2003 Vienna Festival: communal imagining

Jonathan Marshall

Massacre

Massacre

Benedict Anderson calls nations “imagined communities”: arbitrary associations of individuals, places and symbols collectively willed into cultural reality (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 1983). After a week at the 2003 Vienna Festival, I find this idea of Austria as a form of communal imagining irresistible. For all of the city’s apparent historical fixity, there has never been a time when Viennese cultural identity was self-evident. The Wiener Festwochen 2003 and Viennese cultural life in general are deeply immured in attempts to resolve this.

My overall impressions were summed up by seeing K, staged by Melbourne company Not Yet It’s Difficult. This re-imagining of the issues raised in Kafka’s The Trial of Joseph K constituted a self-conscious musing on the subversion of democratic freedoms during the 21st century. It began with the performers guiding and interrogating spectators as we wound our way through a “security system” (RealTime 52, p7). Director David Pledger’s text mixed alternating, rapid-fire political diatribes with audiovisual sophistications and menacing playfulness. The highly attentive Viennese audiences were polarised in their responses, one silver-haired man loudly booing as 3 younger spectators tried to drown him out with post-show applause. A mixture of cultural sophistication and intolerance; the almost suffocating weight of conventional history versus traditions of radicalism—Vienna is characterised by all of these.

Austria is one of the few EU members not part of NATO—neutrality is written into the country’s constitution. In 100 years, Vienna has changed from being the heart of the wealthy but repressive Hapsburg Empire, which collapsed during World War I, spawning fascism in the form of the Führer (the director of the Natural History Museum quipped to me that Austrians are brilliant because they convinced the world that Hitler was German, and Beethoven Austrian), endured Allied occupation and are now attempting to claw back cultural prominence. This is the weft of Austrian cultural memory. Even the trees bordering Alfred Hrdlicka’s memorial to the victims of war and fascism were reputedly planted by Kurt Waldheim to mask the deliberate slight of this sculpture being erected opposite his rooms. Viennese therefore resist any suggestion by artists like NYID that they do not know the hard lessons of repression and democracy.

Viennese cultural life reflects an ongoing conflict between the comparatively liberal municipal government and the more conservative national coalition (the latter having included Haider’s far right party). The 2003 opening of the Wiener Festwochen coincided with the Austrian government’s announcement that it would suspend its funding, though the festival can still depend on substantial financial support from the municipal government. Over 70% of the audience comes from within the city. While efforts are afoot to tap international audiences, the programming remains indifferent to the needs of non-German speakers, with English-language and dance performances sparsely scattered throughout. Who this Festival benefits—Viennese, Austrians, Europeans—remains a vexed question.

Reflecting these tensions, the opening spectacle Station Europa was a mix of masterful multi-screen projections, high art references (Chopin’s Nocturnes as a meditation on the Holocaust), and at times kitsch amalgams of popular and classical forms (an un-ironic, live-choral version of Kraftwerk’s TransEurope Express). The opening was constructed partly in opposition to tendencies within Austrian national cultural life, as a restatement of the interconnectedness of the city to other European metropoles. Images of Sarajevo, Budapest, Kiev among others, travelled across the screens; text below these elegaic visuals signalled each ‘station’ in a voyage through the pathos and vivacity of ‘old Europe’. This provided an audiovisual counterpart to official speeches stressing Vienna’s status as one of the great European stations, deeply imbued with the liberal multiculturalism this implied. Within such rhetoric, Vienna is a place of ongoing cultural sophistication and pilgrimage. The first week’s schedule of a Baroque opera and Peter Handke’s translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus in Colonos at Vienna’s monumental bastion of text-based, German-language theatre, the Burgtheatre, emphasised the continuity of traditional, classical high art within the festival.

As a witness to the self-conscious infusion of capital into “Great Culture” by former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, I felt a sense of déjà vu. The more local politicians crow about Kultural excellence, the more one feels that this cultural realm is sustained only by its endless restatement by political elites. The need for such figures to remind the people of this former centre of an Empire which stretched from the steppes of Hungary to the borders of Turkey that the city remains multicultural, the more one gets the impression that it’s not in fact the case. The director of the festival’s performing arts program Marie Zimmerman shared with me the grim joke that some Viennese behave as if the Emperor is only away on holiday. For all of its immense—one might say oppressive—history, Austria is in fact a younger nation than Australia, its current borders dating from 1950.

The continuous negotiation of national identities is epitomised in the way Vienna is addressing the greatest shame of Austrian cultural memory: the Holocaust. During the fin de siècle, Vienna was one of the great European Jewish cities. By 1900, the Viennese Jewry had become an important and apparently well-integrated facet of cultural life. With a speed inversely proportional to the centuries over which Jews had accumulated cultural respectability, this population was then wiped out. The city of Vienna is now going to great efforts to reinstate, or at least acknowledge, this past.

One of the festival highlights was the Jewish Museum exhibition Quasi una Fantasia, chronicling the ambivalent position occupied by the many prominent Jewish musicians from the mid-19th century until 1938. Although best known as modernist or avant-garde composers (Mahler, Schönberg etc), Vienna’s Jews were heavily represented within every musical genre, from Yiddish music theatre to popular Austro-German film. A sparse exhibition style coupled with a rich audio guide permitted a simultaneous survey not only of the history of Viennese Jewish culture, but also of the histories of Austrian music, anti-Semitism and Austrian cultural modernity generally (a wonderful art nouveau salon designed after Josef Hoffman was featured, for example). Like many of the simple yet text-reliant Viennese museums (Schönberg Museum, Freud Museum), Quasi una Fantasia did not so much inform patrons as encourage them to consider the often contradictory connections between different aspects of cultural life. The recent arrival within the city of Australian director Barrie Kosky, with his anarcho-Yiddish dramaturgy, is timely in light of such developments (see page 8).

Vienna is therefore a city of omnipresent, German-language high art, underpinned by less evident, subversive counter traditions. Although Wiener Festwochen focuses upon the former, the latter are also present. During the 1960s, Vienna was a centre for performance or “direct” art: works painted onto the body with blood, paint, dust, clay and slaughtered animals. This “anti-tradition” largely imploded under its own shocking excesses, but allied practices linger on in such institutions as Tanztheatre Wien. Within the Festival itself, the shrill madness of Heidi Hoh 3 was informed by such concepts. Though I was uninspired by the 3 female performers sitting on grotesque 1970s retro furniture while screaming at each other until their neck veins throbbed, director René Pollesch’s insistently untheatrical, almost tangible, aesthetic was intriguing.

The most striking work I saw was a rehearsal of composer Wolfgang Mitterer’s opera Massacre. To a shattering, not quite atonal score of dense percussive chaos, electroacoustic grind and isolated, discordant orchestral flourishes, director Joachim Schlömer offered a lesson in the staging of abjection and humiliation, meted out by one charismatic performer on another. Characters wandered about the stage, stripped, painted and blindfolded as the next symphony of arbitrary violence erupted. Though adapted from Christopher Marlowe’s play about the 1572 St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, Schlömer’s production drew a direct line between this event and the arbitrary nature of contemporary identity. Unlike so many of Vienna’s cultural artefacts, Massacre invited one to see Western civilisation as a form of wishful imagining.

Station Europa, director Roland Loibi, Townhall Square, Vienna, May 9; Quasi una Fantasia: Jews and the music metropolis Vienna, concept/implementation Werner Hanak, design Christian Prasser, Judische Museum Wien, May 14-Sept 21; Oedipus in Colonos, by Sophocles, translation Peter Handke, Oedipus Bruno Ganz, director Klaus Michael Grüber, Burgtheatre, Vienna, May 11-June 9; Heidi Hoh 3: The interests of the company cannot be those of Heidi Hoh, Künstlerhaus, Vienna, May 10-12; Massacre, composer/librettist Wolfgang Mitterer, director/choreographer Joachim Schlömer, Ronacher, Vienna, May 19-24; Wiener Festwochen 2003, Vienna, Austria, May 8-July 16. Further details (in English & German)

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 9

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2003