal practices of copying and photographing. One strategy that Dabernig uses (besides pointing at divergences in different objectively, scientifically written architectural guides and the tension between such descriptions and the actual appearance of the buildings) is the introduction of small irregularities, sometimes almost invisible at first glance. For example, the two vertical façades that make part of the Berlin series are presented horizontally. At first, one hardly notices that, as all other images are horizontal. This little joke can be understood as an ironic play not only with the seriousness and systematic nature of the artist’s own approach, but also with the weight of the modernist discourse. For example, presenting vertical buildings horizontally might be understood as a playful formulation of the postmodernist criticism that modernist architecture, especially with its use of the grid, lacks traditional divisions and is unconcerned with fundamental spatial relations and hierarchies, such as bottom/top, left/right etc.

We could perhaps understand such small irregularities in a double way, as a hint both at the artist’s personal involvement and at a certain ironic distance in his approach, e.g. in his dealing with grand narratives and their seriousness. Dabernig most often works with non-spectacular, even anonymous or impersonal examples of architecture or interior design: office buildings, apartment blocks, highways. In many cases he shows suburbs, peripheries or marginalised areas (such as Eastern Europe or South Italy), where modernist architecture seems never to have been fully developed and completely finished, or has already failed and is now slowly decaying. Even when he presents city centres and significant architectural examples (some of the buildings presented in the Berlin series are actually quite well-known), he does it in such a way that they are not essentially different from anonymous buildings. (On the other hand, his works have exactly the contrary effect; they are able to expose conceptual and formal strengths of overlooked buildings and interiors. Let us just think of the way Dabernig in his film WARS directs our attention to the elegant modernist interior design of the restaurant car in the train.) His use of the camera in such works corresponds to his interest in the non-spectacular, static, formally minimal. His images, too, are static, distanced, clearly composed, and they plainly disclose a systematic approach. And yet these non-spectacular, even impersonal buildings result in a strange attractiveness in Dabernig’s works. In spite of its distant, objective and systematic nature, his approach is not one of an impassive professional interested merely in collecting and arranging data. Rather it indicates a certain personal attitude. He seems to be strangely attracted to these structures, and his works somehow have the power to get the viewer to share this attitude with the artist.

When Dabernig exhibited his films in Vilnius, an art critic described them as boring2. And yet a highly interesting Internet discussion that followed proved that several visitors actually liked the films and found them attractive. I believe this double relation corresponds to the double nature of his work – the static, unspectacular nature of his subjects and approach might give impression that his works are programmatically “boring”; yet the particular intensity, the aura of strange attraction that Dabernig’s works bestow upon its subjects explains the interest of the audience.
And yet we should not mistake this attraction for any kind of romantic aestheticism.
The post-socialist, post-industrialised landscape3 of East Europe (and also such phenomena as suburban areas of social apartment blocks in Western capitals) has recently often been viewed with a certain enthusiasm for its exotic appearance, even with a kind of aesthetic idealisation. Even artists from East Europe are nowadays already so far from the experiences of the former socialist society that they themselves return to its relics with a mixture of nostalgia, interest in the exotic and a sort of ironic defiance4. Against such idealisations, it has been objected (and not without reason) that they are in fact perverse, as they transform into purely aesthetic experience what used to be dehumanised, depressive, sometimes actually unbearable living circumstances for millions of people5. Dabernig never hides this darker side of the worn-out, unrestored and unfashionable modernist spaces and anonymous buildings he presents. If there is a strong, almost obsessive attraction in them, it is an ambiguous one, and the artist never tries to hide this ambiguity. It is, perhaps, enough to mention his Envisioning Bucharest, a utopian proposal for the urban development of the Romanian capital. The whole work is based on Ceausescu’s palace, which physically destroyed a large area of the city and badly damaged its equilibrium. With his proposal Dabernig tried neither to conceal the physical (and ideological) brutality of the palace (which in more recent times has often been seen as a spectacular tourist attraction) nor to repress the trauma that it caused. Rather he proposed a way of resolving the trauma by taking it as a starting point for the reshaping of the urban structure.

Dabernig’s interest in such spaces and structures is, of course, connected to his own work and its minimal, systematic, unspectacular nature. Sometimes it seems that he proposes such unspectacular (or even anti-spectacular) views as a sort of antidote against the processes of spectacularisation of the world. His Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, not further developed, for example, seems to be an ironic comment directed towards the obsession with spectacular museum architecture that we have been witnessing in recent years (he replaces such museum architecture with anonymous “non-places” that nevertheless hide complex references to the history of modern architecture) as well as indicating the ability of architecture and art to appropriate any aspect of existing reality and incorporate it in their own structures.

Furthermore, this ambiguous attraction of (often peripheral and disused) modernist structures is certainly not just a personal one. Rather it enables the artist and the viewers to reflect upon the nature of modernity, as if these structures were symptoms pointing at the intrinsic contradictions of modernity and its concepts. I once tried to describe Dabernig’s work as a sort of personal archaeology of modernity, evincing an admiration for the utopian and rational, but also a certain pleasure at gaps, mismatches and failures in such ideally conceived structures. Dabernig always sees modernity as marked by contradictions, and as heterogeneous in spite of its claims to universality. Nevertheless, this does not mean that he develops general overviews and statements about modernism and modernity. He is interested in particularities, in actual sites (and non-sites), in individual symptoms. Only through the complexity and contradictions he invests in his seemingly distanced representations does he indicate the epoch-making patterns and struggles that lay behind them, as they manifest themselves in a neglected apartment block, a shabby bar from the 1970s or a football stadium.

All this should be taken into account when we speak about Dabernig’s own building projects and interior designs, since they are based not only on his formal preferences and taste, but also on his constant reflection on the issues of architecture, space, form, meaning and function, as shown in all areas of his work.

Dabernig’s buildings combine minimal and basic forms, clear spaces and a strictly systematic approach with small irregularities or, better, with small modifications of the basic system that eventually produce quite complex results. There is a particular pattern or system that has been repeated several times in different contexts and could thus be understood as a sort of paradigm for Dabernig’s architectural work. But he does not use it only for architectural projects. It often appears, for example, in his objects, such as the grids built with ready-made aluminium elements. This pattern is based on a sequence of units that grow in a precisely determined rhythm. It is possible to apply this system to sequences of architectural elements and to achieve even more complex results through the repetition of the basic sequence and with shifts or mirroring structures. Dabernig has for instance used this principle on the façade of the staircase house that he designed for the Beschäftigungswerkstätten der Lebenshilfe in Ledenitzen near Villach in 1995. The basis for the façade is the grid, but here the grid is not understood as a simple addition and repetition of units, but as the dynamic rhythm of such units. The main façade of the staircase house is divided into two vertical halves. Each of the two is divided into units that grow following a precise rhythm. This rhythm is accentuated through the alternation of two types of glass. Another important aspect is that the rhythm of units in the two halves does not run parallel – it is turned through 180 degrees. The result is a façade grid that is not only dynamic, but seems irregular, although it is also clear that this effect is based on a very strict application of the rules of a system. We can find the same pattern in the entrance hall of the former KELAG Building (now school) in Villach (1997). Here, Dabernig used a grid and panels from two sorts of glass not as a façade but as a wall element that visually enlarges the space and makes it more dynamic. In this case, he worked with two opposite walls, which gave him the opportunity to refine the complexity of the rules. On one wall, he combined two different sequences of the growing rhythm; on the opposite wall, he turned the panel around.

What is also interesting (and perhaps this is not a coincidence but is rather intrinsic to the way Dabernig works with space) is that he never actually constructed a complete building. As a rule he intervenes in existing structures. The principle of his work seems to be to leave the structure essentially unchanged. He introduces additional elements or develops spatial systems that he places within the existing structures. A very nice example of such an additional element is the pedestrian bridge he constructed for an administrative building in Hartberg (2000). The wooden bridge is in direct contrast to the concrete and glass façade of he building. The sloping of the bridge is a response to the forms used by the architects. The new object is thus clearly a well-thought response to the existing architecture, even a certain commentary on it, and it is designed in such a way that it both accentuates its characteristics and somehow balances them with quite different ideas. And yet it almost fails to touch it, leaves the building essentially unchanged, giving almost the impression of a temporary addition. In spite of the fact that this architectural intervention is formally minimal and rational, non-spectacular and non-monumental, its details show a playful approach and even humour. Consider for example the pillars that hold up the bridge. They are equally high, but since the bridge is slanted it seems that their height is growing. This could be understood even as an ironic reference by the artist to his own paradigmatic pattern of the sequence of growing units.

Dabernig’s approach in creating new spatial systems within existing spaces is most obvious in his designs of interiors. Two such places are particularly interesting: the interior design of the Depot in Vienna (1997) and the arrangement of the space for reading and rest at the MUMOK - Museum of Modern Art Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna (2002). In both cases he showed a high respect for the existing spatial situation. He obviously did not want to transform the spaces in question, or to create totally new environments in them. Rather he constructs new spatial systems within the existing space, simply by placing certain elements and arranging them according to a particular order or pattern. This indicates another quality of Dabernig’s interiors (especially obvious in his design of the Depot space). They are both strictly and precisely arranged, and extremely open and flexible. He achieves this by simply placing articles of furniture (only the essential) in the given space. The furniture is either designed by Dabernig himself or bought in ordinary shops, but it is always simple, undecorated, minimal and geometrical. Although all the relations created by placing architectural forms in space are precisely determined and arranged, it is always possible to rearrange space, if necessary, and then restore the order. The space for visitors at the MUMOK is another excellent example of Dabernig’s approach in designing (or better, arranging) interiors. The artist places the necessary elements according to a very precise plan based on straight and diagonal lines. He uses industrially produced furniture (some of the pieces seem to have been designed in the 1970s) that is available in the shops. In choosing the items, he accentuates their simplicity and formal minimalism. I believe it is important for his understanding of such spaces that the items of furniture do not look “designed”, i.e. they do not give the impression of aestheticised, luxury objects. On the contrary, they might even make a slightly awkward impression, and this corresponds with the strict order of their positioning. At the wall, the artist places two bookcases and a vending machine for drinks. Thus he creates a monumental triptych, with the banal commercial machine at the centre. (Dabernig knew, of course, that the museum space could effectively ennoble this banality, especially when we take into account works that deal with mass culture products, from Pop Art to contemporary artists engaging with the consumer society. This is not an example of institutional critique in the usual sense of the word, but it is nevertheless an ironic reference to the power discourse represented by museums in the system of contemporary art – a discourse that is often made obvious in the monumentality of the museum architecture.) The general impression of the space is not one of leisure. There is – because of the strictness of the relations and forms – a particular tension and sobriety in it. It seems to arouse concentration rather than relaxation (although it functions very well as a place for study and rest). A visitor might not be immediately aware of the underlying system, but there is a certain attraction in the spatial relations that invite him/her to discover not only the order of arrangement, but also the playful and ironic details and references that Dabernig has introduced to the space.

I think that the exhibition architecture that Dabernig designed for the exhibition Individual Systems (which I curated at the 2003 Venice Biennale) represents a kind of synthesis of his architectural and interior design concerns. Again he applied the principle of a pattern of growing units. The space of the Corderie where the exhibition was installed has a sort of a modular or even gridlike floor-plane. Furthermore, its character is strongly longitudinal. Dabernig’s design accentuated this longitudinal nature by leaving the central aisle free, while in the two side aisles he created the rhythm of gradually growing (actually, diminishing) units. These units were alternately closed and open spaces. So the aisle on the left side from the entrance started with a two-unit closed section, continued with an open section one-and-a-half units long, another closed section one-and-a-half units long, a one-unit-long open section and a one-unit-long closed section. In the right-hand aisle the rhythm was the same (actually we had to modify it to adapt the structure to the needs of the artists whose works were being exhibited), but it was shifted forward by one unit. So the right-hand aisle started with a one-unit-long open space, and then continued with the same sequences as the left-hand one. The units were not only gradually diminishing; they were also gradually getting lower. In this way Dabernig accentuated the longitudinal nature of the space, by exaggerating the effect of the perspective. (Of course, for people entering from the other side of the space, the structure had exactly the opposite effect – one in defiance of perspective.) This system facilitated the construction of white cube-shaped spaces that the exhibition called for (it was an individual system that provided separate spaces for other individual systems). But Dabernig wanted to keep the balance between the white rooms and the Corderie building. What he designed was actually a crossing of two spatial systems, rather than the cancelling of one system by imposing another one on it. He was extremely careful to leave the space of the Corderie as untouched and visible as possible. Therefore the forms of the newly built rooms followed the forms of the existing architecture (which is not completely precise in its measurements) and so the white spaces often did not have their walls at a right angle. Furthermore, all the columns –
the most important characteristics of the Corderie – were left free, and there was always a gap left between them and the newly constructed walls. The spaces were thus neither perfectly rectilinear nor completely closed, but nevertheless close enough to the white cube to function as exhibition rooms. And they were not completely isolated, but connected by gaps to spaces around them.

In his design for the exhibition architecture Dabernig developed a strict and precise system that was, nevertheless, always able to incorporate imperfections – not as mistakes, but as a part of the system itself. Therefore it was not impossible for him to modify the rhythm of the spaces provided, if the artists needed bigger or precisely rectilinear spaces. And yet, in spite of this flexibility and openness, the spatial design of Individual Systems also referred to the deep contradictions inherent in modern architecture. It showed not only Dabernig’s admiration for simple and rational modernist forms, but also his awareness of the relation of these forms to utopian ideas of a perfectly organised world, and to the completely controlled societies of repressive totalitarian regimes. The spatial rhythm thus had an ambiguous effect, combining attraction, precision, flexibility, irony, playfulness and threat. The fact that Dabernig exhibited his project Envisioning Bucharest at the exhibition made it clear that such references were not coincidental. In the proposal for Bucharest, Dabernig uses the same system of units based on growing distances and heights that was realised in the exhibition architecture. The basis of the system is the absurd brutality of Ceausescu’s palace (brutality towards the city as an indicator of the brutality of the society itself). With this proposal, the precise and rational modernist logic of the system was turned into what is actually an exaggerated absurdity (according to the project, the palace would be one of the smallest elements in a network of gigantic structures projected as a sort of grid upon the city). And yet, the exaggerated absurd turns into an antidote for the imbalance caused by the palace. And this, finally, indicates a certain therapeutic dimension in Dabernig’s work, an attempt to “work through” modernity, to disclose its contradictions and face them in the (probably endless) effort of trying to resolve their traumatic effects.

1 Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, and London, 1986, p. 13.
2 The German translation of the text by Renata Šcˇerbavicˇiu˝te˙, The World According to Dabernig, and a selection from the Internet discussion are available on the Dabernig’s web site dabernig.nfo.at.
3 I say “post-industrialised”, not “post-industrial”, since the landscape in socialist countries had been programmatically “industrialised”, no less for ideological than for economical reasons.
4 In this context, I find some remarks by Ole Bouman illuminating. In a discussion about the constructed photographs by Edwin Zwakman that take for their subject social housing from the 1950s and 60s in the Netherlands, he said that these images point to three attitudes towards such architecture. The first is the utopian optimism of social modernisation, the second is disillusionment with living in such conditions (and with the whole idea of modernisation), the third – and most recent – a nostalgic relation towards such buildings.
5 I would not wish to argue that dealing with modernist architecture and urban planning in Eastern Europe (or for that matter in other marginalised areas in Europe), and re-evaluating concepts and formal solutions, is somehow unethical. On the contrary, I believe it is extremely important, also as a way of rethinking modernity and its traditions. The awareness that “socialist modernism” in East Europe (or “fascist modernism” in Italy) existed as functional parts of repressive or totalitarian regimes should not prevent us from discovering particular conceptual and formal qualities in them. But it is essential, too, that we do not forget their ambiguous nature, their synthesis of utopian visions and repressive reality, if we want to understand such projects correctly and if we want them to help us understand the contradictory nature of modernity.

Dabernig, Josef. Film, Foto Text Objekt, Bau
German/English. 212 pp., 280 b/w illustrations. Edited by Barbara Steiner on behalf of Museum for Contemporary Art Leipzig. Published by Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2005. Authors: Silvia Eiblmayr, Christian Kravagna, Matthias Michalka, Barbara Steiner and Igor Zabel

Igor Zabel