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"The Fifth Column" a group exhibition featuring works by seven international artist
"The Fifth Column", Exhibition View, Secession 2011, Photo: Wolfgang Thaler.

WIEN.- The Secession begins a new season with “The Fifth Column,” a group exhibition featuring work by seven international artists from three generations. They include: Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, who presented the new safety curtain at the Vienna State Opera in the fall of 2011; Spanish artist Dora Garcia whose pavilion “The Inadequate” at this year’s Venice Biennial divided critical opinion; and Peter Downsbrough, an American conceptual artist of the first generation, whose work has only recently begun to receive the attention its deserves.

With the deliberately enigmatic title “The Fifth Column”, the show’s curator, Barcelona-based Swiss Moritz KŁng, alludes to the complete renovation of the Secession in 1986, and more specifically to the four central columns of the Hauptraum designed by architect Adolf Krischanitz. Originally, they were clad in chrome steel and brass, but three years later the distinctive presence of this ambiguous reference to Otto Wagner was neutralized and covered over on the occasion of the exhibition entitled “Das Spiel des Unsagbaren: Ludwig Wittgenstein” (The Play of The Unsayable). For 20 years now, since 1991, these four columns have been painted over, their striking impact concealed.

In the spirit of Krischanitz’s renovation concept based on dismantling, KŁng returns the four columns to their original state after two decades. As well as picking up on the reciprocity in American artist Joseph Kosuth’s curatorial approach to the Wittgenstein show, KŁng is also fundamentally questioning the “neutrality” of the white cube, for which the Secession is internationally considered the prototype.

The act of restoring or citing this architectural state is by no means romantically motivated. Instead, the aim is to refocus awareness on the specific qualities of the place itself—its genius loci—its history and architecture, but also its shortcomings. The curator achieves this in a way that is partly evident, partly highly coded: the show features 25 pieces by seven artists, most of which were produced or adapted specially for the exhibition. As a result, the works—light and sound installations, objects and furniture, murals and frescos, artist’s books, performances and video—resonate not only with the historical culture and architecture of the building, but also with one another.

This resonance between place, work, and history is exemplified by the partial reconstruction of Heimo Zobernig’s Ohne Titel (Untitled, 1995/2011). For his solo show in 1995, he used the wall system designed for the Secession by Krischanitz to build a labyrinthine installation. It was based on the year the work was made and the artist’s initials: 95HZ. For the inner cylinder of the number nine, in fact a cube, Zobernig lacked sufficient wall modules and thus used four metal uprights from the frame structure, fitting them with four new untreated chipboard sections. In accordance with the artist’s usual strategies, this cube became an autonomous object within the installation as it had been devised by the artist himself.

In the current exhibition, 16 years later, this cube stands at precisely the same spot in the Hauptraum, built using available wall modules from the depot at the Secession. As well as the history of the building, this “new” sculpture also incorporates and reflects the history of the artist himself. This is just one example of the complex layering offered by the exhibition.

But what is “The Fifth Column”? It is no coincidence that the publicity shot for the exhibition, based on historical photographs by the Secession’s chronicler and photographer Margharete Spiluttini (who will also document the show for the catalogue) shows the column in all its glory ... but in a position where, on second glance, it cannot actually be. The author Ferdinand Schmatz, who contributed a text to the catalog, writes: “Look, the pillars of knowledge: Don’t think, look!” Perhaps, then, the exhibition offers further opportunities for seeing: to see the building in a new present involving conservation, repair, additions, adaptations, and ultimately also a reassessment of postmodernism.

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