Austrian Landscape concept and photos
Doris Maninger: Austrian Landscape
Text with Maurizio Alampi who transformed my ghosts into guests
The suggestions, all contained in the texts chosen to delimitate the concept of the event ‘Hostipitality’ immediately sounded familiar to me. More. It seemed to me that they concerned both my life and my work, summarising in a certain sense both of them.
The journey, the expectation and the surprise of the ‘Other’ and its diversities, the ambiguity of the relationships between those who welcome and those who are welcomed, the exercise of power, the giving and taking that are more or less constraining: these are the aspects which seem to have marked my days with more intensity, pushing me to make choices – not always conscious – both as a woman and as an artist.
What was asked of me was a reflection on my country of origin, Austria, a land I have been trying to “deal with” for many years, ever since I left at the age of twenty to move to Calabria: the South of Southern Italy, a beautiful and difficult region of migration where, in the course of another twenty years, I felt as a foreigner at first, then guest and at the end, also a little “Calabrian”, assimilating a migrant perspective (though on the contrary) that enriched and transformed me.
Austria: notoriously a strange country, that became a (small) Nation only 100 years ago,having previously been the private property of the longest and most powerful dynasty of European rulers (the Habsburgs). An empire in a certain sense “premodern” (in the Europe of nations) and, at the same time, an anticipation of all the problems of cohabitation between ethnic groups, cultures, languages, different economies under the same institutional “roof” (many consider it a sort of precedent of the current European Union). Perhaps, this being for so many centuries “guests” of a higher entity, of a monarchy whose symbol, the double-headed eagle, looked both east and west, has created in its citizens a certain indeterminacy about the rules of the house, or at least the possibility of never feeling completely responsible for it.
Hence, a country that has gone through the tragedies of the last century, with the direct involvement in the Nazi Reich, an involvement never fully assumed as a “national” responsibility, but on the contrary represented from the position and perspective of the “victim”. A country that in a world divided in two by the cold war has subsequently applied a successful model of equidistance at an international level, driven by an economic system with some moderate elements of “socialism” and has finalised the construction of a postcard-like tourist image; an image that today, after an initial (apparently) successful and serene integration in the European Union, has to deal with the imposition of a political leadership that receives its consent thanks to explicit anti-migrant messages and psychotic affirmations of a new (quite uncertain) national identity.
The installation took shape – I always work this way – starting from my favorite material: textile. More precisely, a brown knitted jacket from the 1930s, worn out, moth-eaten and full of holes, which I have mended in different colours over a long time. Inside of it is thick white cotton, to give structure and enhance the visibility of the holes. Finally, an intricate embroidery that suggests, at a close observation, landscapes, pastures, baroque bell towers, the dominant imaginary of the Austrian nation, all left in a field of indeterminacy (as undetermined its identity remains).
A dress without a body and without a head but with a structure capable of sustaining itself, which still contains the signs of past grandeur and care that generations of “guests”, halfway between subjects and citizens, have dedicated to its construction. Basically a ghost, and like most ghosts, headless.
The colours I chose are the brown of the earth and the green of the forests (which were also the colours of the first Nazi uniforms), the red of peasant clothes (and of blood), the white of innocence (and of the self-proclaimed superior “race”): all that evokes, with its load of ambiguity, the “Heimat”, this great word of German romanticism, which can express a sentiment of poignant love for one’s own land but also the selfish closure of that same land towards every supposed “invasion”. A word that refers to the nightmares of a recent past but at the same time to the nostalgia for the homeland left behind, in this sense also the word of migrants. A word, whose initial ‘H’ is legible in the intricate patterns of the embroidery, as if ready to reoccupy a larger space of the scene.
To support the “bust” on its top, like the columns in many Biedermaier houses, a dark table of an austerity only slightly softened by three legs with a lion’s paw.
A typical piece of furniture, part of the country´s history and still present in the values of a certain Catholic bourgeoisie, is performing solidity, the conviction of the superiority of its moral principles, with few concessions to decoration.
And then, under the table and the bust, is a carpet.
A rug made of socks of various origins, more or less from the same period of the jacket, repeatedly mended with infinite care, an expression not only of a necessity but also of an ethics of “conservation” (peasant, petty bourgeois, catholic). It´s a reuse of clothing between generations that speaks of the value attributed to things of use. It speaks of how the symbols of the powerful always rest on daily life, on the trust, and the devotion of the many.
The darning, stitched together and changing scale, have multiplied their visual strength and their “beauty” as I created this internal plot holding them together and I obtained an external perimeter that almost took on the form of a heart.
I like to think that it can be a metaphor of what Austria, defined in countless slogans “the heart of Europe”, certainly has been, that Austria is no longer, if not in a merely geographical sense, and that Austria might return to being it, if finally it would confront itself with this past (even with its “honorable” parts).
Because I think it is inevitable that the carpet will remember the images that most of all Austria would like to remove from memory (its own and that of others), that of the heaps of objects belonging to deportees in concentration camps, perhaps the most indelible image of the Nazi nightmare .
But the carpet is also the landscape trampled by many feet, the feet of the countless individuals who have crossed it over the centuries, different in culture, languages, religion, who with their lives have left an important legacy to modernity: the dream of the possibility of accepting unity in diversity, of living together and managing to make of difference an inestimable wealth.
This is a “legacy” that has fascinated artists and intellectuals alike and which does not register the same interest in contemporary political elites (starting with the Austrian ones).
To complete, in the strict sense of the term, Austrian Landscapes, there is a thoughtful woman in porcelain, standing as a unit of measurement of “everything” that I tried to express. An observer inside the installation but also, visibly, outside of it, sitting on the only piece of cloth that is not a sock but a “grip” from the kitchen. A glove – very old and “used” too – which serves to protect your hands from burning, a carpet in the carpet that isolates her from all the rest, a small area, a bit like a sacred home.
I would like that the woman, beyond any possible reading, could turn out to be the three-dimensional epitome of the concept and of the questions I wanted to make “visible”: can one be without history by having a long history? Can one remain without a true idea of the future by having such a heavy past?
A feminine look at the world, capable of going beyond apparent differences and not projecting one’s own desires and fears onto others, could help to indicate new paths of thought and action?
A nation whose key to success has historically been “marriage diplomacy” (Tu felix Austria nube *), should be particularly sensitive to the topic.
- ‘Tu Felix Austria nube’ refers to the motto that appears on the weapons of the Habsburgs, which as rulers used for their expansion and then for the consolidation of the Empire, more marriage than wars.