Rainer Ganahl, "Counting the Last Days of the Sigmund Freud Banknote", December 17, 2001

graphite on paper, 9 X 12 cm




At 3:43 pm on Tuesday, October 30, ‘01, the Dow Jones Industrial was down, at 9092, and the Euro, not yet in circulation, was valued at 0.905 to the dollar. World financial markets were still recovering from the downturns following the September 11th terror attacks, and were lumbering toward the next planned upset: the January 1 replacement of most European Union National currencies with the Euro. Rainer Ganahl, an Austrian-born, New York-based Conceptual Artist, recorded these details in his dream diary on the afternoon of January 1, along with the following entry:

I see myself in a confined space, with nato on the left and some viruses chasing me horizontally across the cell to the right. a nightmare.

Nato—fermented beans eaten with a raw egg. Haruko and I had this Japanese dish last night.

The dream, with its post-9/11 paranoia and mildly amusing linguistic transformation appeared as part of a series entitled, “Die Letzten Tage der Sigmund Freud Banknote (The Last Days of the Sigmund Freud Banknote)”. Ganahl conceived the series last year after realizing for the first time, he claims, that the face of Freud decorated the 50-Austrian Schilling note. Viewers familiar with Ganahl’s work and his somewhat antic interest in politics and philosophy, including his ‘01 show at the Baumgartner Gallery on the influence and role of Karl Marx and his ideas in Contemporary Culture, will not be surprised that the disappearance of Freudian currency captured his imagination.

From August ‘01 to February 28, ‘02 (when the Schilling ceased to be legal tender), he recorded his dreams and then converted them into works on paper along with the daily value in various currencies of the 50-ATS note, the value of the Dow and the Nasdaq exchanges, and the number of books by or about Freud on Amazon.com and Buecher.de, a comparable German online site. Over one hundred dreams and associations in unedited German and English were displayed in a text-heavy exhibit that wrapped around the four walls of the gallery and was complemented by a series of short videos.

It is an interesting idea, with a lot of potential for fun and engagement—to place the dream life of the artist in relation to the expiring father of Psychoanalysis and the expiring tender of the Vaterland, and then to set it all against the psyche of the viewer—but Ganahl takes himself too seriously to allow the exhibit to become truly interactive within the space of the gallery itself. Contrary to the expectation that the unconscious might occupy a land that looks like nothing we recognize, even as it contains pieces of ourselves, Ganahl’s dream life, as recorded, doesn’t lead much beyond what might be presumed to be the antechamber of his real life. He dreams about exhibitions and exhibition halls, about word-play and linguistic switches and slips, strolls along the streets of cities where he exhibits, and confronts, in various stages of fear and trembling, the critics Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss as well as the current curator of the Dokumenta, and sundry gallerists and artists with whom he seems to transact both his conscious and unconscious business. In short, he dreams about the Art World, and this manifest content does not make for particularly compelling reading, particularly after the lurid fascination with art gossip subsides. The presentation of the dreams is flat and numbing. One merely advances along the walls of a gallery whose rationality is never overtly challenged, at least not in the amount of time one might be reasonably expected to devote to a gallery exhibit.

And that average amount of time is precisely the problem—because it is not enough to see beyond the clutter of proximal professional anxieties and wishes that Ganahl brings up first, and to have a little fun with Freud and the deeper levels of the Ganahl psyche that become apparent through close reading of the content buried on almost every page. The word “fun” is used perhaps too glibly here to describe the network of associations that emerges after one has spent some time with the dreams. I saw the exhibit during its run at the Baumgartner Gallery and then spent the better part of two afternoons reading through the dreams more slowly on a CD provided by the artist.

It would be intriguing to know if even Ganahl himself would have been able to sustain his interest in the project if it hadn’t been for the events of September 11th, for it is through this occurrence, and Ganahl’s dubious luck at having scheduled the project in the middle of it, that the dream work achieves its real, textural interest. What emerges is a record of the workings of the mind of a politically engaged artist as he struggles to understand the terror attacks and subsequent anthrax scare and the sense of ongoing threat that suddenly enters his reality. And through that record—enter Freud—one is led backward, consistently and implacably, through a series of dreams, dream symbols, and morning-after associations, to the boyhood where Ganahl the artist comes from.

Ganahl grew up in Bludenz, a small town of approximately 14,000 inhabitants located in the western, Alpen corner of Austria. The Vorarlberg region is bounded by Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and is home to several dialects, as well as the idiosyncratic Schwyzerduetsch, or Swiss German, a primarily spoken language that sounds quite different from high German. The economy is largely driven by tourism. As a teenager, the artist worked as a ski instructor at a local resort, and in his dream associations reports feeling alienated by the well-heeled tourists whom he encountered. He hated his high school. Sounds like a normal teenager from a relatively isolated small town. At age 13, however, his brother died in a moped accident. At age 14, his mother committed suicide by jumping from a 10-story building. Ganahl studied philosophy and art in Vienna. He left Austria at 25, and recently, became an American citizen.

I pieced together these details of Ganahl’s personal biography from the record of his dream life and with a little help from the online site of the Austrian Tourist Board. As supporting evidence I offer the abundance of dream material that finds its lost or disoriented protagonist in tall buildings or in mountain villages winding his way through narrow, curving streets; the oneiric preoccupation with his bicycle, one of the most prominent dream symbols, as a means of transport as well as escape; and, a certain disconnect between what and when Ganahl reveals, that seems to depend on whether he is dreaming in German or English.

Importantly, this is my interpretation of Ganahl’s dreams, my own imaginative response to the disorder and bulkiness of five months of nightly material. Other viewers/readers would presumably tell different stories and see different connections. In the end, perhaps one learns less about the artist than about those things one needs to see in the artist, and here, finally, are the dialogic, mutually creative aspects of Psychoanalysis engaged in this exhibition—not as a series of fixed meanings, but as the possibility of multiple meanings in which the responses of the viewer are more telling than the experiences of the artist.

As a pre-“Money and Dreams” admirer of Ganahl’s work, I was certainly eager to like this exhibition and to find my own antidote to the annoyance and impatience I experienced upon (over)exposure to his unreflected reports of art-world esoterica, bodily functions, and paranoid love relations. It might seem that I found it in the image of a lonely, motherless boy in a bleak, yet beautiful Alpen landscape, who provides an easy sentimental tug to the rehabilitation of my initial opinion of the exhibition. Instead, the combination of story I came up with—perhaps true, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps totally off the mark—and my peculiar, quasi-maternal response had the happy effect of pushing me onto a new pathway that led out of the warren of Ganahl’s unconscious and into one variety of its sublimation: his other artwork.

In particular I started to re-think Ganahl’s language-learning videos from the ‘99 Venice Biennale and elsewhere, and as well his ‘01 show on the meaning of Marx in a Contemporary context. That show consisted of video documentation of seminars on Marx conducted by Ganahl in various languages and in various cities, along with a series of photographs taken at the seminars and lectures. There is a peculiar vulnerability to his images—the half-rapt/half-bored expression of a women as she listens to Terry Eagleton, the glint of New Balance tennis shoe logo, the collegiate sweatiness of an empty seminar room—as well as a conspicuous lack of judgement or, astonishingly, cynicism. It is almost as if he brings his subjects to the edge of their ideological or political inconsistencies, but is himself such a Pollyanna for social and political discussion and connection, that he can’t quite find it in his heart to push them over the edge. This same elaborate strategy of watchful waiting is also seen in his various interview projects with Holocaust survivors and Stalinist sympathizers—he sticks with his subjects, circling around the center, always confident that the intimate, troublesome relationship between the personal and the political will make itself known.

Susan Deiter

New York, New York


Rainer Ganahl, gallery view, "Money and Dreams"