A place to take time out and reflect
What is beauty? According to the advertising industry, “beautiful” refers to slender young female bodies with symmetrical facial traits. Yet it’s not quite so simple to answer this question as fashion journals and lifestyle programmes often seem to make it out to be.
“Beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness,” as Stendhal, for instance, once claimed. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by contrast reflected: “Beauty is complacent even if it is a gift of heaven and no self-acquired value.” While there is hardly anything to add to the first quote, Goethe’s views really seem obsolete in a time of breast enlargements, facial injections for filling wrinkles and liposuction. Thanks to the very different achievements of the cosmetics industry and the changes in the understanding of fashion the old saying “every man is the architect of his own fortune” suddenly becomes provocative. We are all called upon today to “tune” ourselves, not just to make ourselves happier but also to fulfil the image of a good, happy and just society. Overweight people are said to be a burden for insurance companies. The homeless are a reminder of social injustice and persons with special needs remind us of our own vulnerabilities. Whatever is beautiful and healthy is good. An analogy which in reality simply cannot hold water. Especially when art comes into play Precisely when it is about calling into question social ideals and norms, art has always had a revolutionary force.
What could then be more fitting than to dedicate an exhibition to this subject matter? This is at least what Berthold Ecker, director of the MUSA, and Andreas Stadler, head of the Austrian cultural forum in New York, found and they proceeded to put together the exhibition “Beauty Contest” which after New York is now also on view at the Vienna Musa (Museum Startgalerie Artothek).
Beauty as constructionEcker would like for the exhibition to be understood as a declaration of war against the dictates of beauty with which we are constantly being bombarded by the media – as a possibility for artists to liberate themselves and as a protest against beauty being identified with the true and good. This also implies a critical examination of concepts such as gender, age, status and power. Curator Grunitzky who was born in Paris reminds the viewer that all of these figure centrally in the construction of beauty ideals. The exhibition not only addresses the typical notions of beauty à la Mona Lisa, it also analyzes the myth of the southern bell (beauty from a southern state) or the fascination of Black Americans for bling-bling (very glittery jewelry of hip-hop culture). The latter, for instance can be found in a work by Rashaad Newsome whose collage is dedicated to this form of self-representation. This is only one of a total of 26 different positions that can be found in the exhibition.
Finding one’s own identityA captivating work is certainly Clarina Bezzolas blazing-red femme fatale costume which consists of a sort of vagina dentate and an over-sized hand struggling to make its way against the passage of time or decay. In this men-devouring beastly costume the artist strolled through New York last year - a performance that Bezzola will repeat in Vienna on 10 May. Only one of several performances that will be staged in the course of the exhibition. Yet even without the performances it is still worth visiting the MUSA. What the visitor finds there is an exquisite small show that approaches the subject matter with humour. In his well-known series of photographs of 1997 Matthias Herrman also slipped into the role of the leather-donning gay art professor and juggles with our fantasies. By contrast Katarina Schmidl made a model of her bottom with red-white-red straws, making an ironic commentary on the theme of homeland.
The artist Petra Buchegger who lives in Vienna deals with the discrepancy that exists between the ideals propagated in various women’s journals and the everyday life of women. In the superimposed images of the artist wearing an apron with various images taken from journals the artist tries to call into question her own identity that seems to be located somewhere between that given to her by the family and that assigned to her by society.
This is certainly a process that we are constantly called upon to deal with in our lives. Right at the entrance the visitors are asked to make a picture of themselves while looking into a row of dirty mirrors. Ultimately, each and everyone of us brings our own images of beauty to the exhibition. This is also something that the artist Birgit Jürgenssen addresses in the painting shown in the exhibition. These views will hardly be upended by a tour of the exhibition but at least MUSA is able to offer a place for reflection for a short time – something we really need in our world that is literally swamped with images.
17 February – 26 May 2012
MUSA Museum Startgalerie Artothek
Tel.: +43 1 4000-8400
Opening hours: Tues, Wed, Fri 11.00-18.00, Thurs 11.00-20.00, Sat 11.00-16.00, accessible to persons with disabilities, entrance free of charge!