City as Stage
A brief look back: In 1962 Christo and Jeanne-Claude use oil barrels to block off the Rue Visconti in Paris in protest against the building of the Berlin Wall. In February 1968 Valie Export strolls down a busy street in Vienna with Peter Weibel on the end of a dog lead, to reveal the power struggles inherent in the relationship between the sexes. In the 1970s Gordon Matta-Clark saws his way through the floors, ceilings and facades of condemned New York houses in an attempt to draw attention to the impropriety of modern Architecture and the construction industry. Towards the end of the same decade, in an action that will span several years, Mierle Laderman Ukeles shakes the hands of thousands of New York dustmen: a publicly manifested thank you for a thankless job. It would be easy to extend this list of public artistic actions and interventions well up to the present day. In short: Since the moment artists began to recognise the city as a stage on which social issues could be better articulated than they could within the elitist confines of the art institution, public art has no longer been associated purely with carefully placed sculptures and installations in prominent places. The term brings to mind more and more roving, ephemeral actions, whose permanence can at best be established through video or photographic documentation.
Stepping into this arena, Nicole Weniger shows that even in the 21st century the democratic realisation of an art form for all, and the belief in an art form that can provoke, change or even just make something visible, can most effectively emerge in the spaces where life takes place. Her performative interventions within the urban environment and the subsequently staged photos of such actions and scenes pick up multiple themes that are characteristic of current socio-political discourse.
Over the past few years the artist has referred to the burka ban that has been widely debated in Europe, in an action entitled Seasonal Integration. Under her direction, a group of veiled women without male chaperones acted as tourists, posing in front of points of interest in three central European cities: Budapest, Salzburg and Innsbruck. The most disturbing effect was created by the burkas themselves, which were fashioned from golden emergency blankets and were quite obviously intended as costumes. Through this action, the burka as a symbol – an emblem not only of foreignness in general but also an image increasingly associated with radical Islam and the threatening scenarios with which this is automatically associated – reached a new level of absurdity. However, precisely this hyperbole enabled the artist to provoke reflection on national and religious identity, social exclusion and cynicism, stereotyping and prejudice. As the title implies, she also led people to consider just how welcome guests from other cultures really are in tourist regions. The reactions of passers-by in each city revealed much in this respect, and it was through these reactions that the intervention reached completion for the artist. With Seasonal Integration Weniger has made clear how heavily she relies upon the public domain to tackle an abrasive theme, and how much the roll of the spectator plays a part in the realisation of her project. This ultimately evokes a communal feeling of differentiated reflection.
Weniger revisits similar subject matter with the photo series Guess what I wear under my Burka. What are the depicted women hiding under their clothes? What threat is posed by things which are removed from sight, and thus too from any accurate appraisal? As with Seasonal Integration, these photographs have something of the absurd about them; thanks to objects hidden beneath their clothing, the subjects – shot in front of a neutral background – are transformed into sculptures. Seen from this vantage point, any threatening aura that might have emanated from them falls away. The ambivalence – the inner conflict between feelings of anxiety and amusement, irritation and understanding – are qualities that lend an edge to many of Nicole Weniger's projects.
A stay in Istanbul was precursor to the aforementioned works. There, the artist immersed herself in her surroundings, which like those of almost no other place are marked by the juxtaposition of Orient and Occident, the modern and the traditional. This juxtaposition is, however, far from cooperational and is marked by invisible, unsaid demarcation within each level of society. To explore and test the limits of these boundaries, Weniger visited a traditional barber's shop – a distinctly male domain. In the resulting performance, Barbershop, the artist gave herself over to the barber and to the shaving ritual. It would be tempting to label this work as would-be feminist, did not the sum of Nicole Weniger's work attest to her way of thinking of society as a whole. The issue that ultimately arises when considering her Animal Performances photo series is whether it could be a matter of describing the human condition, for these pictures too seem to be accompanied by the question of how one can confront the immediately unsettling not with suspicion, but with an open mind.
Manisha Jothady, 2014