… if things are really as the
social situation indicates, i.e. that
most resources have been used up
and depleted, then the conventional
form of artistic production and
mediation has come to an end.«
(Heinrich Dunst, 1993)

What do people actually do when they »go to an art exhibition«? Stupid question, might be the automatic response – they look at art. The accepted norms regarding how one successfully engages with art seem to be so obvious that they aren’t even called into question. But actually, distinguishing between things – images, objects, performances and arrangements – and being able to identify them as art is not as easy as it sounds. This ability, which is crucial to the »function« of all art, is the result of a process of historical differentiation that established the autonomy of the aesthetic field. This field is regulated by aesthetic discourse, which stabilises it both inwardly and outwardly, distinguishing it from other social spheres. The fact that art has seen such substantial change under the increasing pressures of economic logic, which have also recently affected the art industry, indicates just how much the site and function of aesthetic discourse has shifted. So much so, indeed, that any discussion about art these days no longer seems to need the term »discourse« at all, whereas it had been thought indispensible to any aesthetic practice merely a decade ago. Loosely speaking, any remotely progressive art was discursive.

Discourse is having a hard time these days. Ever since the art world has taken to flailing around restlessly – at every level of production and circulation occupying itself with its own preoccupation – the only form of discursive participation that remains seems little more than complicit affirmation. But what do people do when they visit an exhibition like Heinrich Dunst’s About A B order at Vienna’s Galerie Nächst St. Stephan? It’s an exhibition that insists on discourse – in terms of media, content and local references – and proceeds accordingly, both formally and content-wise.

In the Viennese art world of the 80s, then dominated by Neue Wilde painting and Neue Geometrie, Dunst, born in 1955, represented a typical conceptual approach of the time that merged abstract painting with the on-site-expansion of art into the exhibition space. Dunst contributed to this »local blend«, as dubbed by curator Vitus H. Weh, – similar to Ernst Caramelle, Gerwald Rockenschaub and Heimo Zobernig – by contextually defining the (monochrome) panel painting in relation to the exhibition space, and functionalising it, down to design and furnishings. Not that Dunst would have ever abandoned his insistence on the aesthetic integrity and conceptual legitimacy of the individual object. The (abstract) image remains an integral focal point of his work – even when Dunst then tritely relativises it, arranging his monochromely coated plywood panels in serial »hangings« or installing them as support structures in syntactic constellations. In his 1997 work LOST at MAK in Vienna, for instance, he plays with various installation devices to explore the roles that individual picture/frame/plinth-objects can adopt. It would be worthwhile to analyse this so-called »local blend« today with historical hindsight and elaborate on the impact of the picture/space discourse initiated by curator Markus Brüderlin. Brüderlin’s theory highlighting the »Wiener Moderne« as an exceptional case was as local as it was hardcore-formalist, and, in combination with the idea of institutional critique then gaining traction, opened the floodgates for a renewed political approach to aesthetic practice that reverberated far beyond Austria in the 90s.

Looking at Heinrich Dunst’s exhibition, aspects of this history are far from irrelevant, especially given that his apparent affinity for »theory« is symptomatic both of the period in general and of the Vienna art world up to the present day. Perhaps this has something to do with the boldness with which Dunst embraces the current status quo, while at the same time profoundly criticising the trend towards a purely subjective art teeming with references and appropriations. After all, even his early work betrayed a certain scepticism towards painting that merely »keeps up appearances« and increasingly – as in the radical abstractions of Helmut Federle or Gerhard Merz – becomes its own absolute sign. On the other hand, his work distances itself from the kind of art that steps ever further outside its own bounds – in a way foreshadowing David Joselit’s problematic concept of »painting beside itself« – to the point where the social, institutional and economic conditions that give rise to art in the first place become the main focus, as in the case of Rockenschaub and Zobernig.
Although Dunst has recently been active as a performer his seemingly conventional About A B order actually marks a return to painting. Nevertheless, Dunst’s performative and curatorial approach leaves a profound impression, especially in the way objects and references are used. On the one hand, they present a themed tour around the cornerstones of image, sculpture and installation; on the other hand, the artist does not seem to rely on the objects on display – the art works themselves. Instead, he paradoxically radicalises »discursivity« as the vehicle for his artistic work and, in doing so, establishes it as the true medium of his art. The overall effect is as though the exhibition itself were an attack on the very complicity that has settled between the production and reception of art and has come to be taken for granted, unquestioningly, and institutionalised, today. The exhibition About A B order, and the individual works themselves seem wilfully determined to call into question the accepted media, contextual and institutional prerequisites of what actually constitutes art – all the more so, given the current day’s meagre prospects for an authorative discourse about what art is.

But what does this exhibition actually »do« and what does it demand of the public? What, for instance, is the function of the show’s eponymous work About A B order (2013)? Appearing to the advancing viewer as an upright white wall towards the back of the first room, it partitions off the last third of the space, forming, as the title suggests, a border. On the white-painted chipboard, next to the title in large letters, hangs an abstract painting tersely rendered on cardboard – like a trashy, pared-down Jasper Johns. Only upon circumnavigating the wall do we realise that this is not, as it first seemed, a temporary architectural screen dramatising the front entrance to the parcours. Behind the wall, the work continues. Its partitioning function acts as a connector between two fundamentally different sides of one and the same work. On a low podium behind/before the raw chipboard screen is a simple, tablelike construction bearing a kind of sculptural still life. It consists of various elements, ranging from the abstract (a canvas-covered cuboid, a black and white wooden batten), to the everyday readymade (a pair of shoes, a book). The tabletop is covered with untreated canvas taken straight from the bale – just one area is painted with a black rectangle containing text.

Viewable from all sides like a traditional sculpture, About A B order poses an almost insoluble conundrum. After all, how are we to grasp a work whose two visible sides evidently pursue such diametrically opposed aims, not just in terms of media and themes, but also in the use of different forms of presentation – the hanging on the one hand, and the almost monochromatic, still-life arrangement of objects on the other? At least painting clearly remains the point of reference in this work, not only through evoking certain historical genres (gestural abstraction, still-life, monochrome, pastiche and minimalism’s specific objects as display modes), but also because it shows the extent to which the »genre« has long since become an »institution« of painting that can be transposed in many ways. However, About A B order refuses to be merely a symptom of the post-medium condition of painting, or a didactic demonstration model that offers visual and conceptual proof of that condition. Instead of consolidating the work, the net of discourse is cast wide, creating a highly precarious dialectical balance: it blurs the boundaries between the actual work, the discursive function, the actual carrier and the references evoked. Indeed, so disproportionate is the referential overload in relation to the materials used – the cardboard, the canvas, the shoes, and even the abstract painting – that this thoroughly Janus-faced work both reveals and undermines the complicity between production and reception and thus, the very basis on which it can be understood.

The tactic Heinrich Dunst has deployed as the basic formal principle of his exhibition is brilliantly simple. While front and verso of the work About A B order ultimately make the same statement by different means, this continues in the other works throughout the exhibition, such as the installations RAR and SAS (both 2013). Without actually abandoning the idea of the artwork itself, Dunst consistently blurs the boundaries between material (chipboard, canvas, packages of pasta, tuna, insulation foam, gherkins) and referential (abstract and figurative painting, readymades, installation, display register of site specifity, contextuality) carriers used in »art«. This all the more clearly shows how this operation works, and brings his project in line with one of the most burning questions of our time: What effect would it have, not only on its production and disposition, but also as on its materials and its very significance, if we were to accept that art is complicitly co-produced, virtually pre-produced? How would that affect the role and function of artistic authorship and the scope of aesthetic practice? And how long would art still be able to assert itself as autonomous and independent? Dunst confronts art with questions that rip convention asunder, and through the gaps there shimmers a discomfortingly harsh light of reality. —

Translated by Ishbel Flett

Hans-Jürgen Hafner is director of the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf.

Heinrich Dunst born 1955 in Hallein. Lives in Vienna.

Represented by GALERIE NÄCHST. ST. STEPHAN, Vienna