Panorama, Stage, Arena. Views of Society and History in the Photographic Work of Josef Dabernig

Photography occupies a contradictory place in Josef Dabernig’s oeuvre. Continuously pursued since the Eighties, it represents the most extensive of all his groups of work. The photographic pieces are also the least well known, however, since the greater part of them has not been exhibited or published until now. With the exception of an exhibition in 1997, photography only found its way into various projects of a public nature from 2000 onwards. The existence of hundreds of photographs, only a fraction of which became known beyond a closer circle of friends, does not automatically make it justifiable to speak of a group of photographic work at all. It is not the intention here to resolve fundamentally where and how a daily and (to what extent?) ‘private’ practice of picture production becomes a ‘work’, but to illustrate it by an example. The piece Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, not further developed, produced for an exhibition in the Graz Kunstverein in 2004, provides a new framework for a series of shots taken during various journeys between 1995 and 2003. Views of buildings, interiors and details, originally without any direct connection, are given labels and thus established as possible components of a New Kunsthaus. A cheap restaurant from Lodz becomes the Restaurant space, a shabby hotel room from southern Italy is reinterpreted as the Guest room structure of a proposed New Kunsthaus and thus as an ironically critical commentary on the Graz Kunsthaus hype at the beginning of the 21st century. Old pictures of different origin and often without firm artistic intention achieve new significance in Proposal … as elements of a conceptual piece which as such deals with the historical and contingent nature of aesthetic attitudes.1
This retrospective interpretation of individual photographs against the background of certain contemporary developments or discourses is, as I hope to show later, in accordance with a historicising aspect of Dabernig’s attitude to photography. On the question of the photographic work, let it for now merely be stated that over two decades a photographic archive has been created which does not fundamentally discriminate between private and artistic pictures and represents a fund of material for projects of diverse nature, be they exhibitions, films or art-in-architecture pieces. The materialised pictures of photography play a similar role in this context to that which the mental pictures of memory play for some of Dabernig’s films – such as WARS or Jogging – which are based on lived moments and their subsequent narrativisation, alienation or aesthetic elevation. One principle can be stated here: what is seen, experienced and – in the case of photography – recorded is to a great extent open at first, remains on the phenomenological plane, until the concrete phenomenon/situation is then elaborated and semantically condensed into a story or scene. Let us look at another example in this connection which illustrates the retrospective elaboration of a photographic series. In Lancia Thema, his latest film, Josef Dabernig plays a motorist who is continually getting out to photograph his car. In these scenes a succinct motif recurs – in dramatised form – from some photographs of the early Nineties which show the artist’s car of the moment at some roadside or other. At that time, long before the first public presentation of his photographic pieces, the number plate formed the starting point for his conceptual graphics, while the photographs themselves never got beyond the domestic sphere of friends, where they took up a hybrid status between art work and personal keepsake. Dabernig thus practiced photography long before the “pictorial turn” in his work that took place in the mid-Nineties with his first film Wisla and the exhibition Berlinführer and formed the basis of a second career after the conceptual object and text pieces of previous years. The pictorial pieces since this turning point are based on a photographically acquired iconography and picture language, upon the semantics of which they in turn can react through text, arrangement and narration.

Before going into the historical and social issues in the photography of Josef Dabernig,
I would like to mention a motif which along with the aforementioned car shows remarkable continuity. When the “pictorial turn” in Dabernig’s (published) artistic work took place around 1995, it was no coincidence that the first product of the move towards pictures, the film Wisla, was based on the stadium motif. The film begins and ends with a panoramic pan over the Wisla stadium in Krakow and so frames the circular structure of the cinematic treatment. The camera pan circumscribes the field of visibility as a space for actions and events. This technique corresponds to a series of photographic panoramas of stadiums, football fields and arenas that were taken between 1993 and 2002 in locations ranging from southern Italy to Lithuania. The three-to-six-part views of facilities for public and organised spectating reiterate the circle or oval of the arenas and merge the viewpoint of the photographer/observer and the viewpoints of an imaginary crowd of spectators into one, which is part of the spectacle. In a comparable manner to the reflexivity of the motorist in Lancia Thema, who gets out to photograph his car, these pieces clearly show the operating space of the photographic attitude as one which is limited and self-referential. Within the social whole, these event spaces form temporary micro-communities which through their rituals of interaction are both separated from life beyond the arena and moulded by their particular social order. Remarkable in these panoramas is the simultaneity of a photographic modesty (which manifests itself in the assimilation of the mode of presentation to a socially anchored mechanism of showing and observing) and the variance of its findings, which shows up social and political differences within this regulated mechanism. Taking football as a global culture with a fixed agenda, such differences show themselves less on the playing field than on its sidelines. Thus the elegance of form of the Schalgiris stadium in Vilnius or the Wisla stadium in Krakow is interrupted by elements of a hard architectural monumentalism that bears witness to the ideological interpretation of the popular cultural spectacle, while for instance the improvised sports field in the middle of Pozzuoli’s city life is an integral component of a communal public society.

Just as in these panoramas Josef Dabernig, no matter how great his interest in the architecture of arenas, shifts his gaze onto their ideological determination and social interpretation, so his first exhibition after the “pictorial turn”, the 1997 Berlinführer in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, deals with ideologically and historically based differences in the perception of the city concept. Against the background of the contemporary debates about Berlin’s architectural remodelling and the appropriate building style for the new capital, Dabernig’s picture-text panels contain hand-written excerpts from various Berlin guides juxtaposed with photographs of the grid facades of some of Berlin’s buildings, which in part are also mentioned in the guides. In the source books Ganz Berlin Ost, 1993, Architekturführer DDR/Berlin, 1976, and Architekturführer Berlin, 1991, which Dabernig refers to, the same buildings and places are subject to an exceedingly different presentation and implicit valuation.
A comparative reading of the city guides shows how the manner of describing architecture is imbued in each case with different combinations of political, ideological and aesthetic attitudes. It provides an insight for example on how the unspoken valuation of a social system affects the formal description of architecture. An anti-Socialist attitude for example, which assumes that the people in such a system are necessarily unhappy, will repeatedly speak of the “dreariness” of certain facades. A certain assumption about the obliteration of the individual in Socialism may be responsible for the attribution to East Berlin architecture of “lack of proportion”, “clumsiness”, “shameless blankness” and “impersonality”, or to the Alexanderplatz for instance of “yawning emptiness” and “sterile order”. One can certainly assume with good reason that a description of the same buildings and places would have sounded different if these had not been perceived as products of an unloved social order. Such descriptions however are not simply underpinned by liberal Western values, but are also post-modernist. Thus modernist architectural characteristics are devalued along with Socialism. Conversely, the East German volume from the Seventies contains descriptions that are emphatically oriented towards materials and building technology, and in them one can detect a late modernist faith in progress which again is connected to Socialist pride. These essayistic justifications of urban surfaces in this way have their correspondence in Dabernig’s façade photographs, in a visual distortion of the geometrical grids resulting from the extreme close-up view of the buildings, as if aspiration to the greatest possible objectivity must inevitably miss its target.

In Berlinführer photography does not necessarily play a secondary role, but the essential information on the historical and ideological determination of perception and presentation comes from the texts. Juxtaposed to them as one of many possible photographic attitudes is an exaggerated formalism which is only interested in the surface, but at the same time also marks architecture as the screen for the projection of various ideological affiliations. There also exist a great number of photographs which in an exclusively pictorial way deal with issues concerning the relationship of urban space, ideology and history. I mentioned earlier that photographic images have been narratively reinterpreted in Dabernig’s conceptual or cinematic works since the mid-Nineties; I would now like to focus on the historical dimension in the images themselves. At the same time the motif of the arena as described in the panoramas must also be taken into consideration in a more widely defined sense. Arena here means a relatively differentiated space which in a certain respect defines a small, separate world as a microcosm within the social whole, a space that is both extracted from its milieu and integrated in the social whole.
In 1989, on one of his first drives over the Slovakian border after the political revolution, a series of black and white photographs were taken of a mobile amusement park in Petrzalka. Against the impressive background of the rationalist housing blocks of a Bratislava satellite town from the Seventies one can see various aged carousels being used by a few children. Their spinning is in contrast to the orthogonal reality of life in the prefabricated estate, just as some folkloric elements in the carousel decorations embody the antithesis of the strict modernism in the architecture. Some of the pictures, in which one sees the children positively floating over the roofs of their houses, emphasise the function of the fairground equipment as an alternative to the everyday Socialist world. Nevertheless the little jet planes and the conical space capsules on the merry-go-rounds make clear how even these places where the commonplace is transcended are imbued with the spirit of ideology and its symbolism.
On a recent visit to Petrzalka in 2002 Josef Dabernig again came across the same temporary amusement park, only to realise that the same constructions were now fitted with motifs from the world of Disney instead of those from the Cold War. The ideological colonialisation of niches in this world by the iconography of space travel and the military had given way to a picture world of neo-capitalism, while the scenario in the background had hardly altered. Dabernig no longer recorded this symbolic readjustment photographically, but the (retrospective) interpretation of his old photographs is without doubt influenced by the observed changes. One can be sure that such observations, which concern social and cultural change, will have an influence on the photographic attitude of later years and give rise to a photography whose historicising intentions are more strongly developed than was the case in earlier years. When Dabernig today, for example on the edge of a housing block in Sofia, photographs climbing frames in playgrounds which there are imitations of rockets and jet planes, the level of connotation in such pictures is more intentional than it was in 1989.
Among the numerous photographs that touch on social reconstruction through the example of urban situations, is the shot of a square in Sofia which is visually dominated by a monumental memorial installation. The rain-soaked area in front of the actual memorial is occupied by some ramps for skaters. Although nothing in the 2002 picture is arranged, the ramps staggered diagonally into its depth, backed by the mighty symmetry of the memorial, make it look as though it had been composed. This gives it a stage-like character, and the absence of real actors invites one to imagine a scenario. Two worlds are evidently meeting here; the official political representation of (national) greatness and the subcultural practice of a youth culture. Again the motif of the arena is present as a space of conflict for social conceptions at the level of representation and self-presentation. A space which was defined as a symbolic embodiment of an imagined community, one of whose essential features is the totalisation of the social sphere, is crossed through by the manifestations of a micro-society which insists on its difference.
The picture is undoubtedly about history and social reconstruction. However it also leaves some latitude with regard to the concrete conception of how this history is narrated. Thus one could assume in an antagonistic interpretation that the official definition of the place as heroic and national was subversively disrupted in a particular phase of political-social upheaval by the graffiti on the sculptures and by its use for acrobatics – and furthermore, that an understanding city council finally felt obliged to provide quarter-pipes and ramps. One could also, however – starting from a more pragmatically administrative conception – assume the temporary rededication of a representational space which had become problematic from a post-Socialist viewpoint.
However one reads this picture, its quality and that of similar pictures lies in an evocation of history and of social change which is managed without action, without the telling of a story in the narrower sense. Time and again in his photographs Josef Dabernig captures situations whose significance is a result of the relationship between presence and absence. The principle also comes into play in some of the films, although these, in accordance with the medium, pursue a different type of narrativisation of this relationship. In Wisla the trainers act in the absence of the players; in WARS the dining car staff work with no customers; in Jogging during the apparent journey towards a sporting event we only meet a few sheep and dogs. These films always deal with the discrepancy between practised rituals and the apparent disintegration of their social justification. The model and its embodiment fall apart. This is perhaps best illustrated by the closing scene of Wisla with the laughably theatrical honouring of the trainers by displaced officials on the empty stands of a run-down stadium with pretensions to prestige.
With regard to the photographs it would be revealing – and future interpreters will not be able to avoid this – to compare with his own pictures the postcards of architecture and urban situations which Josef Dabernig regularly sends to good friends from his travels. Such a comparison would show how a modernist social self-ideal, which manifests itself in the rational organisation of the diverse into a picture of clarity and order, differs from a living and contradictory practice which interprets such typical ideal structures in another way. Although Dabernig’s pictures undoubtedly deal with such differences, they have in my opinion not always done so, since the earlier unpublished photographic pieces, at least, evince a certain nostalgia for modernism, which – understandably from an Austrian perspective – was satisfied by the conditions in Italy and central eastern Europe.

Those photographs which – like the films – can be seen as representative of the “pictorial turn” in Dabernig’s artistic development around the mid-Nineties, including many earlier photographs, do however articulate the deviation between an ideal picture, from whose power of suggestion even the artist has perhaps only slowly freed himself, and the variance of its social interpretation. His former fascination, stemming above all from architectural rigorousness, with formal order and severity, which has its counterpart in the mathematically structured objects, the cigarette and fuelling lists and the copying work of the Eighties and early Nineties, is gradually replaced or at least complemented by an attention to the micro-worlds in the interstices of the social framework. In making such an assertion, it must be said in the same breath that these interstices are observed with an unsentimental eye which has retained something from the austerity of the more formalistic approach. In addition to this, there is also the fact that the narrativisation or historicisation connected with the socialisation of the pictures either manages not to show people at all or at least does not take them as a central object of the picture. The narrative aspect, as already mentioned, is provided by the play of presence and absence, as can be illustrated in the case of a piece of temporary architecture in Sofia. Again the construct of tent roof, bar and podium erected on a pavement represents a sort of stage for the social and communicative act. A space, however permeable it may be, has been symbolically extracted from its milieu and dedicated to certain purposes. This space is not only symbolically differentiated, however, but is again characterised as such by a determining contradictoriness that alludes to the promise of transgressing the everyday. While bar and podium are confined to a materiality and aesthetic unparalleled in their profanity, the motto about the higher significance of drinking is expressed in an opulent baroque form. “In Vino Veritas” stands as if carved in stone on a plaque at the back wall of the stall. In the absence of drinkers, a few dogs have taken over the podium for themselves, and loaf around following the proceedings out of frame on the street. A further picture from Sofia can be read almost as a reversal of this scene. Here against the background of housing blocks can be seen an urban wasteland, apparently under temporary use as a parking space for lorries, where two men whose concentratedly thoughtful poses are evidently due to a board game have set up the smallest possible common-room in a purely mental fashion. Prolonged contemplation of such pictures, which evoke happenings before and/or after the recorded moment, always raises the question of the places or spaces to which present or absent people belong. Conversely the photographs bring up questions about the way in which individuals and social groups establish themselves temporarily or permanently in the urban spaces of changing societies. A discussion of such questions will always find itself confronted with the bounds of the stage, in other words with the possibilities and limits of photographically representing phenomena that are not primarily visual.

1 Cf. catalogue Josef Dabernig, Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, not further developed, Grazer Kunstverein, 2004

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

Christian Kravagna