Some Thoughts on The Traveling Artist, Tourism, and Mayo Yonesho's film 'Wiener Wuast'

Paul Sakoilsky

(as seen at the MASC Foundation, Vienna, May 27th.1 )




"At home he feels like a tourist.
He fills his head with culture."

At Home He's a Tourist, Gang of Four. 1979.

"The moment he entered the city, the stranger was led to the Home.
His guard said to him on the way:

'You'll hold it against me, but it's the rule. No one escapes the spectacle of happiness.'

Maurice Blanchot, 'the idyll'.2

one.

I read the call for submissions for this current issue of /seconds, after I had just returned to Vienna from Hermann Nitsch's Museum opening in Mistelbach (an hour from Vienna by train), having stayed there the night after the after-party. Mistelbach is the nearest town to Schloss Prinzendorf. There were according to the papers, some 3,000 people at the opening. The main thing that struck me, was the fact of a life, totally and absoltuely given over to the work. A really great exhibition. I came back to Vienna early in the morning, tired from partying, to continue working/hanging my and Derek Ogbourne's exhibition, 'Dark Times', at Area 53 Galerie, Vienna.

/SECONDS issue 6: 'Things that Move'. An issue dedicated to 'tourism'? I had just quickly read the submissions letter/essay, i.e.:

"Within the 'practices' and 'performance' of contemporary tourism, material objects are given meaning and status and are endowed with symbolism and power in the use (and misuse) of the material world through travel...[...]...The tangible, the world of places and things, is constituted by the transcendent objects of the cogito, coded in remembrance with edifices, monuments, souvenirs, etcetera..." I had an appointment with Karin Sulimma and Mounty R.P. Zentara the artist/gallerists who run Area 53 to do some more work on the hanging, and to go and visit the MASC foundation with them, which lies in the Brunnenviertel, the area around the Viennese Brunnenmarkt in the 16th District. I will say something about this area below. Mounty was showing a light/video installation there, and it was also a good chance to visit another part of Vienna and see another gallery. I was a little hungover from the party, in a pleasant dreamy state, and thinking about what I might write for the seconds issue? The deadline was a couple of days away I think — which led me to thoughts about the traveling artist, vis-à-vis, tourist? traveler? His/her status?

There are many definitions to be found of tourism and tourist - but one of the main ones seems to boil down, to travel/stay in a foreign country, for the purpose of leisure, for a limited period of time, without remuneration in the visited country. Now of course, the term holiday, comes from 'Holy Days', and one of the earliest forms of tourism and holiday making (tourist/holidaymaker) in earlier days, certainly on a mass level, (that is, incl. the general populace), were of course pilgrimages, which took place on holy days. Now, whilst these pilgrimages were solidly based within a religious social structure, as Chaucer's Canterbury's Tales shows us, they could also be pretty bawdy proceedings/journeys, not so dissimilar from today's holidays. A journey with merry-making, eating and drinking and a bit of debauch thrown in, and at the journeys end, some cultural sightseeing, qua. Canterbury Cathedral/Thomas Beckett the martyr's Shrine.

The idea of being a tourist, a 'holiday maker', per se, as in going somewhere, where one knows no one, and where one knows little or nothing of the country/culture, and where one is supposed to be purely at 'leisure', a vehicle for consumption and little else, on 'holiday', has always made me a little uneasy. I guess, on a basic level, it is the whole enforced ideological/mythological enclosure of (en)forced enjoyment, enforced leisure; the 'traveling' through a reified field of mystification's and mythologies and signification/ideologies passed off as the 'real' experience. Of course, like most people, I love traveling, at least in principle: seeing, experiencing new cultures, peoples, landscapes/cityscapes. And yet, there is something disturbing in the magic slide-show that tourism, the tourist trade offers up to us, with what seems to me to be its false promise of a redeemable tomorrow: the holiday. Just take a look at the way countries sell themselves as tourist attractions, with such strictly regulated schematizations, leaning on stereotypes (branding), that if they were raised as exemplary examples of country x,y, z by an outsider, outside of the mercantile tourist nexus, would quite likely offend the country signified?

Everything, even the most 'real', 'authentic' experiences, such as drinking a Campari soda in Italy, an espresso etc., can, if one's not careful, take on a completely film-like, fake/perverse quality. One feels as if one were on a film-set - perhaps, it's all too Italian somehow, too natural; the Parisian streets somehow too Parisian; the Malay jungle, too much like a David Attenborough film, etc., etc.

And yet, I admit, to a liking for the perverse. Consider for instance, the strange effects in Fellini films where most of the dialogue is self-consciously dubbed. There can be a great pleasure, the pleasure of simply drifting through a sea of significations, meanings curtailed here and there and everywhere, by one's gap in knowledge, of the language and the culture. I admit to a kind of 'love/hate' relationship in such traveling, but then, the dialectical interplay imbedded in this love/hate experience is, as has been so often cited, qua. attraction/repulsion, constitutive of desire. But for me, as for many involved/reading this journal, I imagine, one of the first questions I ask when traveling, is can I work there? What work can I get done? Even if only carrying notebook/sketchbook/laptop/camera etc. And in this sense, the traveling artist, (writer, philosopher) does seem to differ in an important way from most other travelers. For it seems to me, an artist, by his/her very nature, is never off the job. Even when relaxing, this is only ever a gap/pause towards the next work/thought/text? The world/experience is always already seen as potential material, potential work.

So, thinking along such lines, it was somehow totally apt that I should be shown Maya Yonesho's film 'Wiener Wuast' at the MASC Foundation, as it seemed to answer or rather explicate, in aesthetic form, precisely this issue.

two.

'Wiener Wuast' — MASC Foundation and some general thoughts on traveling and tourism.

After checking out Mounty R.P. Zentara's light and video installation in one of the MASC rooms giving out onto the street, one the MASC Director's, Roland Schütz showed me round the exhibition. First a quick word on Zentara's installation. The installation consisted of blue (almost I.K.B.) fluorescent strip lighting running vertically on the two walls, with a computer terminal at the end — centre — of the far wall, reading out a coded pseudo-military message, as one might find in a nuclear bunker/war room, ending with the transmission, (paraphrased from Memory): VIRUS: HOMO SAPIENS — RED ALERT, followed by an extreme high pitched noised, and end of transmission — at which point it started all over. The light installation did serious things to one's colour perception — i.e. for a full 3-5 min the world outside appeared a bright orange-yellow. Simple or rather minimal in construction, with the intense blue inside, and the unavoidable perceptual shift in the eye-mind of the viewer/participant, juxtaposed with the computer video/text-piece, somehow much more than the sun of its parts, it was an impressive installation.

There were eight artists in the show; but the MASC foundation gallery is a very interesting space; rather than one or two large rooms, there is a series of six rooms, that in fact made it much more, in the main, like a series of solo exhibitions. Of these 'shows', another that should be mentioned, were the films of Paul Bush, a British artist/filmmaker, who teaches at Goldsmiths. There were three short films shown in total, but I am mainly thinking of the 2004 film, 'While Darwin Sleeps', a stopgap animation of thousands of insects that was a beautifully structured, in a crazy piece of deconstructive post-psychedelia.

I've always had a bias against animation. The basic fact being that so much of it that I have ever seen, has, for me, been so bad — so much of it seeming to be like some awful provincial post-surrealism. It is always a good thing to have one's judgments challenged. As well as Paul Bush's films utilizing stop-gap animation techniques, there were also the films of Maya Yonesho.

As I have already stated, when I went to the MASC foundation, I was a little hungover from the Nitsch Museum party, in a pleasant dreamy state, and I was thinking about what I might write for the seconds issue. With my thoughts loosely questioning the status of traveling artist, vis-à-vis, tourist? Traveler? His/Her status? It was then that Roland Schütz showed me, after watching Paul Bush's films, into the room set aside for Maya Yonesho in which a couple of chairs sat opposite a monitor. I can't recall whether there were her drawings/watercolours on the walls or not? Yoshesho's films, especially 'Wiener Wuast', seemed to answer, visually/aesthetically, these questions - with the call for submissions essay/text I just speed-read, no doubt at the back of my mind.

Conceptually and formally, the three Yonesho's films on show were all of a piece. We will focus only on 'Wiener Wuast' here — this seems only apt, as this was where I found myself. In English the title is 'Vienna Mix', but as Roland explained, this doesn't have the same play as the original Viennese title, whose meaning is both 'mix' and wurst' (at least phonetically), as in sausage, wurstel stall. As anyone knows who has stayed in Vienna, it is justifiably famous for its sausages/sausage stalls.

The artist makes a series of watercolours, all of which contain schematic/abstracts of various elements that are filmed in the background. [Cf. Stills and the link for the QT movie]. The hundreds (thousands?) of small-scale watercolours are used as material for stop-gap animation, carried out with her hand holding up the small rectangular paper in front — centre screen — of her, and thus acting as a block/filter of the background real world objects/monuments etc. the animations are filmed against. One thus has a continuous interplay between the curtailed/obscured signified/signifier of the 'real', in the case of Wiener Wuast, much of which consists of famous Vienna sights, monuments and 'symbols', such as a wurstel stall, the Oper (opera house), the Secession building, etc., and the drifting, continuously fluid shifting signifiers/symbols that constitute the foreground animation. What immediately strikes me, is how, in Wiener Wuast, one can see at work, what can be read as a practical application: art/film, of the dialectic/argument hinted at/introduced in the essay/text for the call for submissions for 'Things that Move - /seconds issue 6':

"Within the 'practices' and 'performance' of contemporary tourism, material objects are given meaning and status and are endowed with symbolism and power in the use (and misuse) of the material world through travel...[...]...The tangible, the world of places and things, is constituted by the transcendent objects of the cogito, coded in remembrance with edifices, monuments, souvenirs, etcetera..."

If the artist, as suggested earlier, is someone who by definition, is never on holiday, never off the job, (or conterminously, one could say, from the other side, that he/she is someone who is always on holiday, a continual, professional 'tourist'/spectator), we can then see yet another level of meaning/attainment in Yonesho's film. Again, we see here, in a figural form, that art/praxis, can also be used as a valuable defense mechanism against the potentially stultifying, and deadening affects of the tourist-trap-trade, against it's standardization, reification, and coterminous fetishization of the 'real'. In the place of the standardised, stereotyped, commodified utopia of 'Vienna', 'London', 'Taiwan',

'New York', etc., Disney-Version, the artist interpolates and poses an individualized, experiential frame of vision and experience, that even whilst holding to the subjective mode, retains a direct relationship to the real, which of course, includes, not only the glittering spires, the great monuments of civilization et al, but also, all of the residual, the abject, the messy, chancy affairs of the world and our place along, within our journeying.

In the two other films, the same praxis/concept is used, but with the collaboration of others. One, if memory serves me correctly, was made with the collaboration of some Austrian schoolchildren (perhaps in Salzburg?), the artist utilizing their watercolour drawing/paintings amongst her own. The third film was shot in China in collaboration with Chinese art school students, and it was very noticeable and an interesting fact, that this latter was so frenetic, in parts post-psychedelic-manic even. This immediately lent the work a demographical-political aspect. Roland Schütz informed me that the artist is in the process of making a series of travels in different countries/places using the same collaborative method.

There seemed a happy synchronicity in coming across Maya Yonesho's films on the same day as reading the submissions call from seconds. Another happy coincidence, as regards the general idea of 'holidaying', of the carnival or holiday spirit arose when I was told about the Brunnenviertel area around the Viennese Brunnenmarkt in the 16th District has a very particular history where MASC is based. In the first half of the 19th century "contemporary observers considered the many hostelries in the 'Neue Lerchenfeld' [as the area was then called] ...to comprise 'the most splendid single tavern in the Holy Roman Empire'...According to the land registry of the Abbey Church of Klosterneuberg, 103 houses out of 156 hold a license to sell alcoholic drinks, 83 exercising it."3 The area would come to be called Grundstein, the centrepiece of which being the 'Entertainment Avenue' of the Gartnergasse, which later became Grundstiengasse. The area was renowned for its bacchanalian character — an area in which 50 per cent of the population were women, a third of whom were foreign born. "It was, according to the chroniclers of the Old City of Vienna, the 'real Tusculum of Vienna's lower classes, who appear to be celebrating an everlasting fair throughout the summer.'"4 That is, a place of continuous holiday, liberty and license, a place of willful carnival outside the strictures and societal norms of the ruling classes. The growing urbanization and rapid industrialization of the 1890's brought changes to the area, which, due to its cheaper accommodation as well as food, came to be "mainly inhabited by migrants and workers [who were] dominated by their almost legendary social problems and hardships." And yet, the area retained its carnivalesque, archaic-anarchic character; the locals keeping to a "'craving for pleasure'... which could be classified as downright manic". And this contrary spirit continued even into the 30's and forties. A certain holiday, carnival spirit, a reversal of the usual social order remained in place. For Austro-Fascists and the National Socialists, it was a deeply problematic area. "It was considered to be a stronghold of the defeatist, the particularly dangerous abode of the so-called 'Schlurfs; - juvenile outlaws...ironically copying [the] demeanor of local dandies as well as Hollywood Greats." With a love of jazz, and a hatred of mindless discipline and conformity — there were continuous violent conflicts with the Hitler Youth. After the 2nd W.W., the area's beatniks and mods became, yet again, a thorn in the side of the Viennese bourgeoisie.5 So, what might this tell us, if anything? I think it spells out, that the concept and praxis of the 'holiday', can not so easily be constrained within the Disneyfication of the tourist trade, that within the very act of holidaying lies an ever-present potential for disruption of the picturesque brochure, the idyll of the perfectly regulated 'real' world as fed to us by advertising and commerce; a fact, that diversions off of the guided and regulated tour schedule regularly show us.

On route to go and live in Brunei (Borneo), my mother took us on a bit of a tour: Italy, Persia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Singapore. I remember when I was 10 years old, my Mother, elder brother I, during this tour, stayed for 3 days or so in what was then called Persia. This was in the days of the Shah, not long before the coming revolution, the Shah's despotism propped up by the USA and Britain. I recall even as a boy just how curtailed were the freedoms of any guests to the country. The Shah only wanted the rest of the world to see the sparkle, and not the terrible truths lurking beneath the surface, and so any journey had to be okayed with officials, police, etc. I recall, even when we went to buy some pistachios from a little shop near the hotel, we were obviously and openly followed by the police. Any sightseeing was strictly regulated. One of the sightseeing tours that were allowed, to gain foreign currency I assume, was to the famous bazaar. I recall, we were walking through the bazaar. My brother and I had just had a sherbet sorbet, and we were walking amongst the bazaar's glittering commodities, when two children, approximately the same age as my brother and I (10 and 13), came up to us begging, or rather, about to beg, as this is as far as they got. Who knows, maybe they merely wanted to say hello, to practice their poor English. At exactly that moment two policeman/soldiers appeared, literally from nowhere, and cracked both of them over the heads, with sickening ferocity, with huge batons. Both of the boys were knocked to the ground, one of them, definitely unconscious, with blood flowing from what must have been a cracked skull. My mother started to protest, as they continued to beat the children, shouting at them to get up, with all the onlookers looking on, and obviously far too terrified to do or so say anything. Then one of the market traders, with the police barking orders at him, led us away. This was definitely not the intended touristic idyll my poor mother had in mind.

The next day, after eating a beef stroganoff in the hotel, that the waiter assured us was a specialty, my brother and I contracted serious food poisoning — as in really serious. We had to go to a clinic in an ambulance, and there at the clinic, a highly educated dentist started talking to my mother — thinking of it now, putting his life at risk — about the terrible situation that was going on in the country. A country that was being held up in the Western — at least British and American — press at the time as a model of progress and liberalism in the Arab world! He explained how they still had to use bamboo needles in many of the public hospitals, and a thousand other woes, torture, disappearances, abuses of power, etc. He ended by explaining how there would be a revolution in the next year to two years maximum, which would other throw the evil present regime and save the people. I am sure, if he was not a Marxist, he was certainly a Left-leaning democrat. He mentioned no word of religion. One has to recall that the early days of the Iranian revolution really were a people's revolution, and that it was only later, in the counter-revolution, that the extremist religious faction took control, headed by the return of Khomeini himself. The dentist was almost spot on with his prediction, which makes one wonder about his role, and also what would have happened to him during the counter-revolution. In any case, I could draw on plenty of such stories. I simply state this one as an extreme example of a disjunction between the idyll, here, I guess, the glories of ancient Persia in a modern form/tourism, and the truth off of what was, in this particular case, an extremely narrow and threadbare corridor of mystification, coupled with a terrible socio-political situation.

So, what is the status, exactly, of the traveling artist, vis-à-vis, 'tourist', 'tourism'? In fact, what exactly is the status of the contemporary tourist qua. 'tourist'? I admit to uncertainty. And then I recall being in my early twenties in New Delhi with an Indian girlfriend from London. We were staying at her aunt and uncles — he was the minister of health no less, and I of course, prior to arrival had my head full of youthful absurdities. I foresaw myself riding an elephant, decked out in a linen suit with an opium pipe dangling, languorously from my softly, sleepily smiling lips. Of course, the reality was nothing of the kind. So here we were, we had only been in New Delhi for a few days, and we were already bored shitless — disregarding the fact, that she and I were sleeping together in the same room, unmarried and all that, wasn't exactly going down well with the aunt! So, we decided to get a rickshaw over to one of the biggest, new expensive hotels we had been told about, to eat dinner, just for something to do. The hotel was huge, I mean like something only Philip K. Dick or Ballard might have dreamed up. The heavily guarded gates to the hotel stood at a great distance from the hotel itself — and I recall, how these tiny, miniscule figures, beggars at the gates, almost broke my heart, the disparity was just beyond all reason. In the hotel restaurant what became immediately apparent to us, amongst the chit-chat and hubbub of the seriously wealthy Indians, Americans and Europeans, was that none of these people even touched the ground of India, at least not the same ground that 99.9 per cent of the people walked on.

The abject is everywhere, and inequality is never more obvious than when set against the glittering, towering pyramids of the super rich. But there was a callousness, it seemed to me in India then that was simply startling; and we were far, far more content, as soon as we got the hell out of there, as well, as the hell out of New Delhi towards Bombay, then Goa, towards reality, and what can be viewed as abjection, but might also be understood, more simply as reality, gritty, happy/sad, tragic/hilarious, warts, stars, and all.

At least point, I realise, I'm rambling, but then at least I'm not trying to sell an idyll...


©Paul Sakoilsky — 10/11th June 2007.

Mayo Yonesho's film can be viewed (very low size) at http://www.masc.at/movies/


Notes

  1. Paul Bush/James Clay/Darren Leaf/Karin Maislinger/Arno Schmid/Hans Scherl/Maya Yonesho/Mounty R.P. Zentara — 19th May — 2nd June, MASC Foundation, Grundsteingasse 39&40, Vienna.

  2. English Trans. Paul Auster, Station Hill Press, 1985.

  3. Vortwort/Foreword, Wolfgang Maderthaner, pub. Grundstein — permanent • event, 1/07, Impressum, grunstein. http://www.grundstein.at, 2007. (Bilingual: Ger/Eng).

  4. Ibid.

  5. CF. Ibid.