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Artists Reflect on Public Space at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York

A group exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York looks at the changing relationship between architecture and public space over the past five decades.

By Rachel Gallaher

VALIE EXPORT, Syntagma, 1983, 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound, 17 min, 3 sec., from the compilation METANOIA, courtesy Kontakt Collection, Vienna.

Opening today at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY), Spaces of No Control is an international group exhibition that explores the idea of the modern city and how both public space and architecture have evolved over the past 50 years as a result of modern technology. Mounted by Vienna-based curator, artist, and critic Walter Seidl, the show delves into topics surrounding hidden space, gender roles and exclusion, accessibility, how people interact with each other and their environments, and the politics accompanying the notion of public space.

“The idea behind the concept was the ever-changing parameters of time and space,” says Seidl, “but also the result of many different forms of crisis that have happened over the past decades, not envisaging the current pandemic, which can be considered the epitome of it all. When choosing the works, I wanted to show artists from different places and decades, who not only deal with public, but also mental spaces. Thus, the concept of space as a fixed locus gets questioned as well.”

Spaces of No Control’s artists—including Hans Haacke, Francis Ruyter, Taryn Simon, and Kay Walkowiak—examine the histories of specific places and create a narrative on the defining architectural and social impressions over the urban structure. Works, including videos, paintings, installation, and photography, are positioned throughout all levels of the ACFNY building, which is notable for its unique design by architect Raimund Abraham.

“Most artists and works in the show deal with spaces that are not automatically seen or sometimes even hidden, relating to ephemeral gestures performed in public,” Seidl explains. “Cities such as Vienna or New York are dealt with in the works by VALIE EXPORT or Sabine Bitter/Helmut Weber. EXPORT’s work deals with the notion of women in the 1970s, and ’80s, and how they were often excluded from the public, thereby causing mental disorder. In general, the question raised is which kind of interaction can take place between people, and this not only in public space.”

Kay Walkowiak, Minimal Vandalism, 2013. HD video, 16:9, 4 min 17 sec, color, sound, courtesy of the artist and Zeller van Almsick Gallery, Vienna.

Seidl notes Taryn Simon’s work, on display in ACFNY’s lower mezzanine, titled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, which looks at spaces that are hidden from the public, such as HIV treatment labs or a customs-and-border protection room for goods at JFK airport, and delves into questions of accessibility and its relationship with privilege.

One new work, Performing Publicness, was created for the exhibition by Sabine Bitter/Helmut Weber (Vancouver/Vienna). At the beginning of March 2020, the duo started looking at the way people used and interacted with and in public spaces and interim zones (building lobbies, courtyards, etc.) in New York. Near ACFNY, a building owned by Black Rock Investors offers a public indoor zone with a café, which is frequented by a mix of people including those in the business sector and those currently without housing. Performing Publicness, which comprises two curtains with photographic prints of the lobby in a reversed black-and-white effect, instructs viewers to visit the Park Avenue Plaza in person, then return to the ACFNY to compare the actual space with its photographic representation.

Francis Ruyter, Jack Delano: Nashville, Tennessee. Women operating a giant stamping machine. Vultee Aircraft Corpora9on plant, 2018. Reproductions by

Other artists refer to specific times in history, such as to the period of National Socialism in Austria in 1938 (Hans Haacke), or the era of the Farm Security Administration in the US in the 1930s, depicted in Francis Ruyter’s vibrant and colorful paintings that depict agricultural machines in ghostlike abstraction.

“The exhibition should make us think about the accessibility of spaces, their restrictions, and about possibilities to interfere,” Seidl says. “The hope embedded in the show is the message that it is high time to also rethink about natural resources since nature eventually reigns overall spaces and finally determines the lives of everyone as well as the conditions of spaces, which cannot be increased or altered ad infinitum.”

Spaces of No Control (organized with the support of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Arts, Culture, Civil Service and Sport) is on view until January 10, 2021.

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