Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna (AT)

23.03.2016 – 30.03.2016

Sabine Folie (AT)

Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew
that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself.
It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods
than for a small mortal like me.
(Hermine Wittgenstein)

Few people were in a better position than Hermine Wittgenstein to put a finger on the intractable contradiction between modernism’s universalist aspiration to create designs for a better living for all and the awareness that such design paradoxically enough sometimes entailed a programmatic disregard for the particular interests of ways of life, cultures, and indeed individuals. Wittgenstein’s brother Ludwig had worked with the architect Paul Engelmann, a student of Adolf Loos, to plan and build the Wittgenstein House, one of the few modernist buildings in 1920s Vienna.

With the ambivalence Hermine Wittgenstein noted between the “supernatural” pure form of (projected) design and the needs of life as it is lived, that house makes for a uniquely congenial temporary setting for the presentation of Kay Walkowiak’s art, letting us experience the modernist structural forces at work in it in what we may call a negative image.

And so the Wittgenstein House serves as the backdrop for a stance that reads the international prewar and postwar modernist style against the horizon of an ideological-strategic missionary endeavor. Thoroughly Western and invested in the Eurocentric vision of a more or less democratic society committed to technology and progress, this endeavor is for its part ripe for a critical rereading of the universalist and ultimately authoritarian gesture with which utopian models coerce people into a happiness not of their own choosing, imposing standards without regard for the unique cultural and economic circumstances of those it culturalizes. Under the pretext of providing better living conditions for everyone, urban planners built monumental housing complexes for millions. Hailed as the emblems of a new era, these developments promised hygiene, order, and hierarchical structures in which the masses would be assigned to clearly defined places—and, ultimately, disciplined. It is no secret that Le Corbusier, a central protagonist in Walkowiak’s work, collaborated with the Vichy regime in order to obtain commissions. Less well known is the fact that, as several recent studies have demonstrated, his fantasies about razing entire neighborhoods in order to inaugurate a new era bear a striking and frightening resemblance to the Nazis’ eugenics-inspired principles of cleansing.

Walkowiak analyzes the characteristic ideological intransigence of such aesthetic and social models in sober-minded quasi-documentary meditations, using experimental techniques of substitution, play, and paradoxical intervention to point out their limitations and tacit presuppositions. His work thus reveals the potential and necessity of intrinsically motivated processes of appropriation that effectively offer resistance to the rigid discipline urbanist master plans drawn up by imperious architects of Le Corbusier’s caliber demand.

In an exemplary study of how the modernist utopia ultimately came to grief, Kay Walkowiak explores Chandigarh, a planned city designed by Le Corbusier, in three filmic essays. Subjecting this iconic project of its time to a re-visiting, a characteristic practice of what has been called “second modernity,” the films reveal the cracks separating utopian aspirations from lived reality. [...]

Walkowiak charts the fault lines of modernism crisscrossing the scenes of its colonial expansion in Asia, India, or Japan in the mode of a dispassionate observer—as he emphasizes, his objective is to “take stock”—but with an inquisitive, sensitive, and playful edge. He traces the rift that runs right through a modernism whose shelf life would seem to have expired, but also explores the ways in which such imported forms and colors may be appropriated by a Hindu culture and society in which the caste ranks above the individual. The artist’s observational approach yields meditations on the significance of rituals—their imagery, forms of invocation, and implements—in specific cultures, as well as minor burlesques on the dogmas of 1950s and 1960s abstraction or minimalism, which aspired to establish a global visual language but, when transplanted into environments to which they are not native, manifest themselves in idiosyncratic interpretations.

Text: Sabine Folie, Vienna 2016 
Photos: (c) Matthias Bildstein