leo schatzl, let
leo schatzl, let

leo schatzl


let's sink

In the last three years, Leo Schatzl has been increasingly fascinated by life on the water, especially the Danube harbor in Linz. He is a participant in Donautics, a loosely associated group based in Linz interested in expanding autarkic space for art. They are connected by their common interest in buoyant objects of all kinds. Floating Village is a work of his in progress devoted to exploring the relationship between water as a public good and its appropriation — and therefore implicitly, its misappropriation. This aspect is one of the central philosophical cornerstones of Schatzl’s artist in residency project at the Wellenklaenge Festival 2013, entitled Let’s Sink (Floating Village #3). Tellingly, the original title of the project was “I Sink Therefore I Am”, a play on the words of René Descartes, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). Although Schatzl definitely does not claim to know where the fundament of knowledge begins, he does invite us to ponder one mainstay of Cartesian thought, that of doubt about our own existence.

For many years Leo Schatzl has been an instructor at the University of Art and Design Linz, in the Department of Experimental Design. In his work with the students, artistic possibilities are explored, but equally important for him is to encourage his students to question and criticize societal processes. Schatzl’s own abiding interest in promoting and working with self-determining artists’ groups and think tanks led him to decide not to do the residency as a solo artist. Instead he chose to use it as a platform to invite a group of his university students to reside and create their objects in situ in Lunz am See (Lake Lunz) during the festival. Schatzl, in his life and work, consciously positions himself as an opponent of centralism and centralization. This aspect of his approach is not heavy handed or boorish; it must be read between the lines, and is a delightful leitmotif (rote Faden) to be discovered when examining his body of work.

Not only the finished product of artistic effort was the focal point of Let’s Sink, the entire process of conceiving and executing the works of art were given equal importance. Additionally, the non-execution of projects, or the failure of initiated works, were included in the presentation of the results of the residency. The idea of sinking has many abundant connotations that Schatzl wanted to investigate. One can sink into oneself in reflection, which can be an enriching or terrifying, enlightening experience. One can also sink under the weight of responsibility, or literally sink and disappear, in quicksand (according to Hollywood) or under water. Sinking can be see as an unalterable fact of life (gravity), about which we can allow ourselves to entertain fatalistic thoughts, or as a life-affirming mechanism expressed in actions such as falling in love, sinking into someone’s arms or sinking into a comfortable bed.

The Students, the Proposals

Maximilian Anelli-Monti wanted to create an artist’s book about the topic of hiking and going by foot in through the Lake Lunz landscape, in the tradition of Alpine tourism and 19th century Romanticism. The project was entitled Eine Anachronistische Reise (An Anachronistic Journey) and according to Schatzl, was a valuable experiment for Anelli-Monti in his development as an artist. Theresa Auer created a diagrammatic graphic language to visualize the correlation of the changes in the means of public transport going to Lunz and changes in the demography of the village. The work was placed on the message board of the abandoned Lunz am See train station where the train schedules were formerly displayed. Her project was called 156 01 Lunz am See.

In a reversal of the T.S. Eliot line, Katharina Gruzei “sank” not with a whimper, but with a bang. Gruzei formulated three projects for Let’s Sink; they came about as planned partly. This was a valuable process for the group to observe. The students were able, in a real life situation, to witness what an artist who wants to make interventions in the public space must go through. Let’s Sink, conceived of as a learning laboratory, fulfilled its purpose thoroughly.

One of Katharina Gruzei’s unrealized ideas was entitled Pool Projekt. In the middle of the town there is a big pit, like a gaping wound, a remnant of a construction project for a wellness center that went bankrupt. Gruzei wanted to fill the pit with water to create a swimming pool, and surround the pool with a fence. That way, like the grapes before Tantalus, the viewers and town residents could dream of swimming, but not actually have the satisfaction of doing so. Pool Projekt was also a reference to the politics of speculation, big money and the (perceived) need for luxury.

As A Matter of Desire – another idea by Gruzei – the artist was able to realize. Lunz am See’s coat of arms includes a white unicorn. Gruzei attached a horn to the forehead of a white horse and let it wander along the unpopulated southern shore of the lake, without making any announcement of that happening. Undoubtedly, some residents and tourists would see the “unicorn” and spread the news about it. Her idea was to thereby generate a myth and a legend that would grow and spread by word of mouth. This would create something that lived beyond the time and space of the actual festival, and that would take on its own dynamic and dimensions.

As A Matter of Desire also takes on significance when considered in terms of the so-called Austrian identity itself. It makes reference to deep-seated cultural values in the “Kulturnation” (cultural nation) Austria. In the Imperial Treasury, which is contained in the oldest part in the Hofburg, the castle bastion of the former empire in the center of Vienna, are two very special objects. These objects were named the inalienable heirlooms of the House of Hapsburg (die zwei unveräußerlichen Erbstücke des Hauses Habsburgs). All other treasures of the empire could be sold or bargained off; only these two objects, similar in “magic” powers to the Stone of Scone, must remain forever in the possession of the Hapsburg family. The one object is an agate bowl, which was believed at some point to be the Holy Grail. The second object (which turned out to belong to a narwhal, after all) is the Ainkhürn, the Horn of the Unicorn.

The second realized project by Gruzei was the Sub Lumina. She sank a powerful light source into the lake, a light that shone into the night sky, not illuminating anything in particular, from 10 p.m. until midnight every night of the festival. The sunken beam of light insinuated a secret life of the lake. In the greater sense, it alluded to processes under the surface that have an effect above the surface but are themselves not revealed.

Julia Hartig also wanted to explore the secret life of the lake. At the same time she wanted to confront her own fears of depth and darkness by taking a diving course in Lunz, and then filming under water. She created an original soundtrack, using audio material gathered on site, and made a sound installation (Umkleide O.S.T. 4) in one of the changing cubicles.

Process51 is another project Hartig worked on, together with Alex de las Heras. On the surface of Lake Lunz, near the floating stage where the performances took place, they anchored a carpet of approx.13,000 wine corks that they had sewn together. Tourists and visitors to the festival enjoyed climbing onto the carpet and being buoyed up, free to effortlessly float.

The colors of the carpet were a result of the natural coloration of the corks: red for red wine, cork-colored for white wine. The pattern was based on nomadic and oriental carpet designs. Such a large, hand-knotted carpet made of traditional materials would be an undeniable statement of luxury, but Hartig and de las Heras were not interested in highlighting extravagance. Instead, one of their major concerns in the endeavor was to emphasize issues of recycling and the inventive reuse of material. They worked on this project for over two years, gathering corks and sewing them together by hand in countless hours of dedication. They also established a website to document the various stages of the operation (http://process51.info).

Alex de las Heras did an individual project in Let’s Sink as well, one which combined sculpture with performance. Platforms Where My Balance Is Impossible consisted of de las Heras trying to stand up on the floating platform that he had built from wood waste and driftwood gathered in Lunz. His use of wood echoed the ecological concerns expressed in process51. In this solo piece, the fruitless, repetitive action of trying to gain his balance on an object built so that gaining balance would be impossible, could be seen as a commentary on the condition humaine as well as being a visualization of the cycle of success and failure that drives the global economy.

LUNZ AM SEE written in monumental logographic hanzi characters, cut out of wood, painted Chinese red and installed on the surface of the lake was the wish of Eginhartz Kanter. The project 湖边的仑茨 made reference to concepts of the original and the copy, calling to mind the recent Chinese project of duplicating the architecture of the similarly pristine Austrian Lake Hallstatt landscape in province of Guangdong. Instead of having the typeface floating above the water with the Alpine scenery as a backdrop, the piece was left at the obsolete Lunz am See train station where it was constructed.

The object and intervention most talked about by the local populace was by far Sin King. Rainer Noebauer accomplished a genuine tour de force with this work. He turned a BMW 3 Series car into a kind of buoy, sinking the nose underwater so that only the rump of the car protruded into the air. The rump was positioned at such an angle that it gave the visual sensation of having just driven off a cliff and plummeted into the water. Some of the local people seemed to feel this sculpture was impious (pietätlos), as many have either been a car accident victim or know of one. Furthermore, the opinion was expressed that having a car bottom sticking out of the water was a type of pollution of the lake. Lake Lunz is not only an idyllic and beautiful nature reserve (Naturschutzgebiet), it is also a natural monument (Naturdenkmal) with all the overtones of reverence, respect and commemoration implied in that phrase.

Noebauer’s object was a mirror for viewers to examine their own priorities and values. All around the lake are paved roads for cars; parking spaces and accommodations for autos determine the landscaping. Instead of autos surrounding the lake, with Sin King an auto commanded the epicenter. Of course, the artwork not only irritated, it made people smile. Tourists in their rented electric boats puttered close to it and puzzled about it. The absurdity of the sculpture was reminiscent of the humorous aspects in Pop Art. The apparent effortlessness of the piece, bobbing on the water like an oversized toy, belied the outstanding technical solution that Noebauer contrived for its execution.

Vulnerability, a major theme of Sinking Car, was also a central issue in the performance by Sun Li Lian Obwegeser and Antonia Prochaska, I Sink Therefore I Am, held during the opening ceremony of the exhibition. The artists were fascinated by zombie culture, and their performance, with its elements of monotony and repetition, expressed for them overtones of death, near death and the impossibility of conclusive death inherent in the notion of zombies.

Obwegeser and Prochaska were only able to consummate their ideas with the willing help of the other students participating in the residency. Their performance demonstrated the importance of collective spheres of action for the success of societally relevant actions that take place outside the norm. The artists stood on two separate floats, which were propelled across the lake by their colleagues swimming underneath them and pushing them along (!) On the one float Prochaska, dressed in a golden, light-reflecting robe, recited slogan-like texts into a megaphone. On the other float Obwegeser, wearing a wig made of waist length streamers of videocassette tape, played a self-composed soundtrack of music loops.

As a fringe event, the group ON/ON conducted a music performance on the festival stage towards the middle of the residency. A gigantic octopus made of black plastic garbage bags, with tentacles filled with air, housed the musicians as they played. During the performance, they sliced their way out of the octopus.

Christine Pavlic presented a witty object that works on water and on land, called Liselotte Maier. Pavlic says that because boats usually have names, she also named her boat-object. Liselotte Maier basically consists only of a surfboard sliced lengthwise in half and turned into a catamaran; a propeller; and a bicycle on top. By sitting on the bicycle and pedaling, one can drive across the water. Upon reaching the shore, the bicycle can be dismounted and then driven across land. The work, in its simplicity and cleverness, is understated and elegant. It is a design prototype that has a high practical as well as aesthetic value. As Pavlic pedaled across Lake Lunz during the opening of Let’s Sink, involuntary associations of the tale of Jesus walking on water as related in the Gospels came to mind. The idea that Jesus was now a woman, and using advanced technology, added a tongue-in-cheek flair to the performance.

What Remains?

Leo Schatzl is profoundly interested in the idea of social sculpture, and of the transformative potentialities of art. He promotes a radical widening of the possibilities of and for art in society. The adventure he made together with the students during the Wellenklaenge residency allowed him to deepen his confrontation with water as a public space, one of his main current artistic inquires, and to question the ideas of physical and bureaucratic borders.

The students themselves made beneficial experiences for their development as artists, regardless of the tangible results. Some students, like Maximilian Anelli-Monti, whose original project idea was not realized, became invaluable to the success of the project also in other ways. He made a painstaking photographic documentation of Let’s Sink, providing most of the pictures for the post card edition, and visually capturing the many stages of the project’s unfolding.

In 1876-77, Walt Whitman wrote: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains…” Leo Schatzl and his students epitomize the independent spirit of that American philosopher, and the abiding belief in the right to live a free, self-determined life. Their art, gently subversive, humorous and questioning, blurs the lines between design, function, science, technology and usefulness. What remains of Let’s Sink is the evidence of the possibility of facilitating transformation in one’s own sphere of influence. And the fundamental question that we in the 21st century are forced to ask ourselves persists as well: can our nature, the human nature, indeed allow Nature to remain.

© Text: Renée Gadsden, 2013