Vol. 2 No.5  

Echoes of glory

     Examining the former grandeur of socialist infrastructure and the decay of public works are obsessions of Austrian video artist Josef Dabernig, in an exhibition on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Arts.
     The visuals have the lexicon of a road movie: images of sleepless nights, cars going nowhere, cigarettes, coffee, empty cafes and men looking for a role in modern society.
     Set in Bari, south Italy, ‘Jogging’ shows a car driving on a motorway to Renzo Piano’s Stadio San Nicola, built for the football World Cup in 1990. But a shepherd is herding his sheep along the highway. The stadium itself is decrepit, abandoned and set about by sad, underfed palm trees and stray dogs. Great works are now overtaken by nature and neglect.
     Sometimes the images borders on the banal: such as bald men driving in cars through mountainous areas or a guy in a car sketching on paper to a jazz soundtrack. These feel like preliminary work which could contribute to a greater video piece, rather than a consolidated work-in-itself.
     But the majority of the video art is effective and thematically consistent.
     ‘Wars’ is set in a Polish train and named after the service company for the restaurant car, probably derived from the prefix to capital city Warsaw.
     “I found it a lucky and interesting coincidence, to focus on the absurdity of this word in the dialectic of his global and local meaning,” Dabernig tells The Diplomat. Two waiters patrol empty tables and spotless tablecloths. The only food available is a few bars of chocolate. The workers look bored, smoke, receive no customers and then clean up.
     Sometimes this poetry of emptiness has wit. In Wisla two men enact the roles of manager and assistant on the sidelines of a football match. Walking backwards and forwards from their seats, they chain-smoke and shake their fists at the players – but there is no team or audience, only sound effects: the echo of glory.
     The best piece is ‘Rosa Coeli’ or the Celestial Rose, set in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. A man returns by train to his home town, while a story by Bruno Pellandini is read out in the background. Whereas the narrative charts the problems of a son returning to bury his father in a village he feels estranged from, the images depict the collapse of socialist infrastructure. The story talks of an abandoned monastery, while the visuals show a shot of faceless tower blocks. “There are so many abandoned houses,” reads the soundtrack, “even the cemetery is deserted.”
     There is a lack of an identity and only the vestiges of a former regime exist with no clear direction forward. But symbols of new capitalism remain unused and unloved, such as uneaten western chocolate brands in a train restaurant or slot machines flashing in an empty cafe.
     This recalls the cinematography of early Wim Wenders and his concept that West Germany lacked a self-made identity following the end of the Nazi Empire. This vacancy was occupied by American brands and values. In Wenders’ 1976 masterpiece ‘Kings of the Road’, the main protagonist, drunk on the East German border, utters the oft-quoted saying that the USA has ‘colonised’ the German subconscious.
     Dabernig seems to be applying this theory in part to eastern European countries following the collapse of Communism. But he takes this further and in a more negative direction: there seems to be no embrace of American or European values or branding. Instead there is a hollow heart to his work, where all that is left is a remembrance of an irrecoverable success and hope.

Michael Bird

Josef Dabernig. Filme (featuring GRAM and Markus Scherer)

National Museum of Contemporary Arts (MNAC), Palatul Parlamentului, Calea 13 Septembrie entrance

Until 1 September