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Nina Schedlmayer

On the strangeness in the familiar “Land Surveys” and “Provincial Mail” by Judith Saupper and Elisabeth Wedenig

Exhibitions spreading beyond their intended habitats are something of a tradition: since Hans-Ulrich Obrist, now a star curator, opened a now-famous kitchen exhibition in his Zurich apartment in 1991, we have known that art can also find its place beyond galleries, exhibition spaces and museums.

In itself, the fact that Judith Saupper and Elisabeth Wedenig went looking for unconventional places to present art with their “Land Surveys” would therefore be unremarkable. But it is not only the places that are unconventional, but also their audience. When the two artists send their work on a tour of the provinces and show it for a few hours in usually completely unsuitable venues, they tend to encounter completely different crowds to those that hang around the usual art spaces.

The audience’s reactions, oscillating between curiosity and incomprehension, are recorded in a kind of diary. The artists meet a “country youth who is hard to figure out – slowness: mental and physical”. Then a lady passes by, but only “to say that she really is not interested in art”. Other guests “ask somewhat simple questions we ask ourselves every day, too”. Or the audience wants to know what “the thing with the birds is. They study them. The small ones on the conveyor belt are taken up by the old ladies and put back in the wrong place” (referring to Elisabeth Wedenig’s small-format paintings of birds that were shown in a sawmill). And a “former politician nearly sits down on the painting and all but overturns a bell jar”.

When art abandons its small circles and ventures into different – here, provincial – contexts, it takes incalculable risks. Saupper and Wedenig certainly do not have any educational or art pedagogical aims. Rather, they are interested in the texture of this kind of encounter between art and contexts unrelated to art. This is also reflected in the newspaper articles that supposedly were published in provincial newspapers like the Vorarlberg “Neue”, the “Unterkärntner Nachrichten” or the “Steirerkrone”: one quickly realises that they are not the work of professional art critics.

Apart from the fact that this audience’s approach to art is different from the one in galleries, exhibition spaces and museums, the art also behaves differently. At a guest performance at Lake Ossiach, Wedenig’s paintings rest against a wrapped boat or a seemingly temporarily stretched rope.

Later, after the vagrant exhibition has moved on to the attic of a dental lab, another of the artist’s paintings is hung above 1970s electrical appliances. Beside it, an orange metal frame supports Saupper’s small-format collages. In the Festhalle Glanegg, one of her drawings unfolds on a cluster of ale-benches. Paintings are even presented in a cowshed, on unplastered walls, and the artists found an exhibition space in a sawmill: Wedenig’s paintings lie on top of wooden slats, while Saupper’s bell jars are placed on roughly hewn wooden cylinders and large machines. In a Vorarlberg farmhouse, her collages are hung on wallpaper of an undefined pattern, surrounded by flowery curtains and a corduroy couch, and one of Elisabeth Wedenig’s paintings is balanced against a nightstand placed on a brown carpet. Compared to these locations, the “Moorraum” in Krumbach, with its sober, cool architecture, might pass for a white cube. For a few days each time, the works of art are exposed to very different settings, seemingly changing from stop to stop. In fact, some guests who came to several exhibitions thought they had discovered new works, when they had actually seen them somewhere else. Also, some had to ask to find out what was art and what was not. For example, one person thought the ceiling light of a sauna was a work of art when the exhibition stopped there.

Beginning in the 1980s, Context art and Institutional Critique reflect the interplay between the work of art and its surroundings. If Louise Lawler’s photographs showed how in an upper-class setting a Pollock painting ends up beside a showy soup bowl, or when Andrea Fraser ironically presents the context of museum guides, these works remain well within the traditional fields of the world of art. Saupper and Wedenig leave them behind. What do drawings look like in front of the blackboards of the common room of refugee accommodation or in a sauna with fabulously ugly tiles? Their works of art appear like exotic, strange guests who do not plan on staying long.

The irony is that they do this in the exact places where we usually suspect the strongest sense of belonging: in the so-called provinces. Across all political camps, there is a strange hype surrounding the provinces at the moment. Sophisticated glossy magazines praise tradition and natural life, columnists describe their lifestyle at their country home, and even literature seems to have renounced the anti-heimat novel in favour of a new genre – at least if we believe Sigrid Löffler, who drily remarked in Falter magazine in 2012, with regard to Vea Kaiser’s bestseller “Blasmusikpop”: “The new provincial novels running riot everywhere compete for an ever more advanced, ever more innocent concept of heimat.”

We can read about the feeling of being lost in this supposed heimat/home in the “Provincial Mail” Saupper and Wedenig have exchanged since 2013. On postcards – there are now around 400 of them, and the correspondence continues – which do not necessarily have any link with their current location, they note their thoughts and impressions, ideas and questions, often intermingled with quotations: “There are competitions for the most beautiful flower boxes, the neatest, most beautiful lawn and the best decorated grave. If you don’t participate, there will be talk,” Wedenig writes to Saupper on January 27th 2014. On November 18th of the same year, she notes: “In the provincial capital people dream of a rustic idyll – country kitchen and all.” “Provincial Mail” consists of snapshots that outsiders can read on a poetic level: “MIND YOUR THOUGHTS HERE: THEY WIND LIKE OLD MOUNTAIN PASS ROADS & IN THE END LOSE THEMSELVES IN A (BARRIER) LAKE,” reads one of Saupper’s postcards. Reproductions of a selection of picture postcards, mostly with poetic statements on their backs, were available in the exhibitions, free to use for the (lazy?) audience. Saupper and Wedenig refer to Jacques Derrida’s book “The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond”, which addresses the “tragedy of delay”. And in the same way a postcard is delayed communication, the short-time exhibitions are often abandoned when you have only just heard about them.

Saupper and Wedenig do not regard the provinces with an idyllic or a disparaging eye, but with a kind of soberness combined with an irony that can also turn against itself – for instance, when Saupper calculates the “heimat capacity” of her exhibition spaces using a rather complicated formula. The strangeness in the supposedly familiar does not necessarily have to be tamed, and contradictions may sometimes remain unresolved.

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