David Hammons by Rainer Ganahl

David Hammons: Been There and Back Salzburger Kunstverein

Salzburg, Austria

Artists who work internationally, and explore site specificity, often risk only addressing stereotypes and folkloristic kitsch. But in contexts that market themselves through self-reduction, to touristic tokenism, the situation inverts itself. Salzburg, at the time of David Hammons’ opening, staged its world-famous conservative summer music festival, and sold music, Mozart, cakes, sweets, and simply packaged myths, to masses of tourists, in its overcrowded Austro-version of Euro-Disneyland.

African American artist David Hammons showed remarkable awareness of this particular situation. The title of his exhibition was called, with significance to the local cultural theater, “Been There and Back.” Even the poster and the invitation card follow an intriguing and openly complicit game with cultural stereotypes. These printed matters presented a photographic representation of a nostalgic white, skin-colored, semitransparent negligee. Underneath this translucent fabric was something black, that became recognizable as an African mask only when looking more closely. Significantly, this piece was called Freudian Slip, playing on a linguistic level with the French word for neglection and the name of the piece of textile that in the English language is less erotically charged than the French word “negligee.” (The actual piece Freudian Slip was not shown in Salzburg–whose cityscapes in magazines are often mistaken for those of Vienna--–appearing only on the invitation and the poster.)

David Hammons’ exhibition “Been There and Back” consisted of three major installations laid out on a diagonal, a small installation on a wall, and a flag hanging on the outside of the building. The inside walls of the large exhibition room were fully painted in brown, juxtaposed by a game of decorative, sinuous lines and circles, which allow the visitor to oscillate between eroticized Jungendstil memories (Austrian) and associations of a tribal African imaginary.

In the first untitled installation in the left corner, Hammons used tiny white plastic religious relics. In this piece, some 50 fluorescent crosses were hung in a dark, poorly-constructed enclosure, and were metaphorically held together by the spiritual song “Walk in the Light” by Aretha Franklin. This big corner installation evoked in an astonishing way, the all-penetrating Catholic power that over centuries has manifested itself in Austria through now well-marketable, mostly baroque architecture and facades.

In the right-hand corner for the second major untitled installation, the artist imported a rap tape, which played on a tape recorder resting on the ground, in front of which was a big, roughly put together swing. The material and the form of this swing (constructed with the trunks of trees) strangely reminded the visitor of a lynching site.

For the central installation, in the middle of the exhibition hall, the artist worked with intrinsic material of Salzburg. The “soundtrack” of this particular installation was appropriated from the music of Salzburg’s specially selected opera spectacle: Verdi’s La Traviata. This opera emanated from the tape recorder, positioned on the floor. Concrete and other construction material was scattered and spilled out of the second major sound source, and competed with the classical music. The object that disturbed the audio attention from the opera was a concrete mixing machine, which periodically worked together with Verdi, as if in a duet.

In another piece, the red, black, and green flag of the African National Congress was literally overlaid with the stars and stripes of the USA flag. This illustrates the basic Freudian mechanisms of transposing and condensing, and it was hung outside the Kunstverein

This careless mixing of machine noises, spiritual songs, rap, and classical music, and of all these scattered installations/sculptures, made a visual, acoustical, and ideological counterpoint to the conservative and culturally stagnant host city. It shouldn’t be left unsaid that in Austria, leading politicians can be openly racist without even being considered as such, or confronted with it. For example, a few years ago, the governor of Upper Austria argued for a the exclusion of Asian refugees, under the pretext that “we don’t like people whose provenance can be seen; it would hurt tourism.”

But even without the reverberation of this cynical and paradoxical statement-–tourists also “show their provenance”–David Hammons’ “Been There and Back” is an ideological intervention in a cultural landscape whose hierarchies and hegemonies are worldwide, and about to collapse. In spite of its geopolitical proximity to Europe’s new total war zone-–Austria borders the former Yugoslavia-–clocks in Salzburg seem to run slower than elsewhere. The cultural heritage that David Hammons so successfully makes relative will survive in Austria, as its own kitsch replica, with tourism as its only function.

Last but not least, it should be added that art in Salzburg has always been “political.” This year was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. But the end of this political regime did not fully occur in the music world of high culture in Salzburg. The same program and the same people who played for the Nazi Fuhrer with its legitimizing function, played for and legitimized the American liberation force in 1945 (which in Austria is still called “occupation force”–Besatzungsmacht). In a last installation David Hammons stepped once more, quasi-accidentally, into this history. He chose to include a painting by the local artist Raffaela Toledo called “My Friend Florence Newton,” from 1953, which he simply hung in his show, adding a theatrical altarlike presentation. (Florence Newton was an American soldier on duty in Austria.)

David Hammons’ game of representation and strategic hybridization, offered, without finger pointing, a puzzling intervention in a material history of politics, representation, cultural arrogance, and taste formations. It was curated by Silvia Eiblmayr, at the right moment in the right spot, for the right 50-year celebration. As such, David Hammons’ “Been There and Back” must be seen as a sublime and successful interaction with the Austrian cultural industry, that merits and reevaluates the presently inflated term, site specificity, and hopefully leaves some footprints.

Rainer Ganahl

New York, New York