Michaelerkirche goes back to the 1200’s and looks it. Being from a country whose ancient history—as far as English-speaking people go—stretches back to Plymouth Rock, I have no local frame of reference. What is the 13th century supposed to look like? Ancient and forbidding, I would think. Dark most certainly—though accommodations have been made for 21st century prejudices, which include a yearning for visibility. Yet I gave the 13th century my due attention and was duly rewarded. I seemed to understand its unpainted stonework, its dankly disarranged furniture, its pointy architecture. (Baroque people had re-shaped it into effeminate s’s and chatty curlicues.) I would even say I got comfortable, though it was nice to know that, waiting outside the door, was a tabloid newspaper with the Kardashians all over it. And if that failed to reassure, there were distinctly twenty-first century people milling about. Their Nikes, Gucci bags, and breath-fresheners were cultural signifiers I’d never cared for back home. They represented the exploitative, ostentatious, and poison-rich society I had happily fled. You couldn’t see the Michaelerkirche in Lansing, Charlottesville, or Cambridge—but you could have this other stuff and, for the first time ever, it seemed perfectly all right.
The crowning marvel of pre-modern statecraft (again, in the English-speaking world) was signed in 1215. When I thought of that, I had my context: I was walking in a place for whose early occupants the Magna Carta was soundbite-new. That’s certainly as old a space as conceived by European white men as I’ve ever set foot in.
It was in Michaelerkirche that Mozart’s as-yet unfinished Requiem was first performed. I’d heard it at Strathmore Hall just last year; by then, the score had been completed and it sounded pretty good.
I went to the Michaelerkirche for an art show that took place in a sub-basement gallery, accessible by stairs you don’t ever want to climb without somebody near you. The theme of the show was Death—not an arbitrary choice in such a place. Death has had its dominion in the sub-chambers of Michaelerkirche since the 1400’s, when the well-to-do could pay for a slot in the Michaelergruft, or “Main Crypt”, or have themselves buried underneath a slab in the church itself. (The practice of crypt burials was abolished in 1784 by Joseph II, who introduced the sensible notion that people decayed a helluva lot quicker if you put them in a sack and buried ‘em in a plot of good, old-fashioned terra firma. People raised such a stink about it, however, that Joseph had to pull back and allow an optional coffin for those who were repelled at the thought of body-sack and old earth mingling.) My artist-friend, Stefan, and three other colleagues had chosen to paint the dead here. Stefan is a cheerful fellow whose morbidity—if it exists at all—is no more noticeable than mine or anybody else’s. His and his colleagues’ intentions were purely artistic. They knew that they were onto something and went at it with the single-minded attention of any hunter who has found his quarry. They were fascinated by the in-between state of the corpses and wanted to explore the paradox of visible decay versus phantom vitality. These Michaelergruft dead have not completely deteriorated the way people do in an ordinary plot. Many have even have retained features that are uncomfortably close to ours. After all these years, they look like us.
The Michaelergruft is not the clammy place one might think it is but, rather, a posthumous drying-kiln where you can put a dead body one century and know it will be well desiccated by the next. (Because of its slow-drying nature, this is a process the living must take on faith—which is what one does around there.) In the numerous centuries that have elapsed since the bodies were encrypted, as it were, a satisfactory mummification has occurred, in which these bodies have retained their shape and features—but don’t stink! (Caution: if you’re anti-mold, you’ll probably consider them stinky.) Some of the bodies have popped out of their coffins and sit in the open contemplating eternity. If you’re of a mind, you can go up and touch their half-ripped waistcoats and bizarrely time-resistant hair. The livelier-looking corpses appear to smirk or grimace as they effortlessly hold their poses for you.
The art I would see was based on a keenly dispassionate analysis of the surface textures and, possibly, existential meaning of these bodies’ lingering presence. I think the iron-nerved men and women who thought nothing of confronting the dead in their work directly should be commended. They knew they were doing something that wouldn’t pass muster in the marketplace, but like curious people everywhere, they didn’t give a damn and went for the experience itself.
Stefan had invited me to come without providing me with a whole lot of background. He just talked about the place itself: how it had become user-friendly to both the living—who could go see the dead if they wanted to; and the dead—who were kept there for that purpose. He may have been concerned that my queasy American sensibilities would be offended and sought to appease them by means of pleasant obfuscations. If he was worried about that, he needn’t have been; they were absolutely fascinated.
I had not been to an exhibit of this type before. Art exhibits in the States are generally about the people who attend them rather than artist, artwork, or even the free food. (People who come to eat are interested in all the other people who have come to eat and wage little toothpick wars among themselves; otherwise, they have nothing to offer and are hardly noticed.) High-profile galleries have a certain celebrity, of course, but in the Hierarchy of Celebrity Worship, art dealers are way, way down on the totem pole, next to famous anglers perhaps. What you go to see at an American art exhibit are The People, particularly those glittering sorts who might deign to waltz in for a little culture. (An art exhibit achieves a higher profile if it is graced, not by culture mavens or professor types, but movie stars or reality show divas.) Should they choose to buy a little culture, they enter the rarefied world of art patronage and are idolized by just about everyone who either can’t afford to buy art or just can’t get enough of Other People—particularly Celebrity People—for trying.
The type of Serious Art Exhibit you see at colleges or among non-profit galleries is perfunctorily attended, mostly by artists, their spouses, their friends, and one newspaper critic who feels cheated all to hell. So they don’t count.
This exhibit was unique in that the people who had come way, way down to the church’s sub-basement were interested primarily in the artwork. This is a simple concept, but I’m not used to it being practiced. I think I must have experienced the culture shock that followed on a deeply physical plane. After the worst was over, I had to sit down and pull myself together. I felt fine after a while—though I would never shake a sense of disconnectedness and didn’t try.
The serious people at this art exhibit may, in fact, not have been as serious as I thought because they were all speaking in German, a regrettable lapse I could not possibly, as the sole American, make up for by myself. They could have been talking about the sorts of things I always hear at American openings: what trips might be left before the New Year, minor ailments easily fixed by “tucking”; a shock jock’s latest foul-mouthed tirade. As I stood there idealizing their chatter and elevating their shallow turn of mind, everybody may have been talking about The Oscars.
But I don’t think so. After more serious milling, a casually dressed young lady motioned for us all to sit down. Those of us who had chairs obliged her. Everybody else tried to stand as inconspicuously as possible, as the Viennese don’t wish to seem socially disobedient. A respecter of local forms and customs, I felt the dawning embarrassment that starts with an averted gaze and goes on from there.
She talked for a while about coming attractions: a film, a little “artist’s” talk, and browsing among the paintings afterwards. She talked for a while longer about other things that were obviously part of any opening act’s repertoire in those parts. When a particularly telling observation drew appreciative titters, I was assured that people who could understand whatever she was saying were actually listening. Where I come from, half of the people would have gotten up and gone someplace else, preferably to discuss what a disaster they’ve gotten themselves into and how to extricate themselves from it. We don’t have this kind of time in the U.S. Our specialty is not so much participating as moving on.
At long last, our guide pointed to a screen and turned down the lights. A projector was flipped on and The Film—possibly a feature of every such event here in Vienna—began.
The Film showed some of the project members rooting about an artificially lighted dungeon that was coffin-strewn and arch-heavy. It was a low-ceilinged sort of place that had most of the people in The Film bending and ducking as they did things. In the first segment, a shaggy-bearded fellow drew skulls and other deathly appurtenances on a plain wooden coffin. He was one of the people who had been sitting up front with a tormented look about him. You don’t see a lot of artists like him in the U.S. anymore. They’ve cleaned up their act and gone into Marketing.
When The Film began, somebody patted this guy on the back. The person sitting next to him jabbed his ribcage. Another whispered something that was obviously intended to be funny into his ear. I thought the guy was going to hit this last person for a moment, but he couldn’t commit himself because, in the film, he was still drawing his bones and skulls on the coffin and was completely full of the moment and himself. It was my first touch of Ego a la Wien. I’ll remember it always.
Another guy painted the bodies themselves. His chef d’oeuvre was a huge allegory that paired a corpse whose deeply-rutted skin recalled the surface of a dried lake-bed with a lithely beautiful young woman, who was presumably there for comfort. The Film showed the corpses only. The young woman was perhaps too shy to come out, damnit.
My friend Stefan was in The Film too, but he was too busy cutting up with the cameraman—and anybody else who happened to come by. His little dungeon was a jolly place where people might pass around the bottle and not get any work done at all. (When alone, Stefan’s workaholic tendencies make his studio a quaint but unruly property-closet. Here among the dead, his normally productive spirit could lapse for a little while.) Yet he managed, when left alone, to produce some striking images. His death-disfigured noblewoman gave a living lady the willies. When she found her voice, she said something that had a dismally familiar ring: “I like this as art, but I would never hang it on my wall!”
Some things don’t play no matter where you are.
When The Film was over, the shaggy-headed artist was joined by one of his cleaner-cut colleagues and they half-read, half-enacted, a terrible script somebody had written about art and something else; art and this other thing; art and your car; art and the shop around the corner; art and the postal service; art and the gross national income of Turkmenistan. (Stefan would relinquish his standing position to come over and ask me whether I was getting any of what they said; I said “Nada” without any profound sense of regret.) As they droned on, I noticed something else about the Viennese character that is tragically underdeveloped in America: intellectual stamina. These guys could talk a blue streak and not miss a breath! Yet as I looked at the audience, I saw their rapt concentration reflected right back. They were listening! This doesn’t happen where I come from. I can make someone glassy-eyed by just intimating that there are artistic nuances somewhere in the building. If I lose my head so much as to identify them, I can tell the moment at which this person ceases to follow me and just nods a raggedy doll-head until she can find an opportunity to excuse herself. These people were being subjugated and they were enjoying it—or giving every appearance of enjoyment without the benefit of a second glass.
When the symposium was finally over, people did what they generally do at the movies: they stretched like experienced yogis and headed for the wine-bar. But until that moment they were a drolly captive audience who got whatever humor there was to be had in all the art-jokes; paused respectfully as Major Points were being made; and bent forward in their seats at obvious climaxes. They were not the old tweedy crowd you see at the non-profits. They were, in fact, an almost slovenly, and most definitely heterogeneous, crew.
The pictures were hung along two rows that ran the length of the room. Somebody had come up with the idea of suspending them by means of tiny filaments. So they dangled in front of us, part bauble and part image, displacing the notion that pictures have to be hanging flat against a wall. I rather liked the suspension effect. It showed the three-dimensional nature of a painting, which doesn’t get a lot of play in museums and galleries. If you’d wanted to, you could have pushed the paintings back and forth, like mobiles. I didn’t see anybody try that. An Interactive Painting would strike the Viennese as disrespectful.
During this final phase of the event, people filed solemnly past each painting. Intentionally or not, they imitated the funereal practice of filing past a dead body. Thus was the central metaphor “internalized” by a group of people who were quick to adapt their collective mood to the work itself. Glory be! These people are really staying with this thing!
Each artist had written a statement—and in some cases, captions—designed to shed light on either this particular body of work or the creative process generally. These, along with the paintings themselves, were respectfully considered and discussed with an invigorating sense of what they meant and how they organically connected to the artist’s imagination.
Granted, everybody might have all been saying “Eeeuuuuuwww!” very politely, but it was their fierce and fighting concentration that distinguished them from the type of American audiences I was accustomed to. These people were really trying. In Richmond, all but the diehards and toothpick warriors would have been outta there. The next day everybody would be on the phone with their friends telling them to stay away from that awful place, it’ll get you down so much you won’t know what to do with yourself. I swear, I don’t know what gets into people sometime. I guess they just want to be different.
A student of Odd Nerdrum’s had participated in the show. If there was any buzz, it was probably on account of him. His two highly creditable paintings certainly drew the most people. You could stretch matters and even say they were mobbed—though I wouldn’t know because I’ve never seen people get rowdy in front of a painting before. Not even when it’s textbook-famous and been made into ashtray bottoms. Taken all and all, paintings just aren’t sexy. And these particular paintings were dead in the water as sex magnets. Not that that even need be said at this point.
The crowd started heading back upstairs at a signal I failed to notice. Stefan, I and a girlfriend of his decided we wanted to stick around for a while and were escorted to an after-hours cell by the same young woman who’d been our Thoughtful Guide to the proceedings down below. We traipsed down ancient corridors hung with mediocre paintings of unhappy clerics and undignified saints. As one corridor dissolved into another, I had an Ah-ha! experience I didn’t share: it was in places like this that a church put its B-stuff.
Once among the large and boisterous crowd, we all talked for a while about the same sort of things those over-eager artists were going on and on about at the opening. The shaggy-headed guy played the hurdy-gurdy—a perfect instrument for him. Everybody else was still talking up a storm when I left.
It was a perfect evening in a perfect city. I would be on my way home the very next day.
Epilogue (Because I Want One)
You get accustomed to being in an old place with an almost disappointing ease of adjustment. After an hour or two at Michealerkirche, I could have been at an arts center in Northern Virginia. Well, not really. There were all those gutturals flying around. And, of course, a whole roomful of death-centered paintings, which, if hung anywhere near Richmond, would cause an arts-funding exodus throughout the State of Virginia.
I must, however, defend the open-mindedness of a canny old city in hosting an exhibit that would gripe the guts of most of us here. We live in a “life-affirming” culture that happens to kill lots of people accidentally. And when we do go on a rampage, as we have overseas, we are uneasy about it—even as we “support our troops” and try to be patriots. Except, of course, for the people who don’t.
The Viennese are used to things being very old, in which case they’re not bothered by the notion that everybody who is presently alive won’t be someday. In America, a keener sense or mortality wouldn’t hurt us even as we kill ourselves without knowing it. It might also lead to a history-conscious perspective that is long overdue. The typical Viennese crinkles his lips into a smile so drenched in irony that it would be lost on most Americans. This is the death-sense talking. It says: “We understand these things and they don’t bother us anymore.” It also makes allowances: “But don’t worry if you can’t.” But it insists on an eventual loss of innocence: “But you will. You will be as old as we are and you will know that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen.” Then a pause, as the crinkle refreshes itself: “Because death is everywhere. It’s everywhere you are and look.” Then it gives a ghastly chortle: “And the strangest thing is, we like it. We really do. Ta-ta.”
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