“un/mute”
Austrian Cultural Forum

The Austrian Cultural Forum, a sliver of a modernist building on East 52nd Street, is currently filled with collaborations by artists from Europe and the States--Germany, Poland, Malta, and New York are among the places represented by the 28 artists who teamed up to work together in groups of two. Often collaborating across considerable distances, the technology of the Internet made it relatively easy to communicate. Many of the works involve video projections; there is a good deal of sculpture as well. Begun in 2020, the 18-month-long project addressed the contingencies of shared effort, as well as the difficulties of working under quarantine conditions. The small spaces in the narrow building, crowded with objects made near by and far away from New York, intensified viewers’ feelings that this show was to communicate the closeness of spirit between artists who were working at long distances from each other. This is a time of immediate exchanges of information, given the ubiquitous presence of the Internet. So despite the differing backgrounds of the artists, the feeling of the show is closer in appearance, from one collaborative work to the next, than one might imagine. Living in the new century, artists are making contact in ways that dismiss geographical differences in favor of an often technological process that cannot be easily sourced. As a result, “un/mute” possesses a similarity of fracture, reinforcing our notion that art has become entirely global.

The duo, Mo Kong, based in New York, and Olesja Katšanovskaja-Münd, from Estonia, offered a short video, a rock, and wallpaper as their contribution to the show. The artists connected through the theme of mining of fossil fuels and minerals in their respective homelands, China and Estonia, and used artificial intelligence programs to process and alter images of landscapes from their native homes. The dominant image was that of a large, cliff-like embankment of rocks, with one person standing in front of it; this takes up the lower half of the picture, with the upper half being devoted to sky. The collaboration has resulted in a powerful, if enigmatic work, devoted to an impassive alienation. We don’t know who did what; we recognize only the atmosphere of distant emotion, a feeling that tends to run throughout the environments we come across. Aaron Bezzina, who is from Malta, and Kyle Hittmeier, from New York City, also worked together, and their final works grew out of conversations about space and post-intimacy. Hittmeier fashioned a video seemingly abstract in nature but more likely exampling the galaxy Andromeda, where digital flags wave and objects fly in space, possibly launched by Bezzina’s large double catapult, a contraption that seemed to originate from the Middle Ages. Clearly, the two pieces were not closely related in outlook, but the presence of something as archaic as a wooden catapult, joined to the high-tech presentation of the video, made for an interesting contrast. The shift in theme we experience here concentrates our attention on ways of seeing culture, from both a nearly antiquarian and a technical point of view.

Kris Grey, who works in New York, and Barbara Maria Neu, who is from Austria, created a video and three sculptures consisting of formless, plush, pink-colored shapes resting on the top of wooden cubes. The same pink fabric appears in the video, set to a moody clarinet composition by Neu, seemingly as a tool to connect to one another through the distance between them. Like the other works already mentioned, we sense a disconnect between the two works. One of the challenges facing the audience of “un/mute” is to tie together pieces that can seem only arbitrarily juxtaposed. Sometimes it feels as if the two artists’ contributions were so different as to remain deliberately distant from each other. Done as a response to the Covid virus quarantine, many of the works can feel isolated from each other, at least visually. They don’t always connect in the way the artists may have wanted. At the entrance of the Forum, Lan Thao Lam, based in New York City, and Sanne de Wilde, from Flanders, Belgium, created a site-specific window installation, made of a vinyl print that covered a glass plate. Quietly merging with its surroundings, the vinyl laminate offered a subtle pattern in white. If a visitor took the time to study the piece, he or she would find that art does not necessarily have to dominate its space and placement; rather, it can coexist and interact with its environment in ways that reward a close gaze. 

“un/mute” is dominated by film and video. Clearly meant to display both a new way of working and the often unrecognized strengths of collaboration, the show is interesting in part because of a similarity of expression--often, sculpture was placed in conjunction with a video. One senses that formal concerns were not paramount so much as the idea of collaboration during a period when the artists were shut off from society. In addition, the communication of a theme is regularly abstracted, to the point where it is sometimes difficult to understand the underlying intention of the artists. But no matter, the exhibition looks toward a different goal: how to create under difficult conditions and how to make things in collaboration when the artists are more than a small distance from each other. We seem to be living in a time when the social circumstances of art have become as important as the art itself. This means that “un/mute” is referencing a new kind of order in image-making. It is clear that the rule determining the show, namely, the idea of artists working together from far away, holds sway as a determining structure for the imagery. In that sense, the art illustrates the rules governing the show as much as it conveys the esthetic penchant of the person making the piece. At present, it looks like formal interest has ebbed, in favor of the wish to connect across boundaries of geography, gender, race, etc. “un/mute” does a very good job of bringing artists together in ways that challenge traditional notions of visual creation. Thus, geographical distance is transformed into real creativity.

ARTISTS: Eren Aksu (Germany), Anna Bera (Poland), Aaron Bezzina (Malta), Alex Camilleri (Malta), Mariella Cassar-Cordina (Malta), Saddie Choua (Flanders, Belgium), Sanne De Wilde (Flanders, Belgium), FOQL (Poland), Gabrielė Gervickaitė (Lithuania),  Nicola Ginzel (Austria), Justyna Górowska (Poland), Kris Grey (NYC), Kyle Hittmeier (NYC), Ada Van Hoorebeke (Flanders, Belgium), Olesja Katšanovskaja–Münd (Estonia), Mo Kong (NYC), Yi Hsuan Lai (NYC), H. Lan Thao Lam (NYC), Marie Lukáčová (Czech Republic), Sheila Maldonado (NYC), Ieva Mediodia (Lithuania), Emmanuel Massillon (NYC), Alex Mirutziu (Romania), Luisa Muhr (Austria), Barbara Maria Neu (Austria), Emily Shanahan (NYC), Sydney Shavers (NYC) and Terttu Uibopuu (Estonia).
Project website link:  https://unmute.nyc/ 


Jonathan Goodman