ViennaGallery Of The Academy Of Fine Arts
October 9, 2021 – January 30, 2022
While some visitors deemed the exhibition “refreshing” or “exciting,” a majority also voiced anger, disappointment, and incomprehension in the visitor’s book of the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, the paintings gallery of Vienna’s art academy, in the face of Hungry for Time, an exhibition curated by Raqs Media Collective from New Delhi. If we are to believe the writer Paul Valéry, who said that a critic should try to discover what an artist attempted to do and then judge their work according to the artist’s own standards, the audience’s irritation might well indicate success for Raqs. After all, the emblem for Hungry for Time is the fly, a “potential agent of contagion,” “interruption,” “derangement,” and irritation, as Raqs frames it. A large fly is depicted on the wall of the first room and appears regularly in an exhibition which is structured into 11 unnamed “scenes” complete with pro—and epilogue.
Inviting artists to critically examine collections has become an important tool in the thoughtful curator’s toolbox. Thus, Raqs Media Collective was asked to “reconsider the art collections by incorporating the current discourse in decolonialism in art and cultural studies” and to confront the works of the collection with contemporary artworks. Owning not only Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement Triptych (after 1482), but also major Old Master paintings and uncountable prints and drawings, the museum brings together many works linked to imperialism, and recruits its visitors mainly among admirers of older art. Given that some travel to Vienna specifically to see the Bosch altarpiece, Raqs’s decision to close it (nearly) entirely to focus attention on a detail of its “everyday side” was indeed a radical one. This, combined with the fact that many rooms contained video works with sound, making silent contemplation impossible, and that only 30 rather than the usual 90 major works from the collection were on display, explained the discontent of many habitués. In an interview with the journalist Katharina Rustler, Raqs offered two reasons for closing the Bosch, pointing to the need for a radical critique to interrogate the major work of the collection and then adding, “Bosch intended the triptych only to be opened on special occasions. We stand in solidarity with the artist.” Both points are valid, and I think that closing the altarpiece for a few months can allow for a fresh look afterwards. Another aspect troubled me more: The absence of contextualization for the artworks (including Raqs’s own), which may create difficulty for the participating artists as well as the audience. While not drowning works in comments is often seen as an antidote to curatorial discourses that subdue individual works, here even basic information was often missing and Raqs’s own statements and gestures sometimes overpowered single works. Artworks in need of even minimal mediation could be lost on the audience. For example, Dayanita Singh’s photographic work Time Measures (2016) depicts red textile bundles. Without a smartphone to google the artist and the work, the Austrian audience could have trouble understanding this as a taxonomy of document wrappings in Indian government offices and a reflection on archiving. In the same room, we find a label for Huma Mulji’s work Arabian Delight (2008), a taxidermied camel in a suitcase. But unfortunately, the work—or an explanation of its absence—is nowhere to be found. These aspects, combined with the general difficulty of identifying works because of their labels’ placement at random, made the show hard to navigate. It clearly favored works that were self-explanatory like Volcano (2021), a poetic documentary video on the logistics of preservation and insurance at the Academy Gallery produced for the exhibition by Discursive Justice Ensemble with Hekate Film Collective featuring Gabriel de la Cruz, or Self-Defloration (2006), by Nilbar Güreş, which conveys a message of female self-empowerment in the face of Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia (1571), that tells a story of rape. When asked by Rustler why there is very little information about the works in the show, Raqs provided a stock reply about wanting to give more freedom to the audience. However, contemporary art may suffer less from a lack of ambiguity than from the difficulty of non-expert audiences to connect to the works in the first place. This led me to wonder about two complementary questions: how much mediation can radicality suffer and still disrupt, and how obscure can a critique be and still succeed?
In this sense, the most successful operation was to rename works in the collection, with some captions turning historical works into comments on Raqs’s own curatorial and artistic operations. Adriaen van Ostade’s The Comic Narrator at the Country Inn (before 1630) thus becomes Narrator (tussling with the plot) (2021). Others transform artworks into political icons: Rembrandt’s engraving A Peasant in a High Cap, Standing Leaning on a Stick (1639) from the academy’s graphics collection becomes Forgetting the master (2021). When Pieter Boel’s Still Life with Globe Cockatoo (ca. 1658), a display of the riches of a colonial power, is rebaptized Once the centre of the world (unsettled) (2021), it is turned into a potent reflection on globally shifting power relations. With its economy of means, maintaining readability while also suggesting a different perspective on the works, these minimal operations are certainly Raqs’s most elegant interventions in an exhibition that seemed to be more interested in provocation and radical gestures than in delivering critique in a way that could be easily digested by the Viennese audience. But perhaps I am naïve to think that it is the local context—rather than an international artworld audience—that Raqs is trying to address?