Photo/Politics/Austria at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien; panel representing the year 1947 with photograph by Ernst Haas: “Smiling ear to ear, a war returnee is confronted with an old mother holding up a photo of her missing son” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
VIENNA — Photo/Politics/Austria at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Mumok) is an exhibition that I had decided to skip. Described on the museum website as “an attempt to visualize Austrian history of the last 100 years using selected photos or photo series that show special events or situations,” it seemed a little too inside-baseball for a foreign visitor, especially with the short amount of time I had in the city.
But the striking installation — 100 vertical, khaki-brown panels with attached vitrines, one for each year, fanning out across the floor — pulled me in. The first thing I encountered was a wall text quoting the French Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière (b. 1940). The text, taken from his essay “Senses and Figures of History,” which was written for the catalogue of the exhibition Face à l’Histoire at the Centre Pompidou in 1996, reads in part:
Those who tell us to look closely at representations of the abominations of the twentieth-century and to meditate carefully upon their underlying causes so we avoid repeating them forget one thing: the times of memory-history are not the same as those of truth-history.
The exhibition at Mumok is a counterweight to forgetting, through which, as Rancière observes, “the memorial [becomes] more and more like an empty temple of what is meant to remain unrepresented.”
While a good half of the exhibition is focused on internal affairs, the storyline it creates, and the at times monstrous role played by media manipulation in the shaping of Austria’s political life over the course of ten decades, carry with it a sense of foreboding for the present day, moving from hope to despair, then back to hope and quite possibly to despair again.
World War I, precipitated by the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, rapidly escalated the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On November 11th, 1918, the day the war ended, Emperor Charles I abdicated, and on the 12th, German-Austria was declared a republic. What followed was a perilous ride through years of recovery, depression, unrest, assassination, war, and renewal, as documented by the photographs, posters, scrapbooks, and ephemera in the exhibition.
The descent of Austria from electoral politics to authoritarianism and Anschluss uncannily parallels the Roman Republic’s slide into civil war and tyranny, fates that hinged on the assassination of a dictator: Julius Caesar by a conspiracy of Senators and, almost 2000 years later, Engelbert Dollfuss by a conspiracy of Austrian Nazis.
After the cataclysm of World War II, the country embarked on a campaign to rehabilitate its image in the form of enlightened socialism, a legacy currently under assault by the emergence of the far-right Freedom Party, one of the nationalist factions on the rise across Europe.
To take in the full scope of this sweeping exhibition is to apprehend the fragility of democratic structures, and how skillfully memory-history can be distorted to drive a destructive course of action. As the wall text on the panel representing the year 1946 states, “One of the Allied powers’ biggest concerns was educating the populace, indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda, about the real extent of the atrocities.”
It’s chilling to contemplate the magnitude of effort needed to convince a deluded public of the fallaciousness of its beliefs, especially in our current predicament, in which the spread of disinformation is decentralized and pervasive. Photo/Politics/Austria may be an exhibition of visual history, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the impossibility of putting the genie back into the bottle…………