Welcome to the Grand Hotel Abyss. The phrase was coined in 1933 by Marxist literary critic, György Lukacs, as a put-down of another group of Marxist intellectuals – the so-called Frankfurt School, whose ranks included luminaries such as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas.
Lukacs argued that the Frankfurt School practised a form of melancholy theorising by which they analysed the dangers of both fascism and consumer capitalism but offered no solutions. He accused Adorno and colleagues of being all thought and no action – or to use the favoured terminology, all theory and no praxis. They were like guests at one of those elegant European hotels who sat on the terrace constructing intricate analyses of the carnage they saw in the streets below.
It was an unfair charge, but not without an element of truth. This came to a head in the late 1960s when Adorno, who was lecturing at the University of California, found himself unable to side with the student protests that were turning campuses upside down. Instead of a movement of liberation he saw thugs, ideologues and authoritarians. It was all too reminiscent of what he had experienced in Nazi Germany from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Were he still around today Adorno would be just as horrified by the warriors of Political Correctness who are using identity politics to turn American colleges into crèches.
It’s a bitter irony that the rise of PC culture has coincided with a worldwide resurgence of right-wing populism, the two extremes combining to drown out more rational views. Perhaps it may be better, after all, to party at the Grand Hotel Abyss rather than pin one’s hopes on a political sphere that seems increasingly volatile and amoral.
There may be no better place to explore these dilemmas than Graz, the second city of Austria. In 1968, a year in which Europe flirted with revoution, the progressively-minded citizens of Graz took stock of the number of former National Socialists who occupied prominent positions in the community. Their answer was to start a radical arts festival called Steirischer Herbst (‘Styrian Autumn’).
Graz is a city of contradictions and Steirischer Herbst has learnt to how thrive within the cracks that have appeared in democracies around the world. Russian-born director, Ekaterina Degot, presides over a spikey, eclectic festival of theatre, visual arts and literature, in which the last act is Musikprotokoll, a festival-within-a-festival devoted to new music.
The 2019 program, Degot writes, “offers an extended and expansive meditation on hedonism in troubled times.” This translated into a set of exhibitions and performances with a broadly satirical edge. The exception was a multi-media installation by Riccardo Giacconi, focussed on a moment in the 1940s when the inhabitants of South Tyrol were given the option of becoming part of Mussolini’s Italy, or relocating to a Nazi-controlled Austria. It’s the kind of unenviable choice so many refugees are facing today – whether to risk death in their homelands or become pariahs in a new country.
Of the two theatrical events I attended, Ariel Efraim Ashbel’s no apocalypse, not now was a freewheeling, almost hallucinogenic extension of the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! in which go-go dancers arrive to entertain the troops. Four dancers of varied shapes and sizes enacted a series of absurdist rituals, with an occasional interruption from a children’s chorus. Don’t ask me to explain further.
The other piece, Bojan Djordjev and Goran Ferčec’s A Place That Will Be the Last to Collapse, But Will Inevitably Collapse, was set in a suite at the Hotel Wiesler, a venue with a colourful history. Two actors told the story of the Haludovo Palace Hotel – a lavish 1972 development on the Croatian island of Krk, funded by Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine. The grand idea was to break down Cold War tensions between capitalism and communism by means of a lavish, sleazy resort where guests could gamble in the casino while being attended by Penthouse pets in skimpy French maid outfits.
It sounds like the kind of idea Donald Trump might suggest to Kim Jong-un, but unfortunately the hotel was a failure and now resembles the ruins of some ancient empire in brutalist concrete. It seems that in 1972 east and west were not quite ready to unite in the utopia of soft-core porn, but it might be worth another try today.
There was more porn in Progressive Touch: Series 1, by New Yorker, Michael Portnoy, which consisted of a series of videos in which some of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen do unspeakable things to each other. Portnoy says his aim is to “improve sex”, but his films are more likely to turn viewers into dedicated celibates.
The stand-out exhibition was by Austrian artist, Peter Kogler, who filled the top floor of Graz’s futuristic Kunsthaus – a world-class example of ‘blob’ architecture – with a gridded black-and-white projection that tracked relentlessly across floor and ceiling. This may be the only time the unsympathetic spaces of this building have been used in an aesthetically profitable manner. Downstairs, Kogler installed large screens covered in collages, and gigantic shifting panels of abstract patterning. The highlight was a screening of Fernand Léger’s 1924 film, Ballet Mécanique, with George’s Antheil’s cacophonous score played by an orchestra of computerised instruments.
At the Kunstlerhaus there were three exhibitions. The first was The Gift –Act 1 – a rather cerebral video by Jasmina Cibic of Slovenia – the same conspicuously intellectual country that has given us madcap uber-professor, Slavoj Žižek. Next there was Putin’s Happy, a documentary-length film by Britain’s Jeremy Deller, looking at the demonstrations, pro-and-con, over the Brexit debacle. This was a movie to confirm all one’s worst suspicions as to the kind of people who are so eager to go waltzing out of the European Union, and down the plug hole.
The basement galleries featured a survey of prints and objects by Scotsman, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), one of great ironists of the late 20th century. Using the visual language of Neo-classicism Hamilton Finlay has made stone battleships, lists of tanks with colours for each new month, wooden guillotine blades with the stencilled inscriptions: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Hamilton Finlay’s deadpan works were always designed to be read one way, and then in reverse. He’s the perfect artist for an era in which people are voting for would-be dictators and retreating into paranoid tribalism. The wit is as sharp and deadly as the guillotine itself.
One last irony came from Scando-satirists, Elmgreen & Dragset, whose contribution to the festival was a limited edition set of chocolates, Echter Graz Bernhardkugeln (AKA. Real Graz Bernhard Balls). A spoof of the ever-popular Austrian kitsch sweets, Mozartkugeln, the chocolates were sold in a box emblazoned with a picture of Thomas Bernhard (1931-89), a novelist who regularly tore shreds off his native Austria.
“Only the old and the stupid live in Graz,” wrote Bernhard… “In Graz, only stupidity is at home.”
He may have been confirmed in this opinion by the Bernhardkugeln, but most likely he would have laughed. Every nation needs a writer who is prepared to launch a full-throttle assault the evils and hypocrisies of his own nation. Where, oh where is the Aussie Thomas Bernhard?
Steirischer Herbst 2019: Grand Hotel Abyss
Graz, Austria, 19 September – 13 October, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October, 2019