We All Must Make Sacrifices
When Hannes Priesch writes that language is at the center of his activities, he is motivated by sayings such as, “We all must make sacrifices.” The artist quotes such adages, places them in different contexts, changes their typeface, and alters them such that the materiality of surface and font imposes itself on the viewer. Words and letters begin to irritate the viewer in an uncanny way, thus increasingly suggesting a profound entanglement of language, presentation, and politics in which a historicity is made visible that drags along concealed words in order to resurrect them in new garb. What Hannes Priesch does in his exhibition “We All Must Make Sacrifices” can be described as an aesthetic archaeology of symbolic formations of community, home, and faith, which often forces him to deal with his immediate surroundings. In doing so, the artist is able to focus on and combine a variety of areas without becoming inconsistent. Born in 1954 in Volkersdorf near Eggersdorf in Styria, Austria, he studied under Max Weiler at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, counted among the Wilde Malerei group in the 1980s, co-founded the artist group REM, and now lives and works in Semriach near Graz, Austria, and New York. Whereas in the late 1970s, Priesch reflexively questioned the conditions of painting by rendering tangible the thinghood of color and carrier in their respective materialities against the antiquated framed, flat panel, he now uses language to explore tradition, conventions, and the constitution of community with regard to their mediality and materiality.
Placing Priesch in an aesthetic archaeology does not imply exhuming old-fashioned, linear developments, origins, and associations. In his discourse analysis, the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault suggests an archaeology that, instead of locating continuities, explores discontinuities, fractures, thresholds, and borders within history as well as means of distribution, diffusion, and transition within knowledge at large. This archaeology is not interested in denying continuity, but rather in examining the individual, specific logic of an event in relation to its respective, singular circumstances and associations. If there are repetitions in this examination, they are remarkable in the sense that something reappears in a similar (i.e., just shy of identical) way—an irritating stability or an anachronistic revenant that entails new and individual effects, and that, under certain conditions, manages to suffuse established notions with new light. Hannes Priesch’s interest in language can be understood as an archaeology of discontinuous repetition which one may even relate to Jacques Derrida’s concept of language’s capacity for quotability, as both Foucault and Derrida are interested in the possibility of other speech behaviors. Both theoreticians value the highly specific fractures and differences that art creates in its very individual way, particularly since they value art as a place of alternative and reflexive articulation. Where Foucault or Derrida are concerned—not to mention art or aesthetics—it would therefore be inappropriate to simply reproduce the image of one archaeology in another. Much rather, we ought to inquire about the specific aesthetic methods of Hannes Priesch’s art, which, when employing language, are not exclusively concerned with words.
The rallying cry, “We All Must Make Sacrifices”—heard during economic crises and made famous as a political call for austerity measures, and still frequently quoted on various occasions—is sprayed on irregularly hung, differently colored blankets—the kinds in which one cuddles up on a cold night or which one finds in the trunk of a well-equipped automobile (“Just in case…”). The word “Must” is translated into four languages and depicted in four typefaces, which, since the viewers may not be able to read them all and although they may already know the content, can also be interpreted as ornaments. The typefaces are disrupted in their uniformity. They do not exhibit the objective air of newspaper typography (where one might suspect to find this slogan or has already read it). It becomes impossible to thoughtlessly skip the phrase. Who is this We who is to make Sacrifices here? And “What” or “Who” are We to Sacrifice? Both questions aim directly at the constitution of a community’s interior and exterior, whereas the word “Sacrifice” invokes the interdependency of a political-national community and religion: Soldiers die “For God and Country/Für Gott und Vaterland.” This slogan is emblazoned on one of Priesch’s deconstructed “flags” that he put together from old clothes and knitting, along with a Jolly Roger, whose skull is wearing the padded cup of a bra.
Priesch uses blankets with colorful, kitschy, and plushy design which we have all seen before, and repurposed, barely recognizable used clothes that function at once as flags, sculptures, rags, or reminiscences of their unknown wearers. That secret things and uncanny things are highly entangled is not primarily owed to the transition into the intimate and the domestic. It is much rather the material irritation—softness, improvisations, colorfulness, age, wornness, usedness, and an odd sensuous quality—which proves critical. Figures of speech grow; they worm their way into the discourse as unchallenged matters of course and, in doing so, exhibit a problematic persistence or afterglow that shapes everyday affairs. Priesch’s works thus reflect those uncanny associations and interdependences that can also be updated in their individual uses by using contrast and alienation to fracture linguistic matters of course in aesthetic materiality; they avoid self-evident continuities by using an aesthetic-material method of compilation or constellation to rearrange the ways in which signs, language, or expressions are based in a material or medium (such as color, visuality, sound).
By investigating the smooth transitions and rhetorical modes between politics and religion with painting, video art, installations, and performances, Priesch also juxtaposes new yet discontinuous associations: The “Sacrifice” which “We All” (whoever this may be) must make, finds its counterpart in the “Sacrificial Souls” suggested in one of the “flags,” while the series “Durst nach Opferseelen” (“Thirst for Sacrificial Souls”) deals with the source of this odd expression on and with paper: Franz Xaver Hasler’s “Ein Ruf nach Opferseelen” (“A Call for Sacrificial Souls”) was published in the magazine “Der Sendbote des göttlichen Herzens Jesu” in 1931. Priesch takes excerpts from this text, in which the odd expression “Sacrificial Soul” reassesses earthly suffering as a necessary part of salvation, and “paints” them in large letters onto different, highly valuable types of paper; he inverts the letterpress black-and-white to its negative; a random chemical reaction adds a pink or pale red tint to some works, which Priesch leaves there as part of the process. Similarly, the artist pastes a found object—an original “Brief vom Bezirkshauptmann” (“Letter from the District Commissioner”) from 1948, in which patterns of religious and nationalistic slogans are seamlessly inserted into post-war reconstruction and consumer rhetoric—onto high-quality, hand-made paper. In each case, the source, the quote, and the color semantics blend with an uncanny material aestheticization, which at once veils and aestheticizes the respective rhetorical impetus.
Priesch’s interest in the formation of a “We” governs his video studies, which, much like ethnographic studies, explore the marching and assembled bodies, regalia and costumes at the parades and meetings of marching bands and associations such as the Österreichische Kameradschaftsbund (an Austrian veterans’ association). As such customs are ultimately intrinsic to Austrian village life, Priesch’s videos are reminiscent of Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament,” which the writer detected in Hollywood musicals (in the dancing bodies forming abstract ornaments) as well as in Nazi architecture. Priesch’s micro-analytical cinematography tarnishes the regularity that these groups aspire to with “the right attitude and good manners” by looking very closely. Ornamentation is constantly avoided by zooming in so that regularities fray out into irregular details. At one point or another, the camera refrains from showing the literal essence of these events in order to focus on the details of uniforms, insect attacks, and the toe caps of people’s shoes.
Not only the semantics and discourses of the “We” are jeopardized here. Moreover, the politics of entangling aesthetic and symbolic formations are aesthetically and materially analyzed on all levels and in an explicit way by observing, recording and juxtaposing these politics in order to “re-use” them in the literal sense, i.e., in order to “convert” or “rearrange” them in a special function. For this purpose, Priesch uses found objects, which is to say figures of speech and objects from his personal context. In his constellations, Priesch unleashes the presence of the past as well as the past of the present with both horror and wit: without judging or trivializing, but also without playing the innocent bystander. Hannes Priesch does not omit himself from his work: In the exhibition’s opening performance he lay down in a hospital bed, readily playing the first sacrificial offering and ready to set a good example.
Priesch’s works demand and require from their viewers to find their own space and to take a stance. While his compositions are open, they are not miscellaneous conglomerations, even if the improvised elements might suggest this. The act of viewing is held accountable by way of a structure of judgment that is open, but by no means open to anything—for instance, by being asked to become aware of itself as an active part of the process. The table installation “Salvation A/Heils A,” which seems to be a charity’s vendor’s table full of things from mother’s inheritance that are both specific and stereotypical relics (a container of water from Lourdes, a damaged bobble-head dog, handcrafted objects, votive books) is accompanied by a performance, and therefore requires an exchange with the “sales lady” when exploring the objects on display. That two paintings are entitled “Titel auf Anfrage” (“Title Upon Inquiry”) is not a bad pun, but forces viewers to think about their own interest in and involvement with the paintings, which show scenes in various pastel shades with a “secret title” in a quasi-harmonizing Heimatfilm atmosphere and thus reveal their content only on second glance and upon “inquiry.”
The German “verwenden” can be translated as “use” or “utilize.” The prefix “ver-“ often points to a process of transformation, and “wenden” translates to “turn.” The nearest English equivalent to the hyphenated, deconstructed word “ver-wenden” may be “to re-use”—Trans.