Artist: Josef Dabernig
The exhibition Equally Not Nothing by Josef Dabernig in Galerie Stadtpark’s main space presents a constellation of eighteen panoramas composed of individual images and representing a selection of Dabernig’s collection of panoramas. The locations photographed are mainly outdated stadiums that are surveyed less as event venues than for their function as “machines for viewing,” as dispositifs that choreograph both the gaze and the body of the viewer. The artist is not interested in the event, but in the unfulfilled spectacle; his panoramas are in essence anti-sports images: they present dispassionate images of abandoned sites or “projection locations,” as Dabernig calls them.
For his exhibitions, Josef Dabernig often draws on elements from the existing infrastructure of the exhibition site. In Equally Not Nothing, he makes use of a base from a display case—used previously multiple times at Galerie Stadtpark—as a kind of readymade. Taking this as a template, he had eight other bases made that he then used to form a grid-like, “justified” formation of tables arranged three-by-three. Similarly, he prefers using standard formats for his photographs, such as 13 x 18 cm and 10 x 15 cm. His panoramas are presented to the viewer not as unitary, horizontal images, but are composed of single images in portrait or landscape format. The viewer is challenged to add to what they see, to “stitch together” the images like a suture and to synthesize these into a coherent image. More than viewing the individual panorama, the viewer reads and decodes it. Here a secure, elevated vantage point purposely undermines the satisfaction of viewing the panoramic image. Brought to the fore are the structural aspects, the anatomy of the scenic-like and stage-like configurations.
In Equally Not Nothing, split panoramas not only confront the viewer, the nine tables—or rather tableaus—each present two panoramas, one above in portrait format and one below in landscape format. The panorama, broken up by means of framing and sequencing, is augmented and expanded in places by a second series of images, each taken from a different vantage point as a kind of oppositional shot. In Equally Not Nothing, several panoramas from various perspectives can thus be found for individual locations. The sovereignty of the single vantage point around which the panorama typically unfolds and from which it can be taken in is called radically into question here.
Both the microstructure of the individual panoramas, configured together in a film still-like manner, and the spatial-installative meta-structure of the table-tableaus configured into a grid are based on the sequencing and rhythmization of the gaze. Both structures can be potentially expanded, transforming them perceptually into a type of overall presence. This open-ended structure, expandable in the mind, references a space beyond the image. But the stadium and the panorama do not form the focus of Dabernig’s reflection, rather the gaze does per se, more specifically, the relationship between image, gaze, space, and body. Dispositifs organize the relationships between these agents spatially and socio-politically. The dispositif functions here as a spatial configuration that assigns the body, the subject, a specific viewing position. It promises the viewer a certain authority over what is seen, observed. But this visual availability and implied freedom is always arranged, the body directed, the view limited. Dabernig seeks to draw attention to these subroutines of the dispositif, whereby one’s own gaze becomes recognizable as a component part of this staged game of gazes.
Dabernig’s longstanding interest in panoramas can be read in terms of a theory of the gaze, but it can also be understood in terms of process and ritual. Dabernig “collects” panoramas. Wherever the artist travels, he seeks to “take away” one or more panoramas. This collecting activity is tied to two other motives; the second one harbors something profoundly epistemological. Collecting has a libidinal dimension and represents a form of appropriation, but for Dabernig it is also a form of understanding not only related to the individual setting, but also to the location and space (spatial configuration) itself. Dabernig “collects” abandoned and derelict places; he is less interested in the perfect stadium or the imposing visual dispositif, than he is in locations that, as the artist describes, find themselves in transformation. He is drawn to the outskirts of the city where disorder intrudes upon order and structure. In doing so he often seeks out at modernist architectures, symbols of an ideology oriented towards progress and a better future. With a quiet, ironic undertone—one free of judgment—he highlights the intention, and ultimately also the political implication of these scenic, visual dispositifs.
For Dabernig, the empty stadium functions as a symbol of the ideal form of a centrally organized spatial structure used not only for sports but primarily for showcasing them. Dabernig was interested early on in what he calls forms of productive emptiness. “The emptiness,” says Dabernig, “also stands for universality and unconditionality as constituent concepts, as indoctrinated once and for all during early philosophy lessons. Conversely, the empty stadium is also a projection screen with event-focused and ludic potential. Dabernig’s early fascination with football later turned into an interest in stadiums, or more generally, into an interest in socially recognized settings; there is an introspective side to the collecting, organizing, and handling of the panoramas, but also an outwardly oriented one in the social and public status of the stadium, its sociological as well as political dimension.
If one becomes aware of the theoretical aspects of the gaze, of how space, spatial planning, and dispositif are reflected, the ostensible theme of the sporting event lessens in importance. Rather than this view and perspective, immaterial, abstract quantities essentially coalesce into Dabernig’s actual theme. Periodically other locations also appear in Dabernig’s panoramas, such as a grandstand viewed from behind—in actuality a parking lot—or a hotel lobby. What these places have in common is that they represent scenes of consumer society. However, Dabernig does not photograph these spots as architectural status symbols or because of their imposing presence; he embeds them within his pictorial dramaturgy of nearly “dead” places. The fragility of these locations’ decaying facades reveals the structure, the skeleton of the setting, the arena or the stadium, in order to make legible the architectural effort to direct the gaze, the arrangement of the bodies, and even the choreography of the masses. Whether arena, stadium, sports hall or department store, panorama, theater—all these are centrally organized dispositifs that essentially serve to organize groups socially. Although Dabernig presents the places and locations he portrays as deserted and decaying, as mostly disused “machines for viewing” he still makes them appear robust and almost graceful in their own charm, as if having gradually cast off the function imposed upon them and in defiance of society’s ownership of them.
Dabernig operates within a field of affirmation and almost over-fulfillment of self-imposed routines and processes. In his work, he often begins with personal events and activities, documenting, counting, sorting, collecting and increasingly overseeing them, for example by keeping detailed records of daily cigarette consumption or gas consumption. The “collecting” of panoramas can also be included in this logic of self-regulation. Writing, counting, sorting and collecting are essentially instruments that consistently keep at arm’s length the subjective, emotional, and situational aspects that Dabernig always distrusts. His panoramas are less about depicting something, about presenting something than they are about dealing with the image, channeling the individual image into a process-based doing. Here the “use,” the overseeing of the images becomes an idiosyncratic, self-determined, and autonomous form of reflection—on modernity, visual culture and its consumerist characteristics. Dabernig therefore not only raises questions about space, spatial planning and architecture, but also about the economics of space. Thus, structures with mass-psychological impacts and their forms cast into buildings become recognizable as “image subject.”
As a media typology, the panorama is situated between photography and film. Similar to photography, it is of course still a single image, but, extended horizontally, it provides the viewer a kind of reading direction and perceptual duration. With Dabernig, another historical point of reference vis-à-vis visuality can be seen in the dispositif of train travel. Train travel dynamizes the gaze, the single image becomes the image series, the image continuum, representing a kind of precursory cinematic medium. In Equally Not Nothing, the media-perceptual commonalities between panorama, film, and train travel also form the curatorial basis for connecting and juxtaposing Dabernig’s photo panoramas with the chamber play-like film Wars presented in the foyer of Galerie Stadtpark, an early 16mm film by Dabernig from 2001. The artist uses train and train travel here as a “machine for viewing” that is directly connected to the cinematic gaze. In Wars, however, the dispositif of the train is subtly and ironically deconstructed; it becomes simply an elongated and peep-box-like stage for rudimentary scenic sequences and events. The train compartment, more specifically, the dining car of a long-distance train from Krakow to Warsaw and back, becomes the scene of a non-verbal, semi-surreal sequence of events: speechless, with minimal gestures, and in an almost indifferent manner, three members of the train staff go about their business. The cleaning and tidying up of the unoccupied, i.e. “unused” dining car gradually becomes an imperative, almost obsessive act. The seemingly unnecessary cleaning activities are apparently more about satisfying the latently frustrated protagonists’ obligatory work assignment or incomprehensible form of escapism. The increasingly obsessive cleaning and wiping ultimately becomes an anarchic act, as if the irrational was about to infiltrate the rigid everyday work routine. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the actions and behavior of the employees are reminiscent of forms of hospitality, of the effects of a dehumanizing system, which here, represented by a train interior that is already retro-chic today, moves through the landscape only “as an empty shell,” as a set piece and witness to an outdated time and its ideology.
Dabernig’s film Wars can also be read as a subliminal critique of technology and modernity. He rejects the accelerated and restless gaze. Like most of his films, Wars is actually an anti-film, his panorama actually an anti-image. Dabernig pursues a form of subtle image critique and always distances himself from forms of collective visual consumption, i.e. from visual mass media such as the panorama or film. He subverts the logic of image regimes and dispositifs, whose basic intentions seek to inhibit critical distance and reflection, whether by immobilizing the body for the sake of visual immersion in cinema or by the de-subjective, herd-like integrating of the individual into the area or stadium for the sake of mass-euphorization.
It is only logical to look for Dabernig’s systemic criticism not only in the “material,” that is, in his preoccupation with image, gaze, body, dispositif, architecture, and space. Even as an artist within the art system, he always positions himself beyond market and fashion. His reflecting on social structures and mechanisms is not only inherent in his way of working and the work itself, as a non-verbal critique of existing dispositifs of the image and the gaze, as well as a critique of hegemony, it is also evident in the question and doubting of his own conception of artistic subject and identity, in the question of the self relative to the collective and the social. The greatest possible independence from superstructures and collective dynamics is fundamental to Dabernig’s aesthetic practice and is articulated between critical distancing and rigorous refusal. Dabernig’s relationship to technology, progress, and modernity remains divided. This ambivalence forms the basis of many of his works. Even if never formulated openly or didactically, the omnipotent fantasy and radical desire to shape the modern age down to everyday life is subjected to a critique from which his own role and artistic undertakings are not immune.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Eric Smith