Gernot Wieland, “Past, Present, Present, Past” (2019), lecture-performance, Congress Graz (photo: Mathias Völzke)

GRAZ, Austria — On the opening night of Steirischer Herbst 2019 — Europe’s oldest contemporary arts festival held annually in the town of Graz, Austria — we entered the “Grand Hotel Abyss” for a night of site-specific performances to kick-start the eponymous theme for the year.

The hotel was thick with activity: green and blue disco lights bounced off a glass ceiling; tall flutes of bubbly peach rosé were whisked from silver trays; and little blini canapés held trembling stacks of blue cheese mousse, figs, and walnuts as they were carried around the room. Artist Jule Flierl scrambled up a large bust of Beethoven while singing from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Isolde’s “Liebestod” for the performance “Dissociation Study” (2019). While she sang, her face contorted into exaggerated, operatic shapes, drawing reference to avant-garde dancer Valska Gert — who shocked German audiences with her parodies of canonized public and cultural figures in the 1920s. Flierl dissociated her face from her voice, the makeup melting from her face. The body of the future, according to Flierl, moves in several directions at once.

Time was a slippery thing within this “Grand Hotel,” where, as visitors, we were dropped into a continuous past, present, and future of decadence, theatrics, and deviance. Things had a tendency to glitch or get out of hand. In a velvet-curtained room plush with crystal chandeliers, artists Jakob Lena Knebl and Markus Pires Mata set up a live tableau. An alternating trio of bodybuilders, shiny and slick, painted over in red and gold paint, posed intermittently with ceramic vases in their hands. Like live action plinths they flexed and relaxed their muscles around the objects they held — hyper animated frames that wrapped their bodies around the wobbly and misshapen pots and vases. Knebl and Pires Mata magicked alive the narrative plot of a Jorge Luis Borges short story, “There are more things” (1975), in which the furniture comes to life in a large house full of secrets, traipsing around and generally wrecking havoc.

Jakob Lena Knebl and Markus Pires Mata, “The Style Council” (2019) performance, Congress Graz, (photo: Liz Eve)

According to festival director and curator Ekaterina Degot, “The Grand Hotel Abyss” is a place for “pleasure and political crisis” to come together, and it takes place over a number of different venues — galleries, hotels, art spaces, opera houses, and old palaces or state offices. Graz is a suitable host for such a juxtaposition of pleasure and politics, long considered the “pleasure capital” of Austria, and full of grand hotels and baroque interiors of gold painted ceilings and plaster-cast frescoes. It is also the second-largest city in Austria, and crucial to its political constituency. It is a town of designer boutiques and cobbled streets, and is the capital of Styria, a province of Austria that is famous for velvety black pumpkin seeds. The city was also a favorite of the Austrian Habsburg Empire and is a University town where citizens of ex-Yugoslavian countries may transfer to very easily, as long as they speak German. Because tuition fees are so minimal, this is an attractive choice for many. The city thus has an especially strong connection to Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet countries, a connection that is built upon and solidified by Degot, who maintains a sharp curatorial focus on the region.

Ekaterina Degot, Steirischer Herbst 2019 opening speech, Landhaushof Graz, (photo: Mathias Völzke)

On display at the Palais Attems — a typically Austrian Baroque building which houses the headquarters of the festival — is a film by Georgian artist Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze, “The Invisible Hand of My Father” (2018), which takes us through a personal inquiry into the treatment of informal and migrant labor workers. Gagoshidze splices together drone footage and animations together with a video interview of his father, a migrant construction worker who lost one of his forearms in a brutal encounter with a cement mixer while on-site in Portugal in 2009. His accident coincided with the global financial crisis, which inflicted a desperate kind of chaos all over the world, not in the least in a post-Soviet Georgia, which had initially forced him to migrate to look for work. Gagoshidze’s father is now a farmer who lives in the countryside, in a centuries-old ancestral home that is built entirely from hand-carved wood. In the film, light dapples through its windows and lace curtains. He refuses to use a prosthesis, despite being given one by the state, because it is too clumsy and uncomfortable. Gagoshidze uses his father’s missing arm as a metaphor for the “invisible hand of the market,” which uses up bodies only to spit them out, regardless of the consequences.

Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze, “The Invisible Hand of My Father” (2018) film, installation view, Palais Attems, Graz, (photo: Liz Eve)

This idea of the pleasure zone also implies a more sinister inquiry: what must be excluded for the pleasure zone in order for it to exist? Furthermore, what is the invisible labor that builds the pleasure zone in the first place? Degot, and co-curator David Riff, borrow from a 1933 short story by Russian Philosopher Georg Lukács to set the scene (the story, too, is called “The Grand Hotel Abyss”). The story reads:

Both intellectual intoxication and asceticism or self-flagellation are not only permitted in all their forms; there are brilliantly stocked bars for one purpose and amazingly manufactured exercise equipment and torture chambers for the other.’

The festival’s theme takes a kind of flippant attitude, and an indulgent one, which uses the glamour and aesthetics of decadence in order to show up the relationship of decadence to decay, fascism, and to death. What makes Degot’s approach to Steirischer Herbst — and here a curator stays on for five years, rather than for a single edition — is that she sets the theme, and then pulls out all the stops to make it happen. In her opening address Degot declared that the festival “will be all about the dictatorship of pleasure in catastrophic times,” where “time in general is fragile and dangerous” and the contemporary moment is edged by “abysses of uncertainty opening on both sides.”

Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, Sonja Khalecallon, “Theirstories of the Retro-Future GoGo Show” (2019), performance, Congress Graz, (photo: Mathias Völzke)

When she mentions the “dictatorship of pleasure” Degot gestures towards the Austrian state, and the festival provides a daring critique, particularly of Austrian contemporary history. The 2018 edition of Steirischer Herbst was titled “Volksfronten” (the People’s Front) and introduced one of Degot’s main projects, which is to take a deep look at Austria’s fascist history. This year’s edition of the festival takes a more confrontational approach with the series “Counter-positions” where artworks respond in-situ to public monuments in Graz that are patriotic or glorify an erstwhile nationalist history. The history the festival is most interested in is how Austria continues to consider itself the first victim of German expansion in the run up to the Second World War (a narrative well perpetrated by the musical and film The Sound of Music (1965), in which the von Trapp Family must flee the Third Reich).

In a work by Austrian artist Eduard Freudmann — installed in a sprawling public park by Graz’s Befreiungsdenkmal, a monument that commemorates the departure of the Allied occupation in 1955 — this history is turned into a literal gesture. Freudmann’s is a Barbie-pink sculpture in the shape of an obelisk, with a flying dove at its top, and the phrase “ÖDUOPFER” inscribed on its front, which translates to “Austria, you victim.”

Eduard Freudmann, “Monument to a Myth,” (2019) installation in the frame of the project Counterpositions, (photo: Mathias Völzke)

A couple of nights before the festival opened, and just a few hours after Freudmann had finished installing his sculpture, someone (presumably a Graz local) vandalized the scene: on top of Freudmann’s inscription is the clear spray of poster-white paint: “I <3 Ö”, or “I love Austria” (which is known as Österreich in German).

The incident points toward a collapse of the political and the public sphere into each other, and of how the festival stands in a kind of resistance to the populist sentiments of the site in which it is staged. This is its most striking quality: its readiness to critique the state that it occupies, and to do this with nuance that is befitting its context. This festival in Graz is full of sharp surprises, and given that it is a largely publicly funded project, its willingness to bite the hand that feeds makes it one to pay attention to, and to engage with rigorously.

Steirischer Herbst 2019 will take place at various venues in Graz, Austria until 13 October 2019. The Festival was founded in 1968 and its current director is the Russian art historian Ekaterina Degot.

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and editor based in Mumbai.