TANJA BRANDMAYR: The Sum is More Than the Single Parts

The Sum is More Than the Single Parts

It is interesting that subculture avows the family exhibition and in this way indicates a possible counter-position to a thoroughly familiar complex of urban isolation and social atomization. It becomes clear that Helga and Herbert Schager and their children Valarie and Felix Schager along with Ufuk Serbest inhabit different dimensions in the atomized universe, when Felix Schager says: “We live as a family, but that doesn’t interest us.” What this probably means is that family is not to be explained in a biological/ideological way, but rather at best briefly released for – quasi phenomenological – observation. Family as a way of cultivating what is similar and as a matter-of-fact practice of ties and references, which are equally based on interest, confrontation, participation, acceptance and individuality: five individualist playing family. As Ufuk Serbest and Valarie Schager describe this in relation to the artistic work of the participating protagonists: “The media we use are not really so different, we all work in fine art with images, video, photography, music, computer programs and installations. It is the same backgrounds that move us, a harmonious background, so to speak, in our perspective of the world, overlaps in our views. Yet each of us expresses that in different treatments and styles.” In other words, there is the family and shared works, but the focus is always on the presentations of the different artistic positions and forms of expression of the individual artists.

What is conspicuous about the Schagers is a common background in the independent scene, perhaps better called subculture. “It is interesting that our children have ended up back there today, in what we helped to build up because something was missing – simply,” according to Herbert Schager, “because there was nothing exciting for us there in the 70s and 80s.” Asked about subculture as inspiration, Helga Schager responds, “Everywhere we came, we found ourselves again in this mind of subculture, in this expansive open way of conducting society, where there is little funding, but there is a lot more going on.” It is an energetic network that has taken Helga and Herbert Schager to many places in Austria, in Europe, and even as far as Brazil, Bolivia and elsewhere, and several times to New York.

In his email announcement about the exhibition, Martin Reiter from the Berlin arthouse Tacheles refers to an innovative aspect of the concept of the family exhibition, so to speak, which can certainly be read as a harsh criticism of the conventional art system and the art market from the side of subculture. “The uniformity and levelling of our reality dominated by the market economy is neither fate nor providence, but simply a passing state of quasi mafiosi conjunctions […]. In the work by the Schagers there is not only a depth of subject matter, but also energy and fun […]. Where the common western curator becomes perplexed and ineffectually jumbles things up (art and artist), thinking to meet the spirit of the times in this way, the exhibition in Tacheles offers a new perspective […].” Reiter thus criticizes a curatorship that works at an abstract level with a quasi non-substantial textualization of art and excludes the art that cannot be absorbed by the mainstream in a current discourse. Art that cannot be subsumed as text based on a division of labor and market economy, because it sensibly, sensuously, subversively, utopically or simply as a whole thematically eludes/resists this, is dematerialized by the conventional system of art to the point of non-existence.

To quote Martin Reiter again: “Tacheles purposely shows these cross-generational works as an argument in the incipient discussion of sense and system. This means that a creative fulfilled life is possible […]” far removed from the aforementioned, already commonly familiar dynamics. The Schagers, in any case, work in different constellations in different ways even with the materialities and qualities of language, narration and concept, to the extent that they accept different references, ambiguities and metalevels as creative elements. To exemplify this, a few aspects of their different working approaches are to be highlighted.

In Helga Schager’s work, language and symbolism are often a central creative element; language is sometimes probed with “signal words” to find its associative content. Important continuities in Helga Schager’s works are themes like the human being, woman, development or political aspects of gender, civil courage, desire and utopia. The works strongly oriented to haptic perception and sensuality comprise a broad spectrum ranging from paintings, textile images, modeled graphic works, all the way to installations, computer graphics or the series „Information on the Bulletin Board“. Using various “writing implements” such as chalk, nails or staples, this series demonstrates the gravity of constructed meaning and the degree to which inscriptions are irreversible. This immediate material tangibility is augmented with floating symbols of desire. In other artistic works the heaviness of reality is contrasted with the lightness and immateriality of conceptual work – usually with a suitable degree of humor and a playful character.

Political engagement and conceptual work are also easily found in Valarie Schager and Ufuk Serbest’s work. They were invited to Beirut, for example, where they realized artistic projects. In a photo series they documented the impact of the Hisbollah: fear, state of emergency and an abstruse division in the city led the two to project images of broken houses onto intact houses, thus creating an uncynical synthesis of two real, mutually contradictory facts. “We consider art in public space to be important for emancipation, enlightenment and development,” says Ufuk Serbest. In addition to political references, though, Valarie Schager also has the work “Saiko”, which as a familiar simple sliding puzzle in a different form as an „invitation to touch a painting“ again relates to playing and haptics.

The play instinct is also familiar to Felix Schager in a strong reference to the aesthetics of computer games. In video films, images and photo series, he works with snapshots, moods and atmospheres. Playing becomes action and integrates the most diverse signs, such as those borrowed, for example, from everyday symbolism or exclamations. Yet in the videos, text also arises subliminally in the way the different tempos of everyday life and action are dealt with (“Waiting Room”) and in the dramaturgy of everyday gestures, such as the qualities of handshakes (“Privatpolitisch peinlich” [“Privately Politically Embarrassing”]).

Unlike Herbert Schager’s films involving image and rhythm, his picture series integrate words and language as a creative element. What is particularly striking about the computer-processed photos is that despite the fragmentary quotations, there is a reference to two major thematic fields relevant to art history, namely the tradition of the self-portrait and the focus on the inner and outer world. The programmatic gaze at the self seems to be both self-presentation and examination at the same time. Inside and outside seem to have merged already. In picture series (“Stencils”, “Brazil”, “CSI”) Herbert Schager works with material from the outside world, with images of urban forays, travels, overflowing architecture and social conditions, with living signs of pop culture and subculture, with stencils, fragments of words, symbols. Image fragments and self-portraits are mounted in these pictures. Conversely, so to speak, in the arrangement of his “Living Room” one finds TV images that already represent a mixture of the set pieces of the collective inside and outside world; these are then augmented with real set pieces of the world, which can be recalled from memory in the working process, in other words from an extensive image collection located in the mind and in the photo archive at the same time. Herbert Schager’s pictures tell of a life with genuine and false facsimiles and somehow of the desire to displace social and political circumstances. Or of a mutual suspension of virtualities, behind which the individual significance is always first to be sought. Nothing seems to be (merely) the way it presents itself to the outside.

Herbert Schager notes that it is interesting to observe that it has become fascinating again for the children to grasp art as a totality of various art directions, that “the children are working in almost as much a multimedia way again as Pink Floyd in the 60s”, as is evident in the music acts/visuals “Def Ill” and “Fireclath” by Felix Schager, or in “Peligro Productions” by Valarie Schager and Ufuk Serbest. Yet this statement is made relative again when one considers the constitution of art in the difference of a generation. Training by itself has changed, integrating art, society and science. Then strange fruit is found, such that artists increasingly seem to be talking about strategies of the market and major event managers conversely present themselves as artists, simply because they can afford to go “international” art shopping in the global supermarket. Both society and the market have become more liberal – yet either way it is important to know the rules, even though the Schagers are unanimous in an unwillingness to serve certain mechanisms of the market. Five familiar individualists from one family recognize and reflect on what they have in common and their differences – and they “pep each other up”, as Helga Schager says. As an observer, one is tempted to say that from this perspective, while the apple might not fall so far from the tree, the falling and landing of the apples can sometimes turn out quite differently.

Tanja Brandmayr, author and cultural producer