kunsthalle wien better world

“How to Live Together” at the Kunsthalle Wien is a Guide for Better World

A new group show at the Kunsthalle encourages us to shed our preconceptions and love the things that set us apart.

The tempting possibility of a Utopia, a perfect world where we all get along and behave decently towards the planet and one another, has inspired artists, writers and even fashion designers since Sir Thomas More penned a satirical book under that title in 1516. Now, 500 years later, the future as bright as ever, it seems an opportune moment for the Kunsthalle to cast a critical eye on utopian ideals with the aid of over 30 international artists and collectives in the group exhibition, “How to Live Together.” As the curator Nicolaus -Schafhausen notes, “The diverse models of living together presented reveal how society is more than just the sum of its parts.”

The same can be said of decent exhibitions. Fortunately, “How to Live Together” is a satisfying sum of parts, dotted around the warehouse-sized Kunsthalle in a variety of media. Themes of humanity, identity, flight, social power structures, love, fear, faith and political activism flow through the exhibition, from Goshka Macuga’s fascinatingly empathetic philosophizing android, To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll (above), to August Sander’s Proletariermutter, portraying a working mother and baby in the 1920s whose smile must have masked a multitude of frustrations.

The solutions to the riddles of present-day crises are hidden in plain sight within the faces of Cana Bilir-Meier’s migrant workers and Willem de Rooij’s Bouquet V – celebrating the beauty of diversity through a simple arrangement of flowers. These various elements, in an overall design by Studio Miessen, are presented frozen in time, but we are not. The anti-Brexit campaign poster from Wolfgang Tillmans still has a powerful effect, urging us to action even as cries for European solidarity seem due for the dustbin of history.

Imperfect Worlds

Vienna is au fait with combining Art and Utopia – the Friedrichshof commune established just outside the city in the 1970s by Otto Mühl was founded in part on the notion that an idyllic, egalitarian society could evolve from stifling bourgeoisie through the power of Art.

A Wehrmacht veteran and one of the founders of Vienna Actionism, Mühl encouraged his increasingly cultlike commune to stage nightly art, music and dance performances, some devolving into scopophilic love-ins involving feces and urine. Filmed and photographed, the resultant controversial images have become staples of galleries and museums, despite the ultimate scandal-ridden failure of the pedophilic Mühl’s utopian experiment in the 1990s.

To Oscar Wilde, “Progress is the realization of utopias,” although the comment may have been sardonic considering the term actually means “nowhere.” This is heartbreakingly evident in Paul Graham’s –Beyond Caring, a haunting image of a sad public waiting room – an actual nowhere. A baby in a pink romper suit, like a Teletubby baby Jesus, looks at the resigned faces of the adults as if to say “What are you waiting for? Let’s get outta here!”

Similarly, Mohamed Bourouissa’s Carré Rouge is both a journalistic document of -forgotten youth on the Paris Périphérique and a snapshot of humans who deserve as much respect, admiration and love as the comfortable faces in Tina Barney’s The -Antlers – an almost grotesque parody of how the upper one per cent lives.

Both social groups adhere to distinct codes of dress and behavior, but as individuals they have the power to break free of superficial signifiers to reveal the raw, needful, fearful, passionate humanity underneath.

A Life Less Ordinary

True freedom, as “How To Live Together” suggests, comes from embracing the beauty of our differences, “of achieving wholeness by way of diversity.” Those fearful communards fleeing what they saw as a corrupted society merely heightened the oppressiveness of what they left behind. We take ourselves with us wherever we go.

The Russian artist Taus Makhacheva took herself on a hilarious journey to gate-crash as many weddings as possible in one day in the Russian province of Dagestan. The images and conversations of 19 a Day, documenting the ultimate social celebration of love, reveal as much about the participants as about the artist herself. We become part of Makhacheva’s quest to explore the astonishing feat of two often vastly different human beings (and their attached clans) coming together in the hopeful promise of eternal unity. To gloriously defy Roland Barthes’ depressing conclusion that “coexistence, in which individual rhythms are recognized, is a phantasm only to be found on a discursive level in literature.”

how to live together
Whether the upper one per cent or forgotten youth on the Paris Périphérique, it’s key to understand that humanity is universal. // © Tina Barney, Mohamed Bourouissa

Complementing the exhibit, the Community College is a particularly promising part of “How to Live Together:” a revolving series of related talks, performances and interventions. It’s the first thing you see as you walk in, immediately presenting the chance to reflect on what makes us tick, and how living together functions best in a mutual exchange of respect – and love. Not the perverted form practiced by Mühl; or More’s imperfect vision of an island with slaves and subservient women, or the lip service variety every Valentine’s Day, or the love buried so deeply under decades of abuse and neglect that it turns to hate, terrorism and genocide.

Future imperfect

A worthwhile criticism is the exhibition’s shaky adherence to its own high-minded celebration of diversity. Female artists, solo or in collectives, make up around 30 percent of the show, and 27 out of 32 hail from North America or various parts of Europe. If art is to save us, it needs to be a lot more inclusive, especially of those most affected by historic indignities of sexism and racism.

In the breathy words of Sade, “everybody wants to live together.” There are communes that do succeed without a dictatorial leader, enforced polyamory or oppressive rules. But the impression most of us have is that even when a conscious effort is made to build a fairer, more permissive society, the end result is almost invariably a disaster.

We seem destined to repeat ourselves, rattling to some uncertain future determined by everything that holds us back – racism, capitalism, misogyny, elitism, nationalism. It is left to Art, and exhibitions such as “How to Live Together,” to both document the journey and provoke a reaction that may divert us to a happier destination.

Through Oct 15, Kunsthalle

Join Andrew Standen-Raz and other METROPOLE readers on June 7th at 19:00 in the Kunstahalle for a tour. If you mention METROPOLE at the door, entry is free.

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