Interview Verena Dengler
Photo: Hanna Putz
Verena Dengler’s solo show at the Kunsthalle Bern earlier this year showcased the enormous range of the Viennese artist’s practice in nearly all mediums. Although each of her works loudly asserts its own autonomy, the power of her art does not lie in individual objects but in the polyphonic and contradictory stories they invoke. Whether in her exhibitions or as a member of the Burschenschaft Hysteria, a Vienna based all female fraternity that espouses the end of patriarchy, Dengler finds the weak spots in the dominant view of reality and authoritarian discourses. She puts them under strain in the hope of breaking authoritarian discourses once and for all, with wit and political conviction.
Tenzing Barshee: Can we start by talking about the Burschenschaft Hysteria?
Verena Dengler: Well, it doesn’t have anything directly to do with my art. Although there are things I could say about it, as an artist.
Then let’s talk about your show at the Kunsthalle Bern, “Jackie of All Trades & Her Radical Chic Academy with (((HC Playner)))”, which the Burschenschaft Hysteria also participated in. How did everything come together there?
When I visited the Kunsthalle for the first time, I was struck by how it is sub-divided into many, many rooms. I’d never had to deal with an exhibition space like that before. So I decided to do something different in each room. “Jackie of All Trades” is about how I do a bit of everything.
As in a group exhibition?
It’s more that as an artist my practice is very varied, and I like to say I can do anything. In the main room I’m an artist-curator, in the atrium there are traces of my teaching work, in one room I’m a painter, in the “mother room” there is an installation. Then there’s the “father room”, which deals with computer aesthetics. There are also some commentaries on other artworks, but there’s no common aesthetic running through it all. It’s more that there’s a feeling that it’s all by me – apart from the work in the main gallery, that is.
Why did you decide to give the largest space to another artist?
I wanted to work as an artist-curator. Nowadays we’re known for stealing the curators’ jobs, right? But it was also about nepotism – bringing in HC Playner as a fellow member of the Burschenschaft. And about presenting a survey exhibition of her little known work. She’s an artist who shuns publicity and isn’t interested in anything so banal as an exhibition opening.
HC Playner sounds like a pseudonym composed from the names of the FPÖ [right-wing populist party] politician HC Strache and the Austrian Sunday painter Tanya Playner, who paints portraits of right-wing populist politicians. Can you tell me a bit more about this person?
That the names are so similar is sheer coincidence. I met HC Playner through the Burschenschaft. She doesn’t have a mobile phone or Internet access, so I visited her in the Styrian mountains, where she has her studio. That’s where we then selected works for the exhibition together.
What are those plants at the entrance to her space?
That’s gorse. It has vulva-shaped flowers, and it’s a symbol for hysteria. Interestingly, it was in bloom just when we had our opening. It also refers to how there is a tradition of bringing plants into exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Bern.
"I was thinking that in relation to Silvie Fleury‘s bag works I‘m the baby intellectual"
That’s true. I found myself thinking of the homage to Marcel Broodthaers (1982), David Hammons’s orchid (1997) and Juliette Blightman’s pot plants (2014/2016). The wall text next to the plants has a rather odd-sounding introduction to HC Playner’s work.
The text at the entrance and HC Playner’s poems both play with right-wing rhetoric that riles against the establishment. There are several “right- wing poets” in Austria; [FPÖ politician] Andreas Mölzer, for example. They use overblown language. This “right-wing concept of art” is constantly rallying around an idea of a true art, art that rejects superficiality. When the Bur- schenschaft moved into its frat-house in Vienna, there were things left over from the last tenants who’d been right-wing extremists: psychedelic pictures of Nordic goddesses on white horses and Tamara de Lempicka posters. They love the kind of kitsch and pomp that shakes up your emotions. It’s creepy.
Speaking of creepiness, why does the main room have a pair of New Balance sneakers sitting in front of a stuffed hyena?
The context is that this brand of sneakers has been appropriated by nationalist identity movements because for them the “N” stands for the N in nationalism or New Right. The company’s founder also gave several hundred thousand dollars to Trump’s campaign. It reminds me of the picture by John Heartfield of the hyena on the battlefield with the slogan "Kried und Frieden – die letzte Hoffnung der Reichen (War and Corpses – the Last Hope of the Rich). A martial gesture.
Now I’m imagining that the Identitarians who were wearing the shoes have ended up inside the hyena’s stomach. What kind of dress is that in HC Playner’s room?
It’s not the first time HC Playner has taken a leftover object from Hysteria’s actions and turned it into an artwork. The doll is wearing a dress that one of the Burschenschaft’s members wore to this year’s Vienna Academics’ Ball, an FPÖ event where the Hysteria threw its banner on top of one belonging to a German Nationalist fraternity.
Then the event was declared the Hysteria Ball for the Education and Protection of Men and all the other fraternities were proclaimed fakes. On the Internet HC Strache praised the FPÖ, saying it proved that the Academics’ Ball was open to anyone who bought a ticket and everyone who observed the dress code was welcome. That reached a wide audience, because his site gets lots of visitors.
One of the Burschenschaft Hysteria’s main objectives seems to be the detournement of patriarchal society. It has frequently proclaimed “the golden matriarchy”. I think that corresponds with your method of questioning reality, which is to say, the way you twist an existing view through a new perspective in order to bring things to a point. When the Burschenschaft covers an existing banner with its own, one ction is covered by another, and this suggests that normative social conditions are nothing but a construct, which means in turn that they can be fashioned anew. There is something hopeful about this. But what happens when this sets o a chain reaction where everything is constantly being “disfigured”?
Other Austrian fraternities at the Academics’ Ball were wearing [the German national colours] black, red and gold. They think that Austria is an artificial monstrosity, and that actually the country should become part of Germany again. [FPÖ politician and 2016 presidential candidate] Norbert Hofer gave a speech in which he clearly hinted to party zealots that “one day it’ll be like that again.” Where would that take us? Look at how the Burschenschaft Hysteria appeared at the opening in Bern as a uniformed bloc, which disconcerted some sectors of the art crowd. But who belongs and who doesn’t is a question that comes up again and again in the art world. Although of course it isn’t so easy to see. So I thought it was very interesting that some people couldn’t handle how we were dressed.
A recurrent aspect of your practice is how you comment on other artworks or on the activity of making art itself. In doing so, you draw attention to both how it’s heroic and how it’s ridiculous. And there are, for example, various ideas about the original and the copy. That comes up several times in the exhibition, as in the room with the computer aesthetics, but also in the way you duplicate your role and your persona.
In the “father room” I looked at the relationship between contemporary aesthetics and materials. Several of the objects here used to belong to my father, who died last year. He started working with computers in the 70s: he got to experience of the initial stages of these technologies first-hand. That’s why computers come up there. It isn’t a piece of artistic research on the development of this technology, but a personal engagement with things I found, for example an old C64 magazine. My father had a dry sense of humour, which also reappears in several of the works, such as Ein digitaler Wasserhahn – aber Wozu? (A Digital Water Faucet – But Why?) (2017).
What role does your own biography play in your work?
I noticed early on that my work is strongly connected to who I am. This is something people have accused me of, as well, saying that my work is all about myself. I think it’s funny, because I like the limelight. But of course, that’s only part of the story. If I invite another artist to exhibit with me, for example, or when in the past someone like Envy Nordpol popped up, then it’s clear that these characters aren’t me. In Bern things are even more fragmented. I don’t know where that comes from.
Talking about your own life ends up being a way to talk about the situation of other people as well. By the way, it struck me in Bern that the kind of sculpture you’ve been working on over the past few years was pretty much absent. Why’s that?
It’s true, but in the “father room” there is a tapestry with CARPE FUCKING DIEM written on it, which relates to metal objects that integrate embroidery. It builds on things I was already working on, such as to what extent textile work can be made sculptural. I wanted to link it to computer aesthetics, partly because of Birgit Schneider’s book Textiles Prozessieren (Textile Processing), which traces the binary code that is central to computing back to female occupations like weaving. That’s why these works were there and not in the “mother room”. On one side there’s dad with the computers and on the other there’s mum with the baby things. I only realised that just before the show opened: “Shit! It’s mum and dad!”
"I noticed early on that my work is strongly connected to who I am. This is something people have accused me of, as well, saying that my work is all about myself."
Let’s talk about the picture Bussi, Mama! (Kisses, Mama) (2017).
This is a picture that I’d already shown in my exhibition “Dengled up in Blue” at Meyer Kainer in Vienna; I later painted it over. It was a reference to the Bob Dylan record cover where he painted a self-portrait in the style of Picasso. It worked well in that exhibition, but afterwards I didn’t like it any more as a standalone piece. There was no reason to keep it, so I repurposed it for something else. I often do that, with my sculptures as well.
You covered it in white paint and wrote on it.
The text comes from a card that my mother once gave me. I used to be constantly saying that I was an unrecognised genius, so she wrote me a card saying, “There are no unrecognised geniuses, everyone finds their place in life. Kisses, Mama.” The work is about the megalomania of thinking I am a genius who can do everything.
It’s interesting that it’s a quote from Ernst Jünger. What does it have do with the baby things in the “mother room”?
The baby bottles on plinths are from the Lentos Kunstmuseum, where the exhibition “Rabenmütter” took place a few years ago. It was about an alter- native image of the mother in art history, which didn’t go down very well in Upper Austria. The institution came under heavy attack. But they had great merchandise; among other things there were these baby bottles in the museum shop.
What about Regretting Motherhood II (2017) with the shopping bags – is that a reference to Sylvie Fleury’s bag works?
The shopping bags are all by babywear designers. They’re really very hard to find. Some designers no longer make special bags for children’s lines. Gucci stopped doing it, for example, because the children’s collection is treated like a mini version of the adults’ collection. And I was thinking that in relation to Silvie Fleury’s bag works I’m the baby intellectual. There I go again, poking fun at myself.
You don’t only use irony to challenge your own identity as an artist, you also like hauling others down o their pedestals. One of your pictures has a stencil of Pete Doherty on it.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Doherty’s art, and it really is what they call radical chic. He paints pictures with his own blood as it drips from a heroin needle. There are paint stains on my picture that are reminiscent of that. I’ve always wanted to do an exhibition that’s related to his art. I really like his stuff, but of course I am suspicious about that kind of authenticity. At the height of his popularity there was a badge saying PETE DOHERTY IS INNOCENT. A policeman who once arrested him was wearing one of these badges and asked him for an autograph. Pete said, “You need to take my handcuffs of first.” I think it’s interesting that a figure like that comes from London, the epicentre of capitalism, and embodies the kind of bohemian life that is impossible for most people there. When I got to Bern, I then added the words AD MERCY on the lower right hand side of the Doherty picture. That’s something I kept hearing in Bern when people said goodbye: “Ade merci” (Adieu, merci). I thought, I’ll write that down, like a rapper in a Kanye West track.
VERENA DENGLER, born 1981 in Vienna, lives in Vienna. EXHIBITIONS: Kunsthalle Bern (solo) (2017); “Zabriskie Point, Geneva” (solo); “Museion Prize 1”, Museion Bolzano; “Silleteros”, Kinman Gallery, London (2016); Thomas Duncan Gallery, Los Angeles (solo); “Surround Audience”, New Museum, New York; “The Verdant”, Hacienda, Zurich; “Flirting with Strangers”, 21er Haus, Vienna; “Why we expect more from technolog y and less from each other”, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin (2015); Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna (solo); “Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit”, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2014); MAK, Vienna (solo); mumok, Vienna (solo); “Freak out”, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, “NOA NOA”, Metro Pictures, New York (2013) REPRESENTED BY: Galerie Meyer Kainer, Wien
TENZING BARSHEE is a writer and an independent curator. He lives in Berlin.