in: magazin. Nr. 10/11, Salzburger Kunstverein, Jahresbericht 2005/06, Salzburg 2007, S. 70-71.

In the Shadow of Saturn
An exhibition in
Salzburg examines melancholy
Jens Kastner

In the history of modern art, there is something like the claim of a privileged access to depression. Up to the mid-twentieth century, an artist was seen as the epitome of someone who suffered under the prevailing circumstances. And someone who was really depressive was a potential descendant of Van Gogh or an up-and-coming Jackson Pollock.
These days, the idea of the artist as a male martyr for authentic expression has long been exposed as ideology, and suffering has been democratised. It is a recognised fact that the weight of the world – the title of a long sociological study by Pierre Bourdieu – now affects everyone. “Social suffering in contemporary society,” the subtitle of Bourdieu’s book, is now found in all social milieus.
As early as 1966, Dan Graham, one of the great figures of early concept art, came up with a simple table listing the side effects of mood-altering drugs that he took for depression. It is with this simple work, which focuses on the artist’s own mental state but consistently denies its individual power of expression, that the exhibition “Soleil Noir. Depression and Society” begins.
Tablets taken by the artist also appear in the form of stuck-on boxes in the installation “Illusion City” (2006) by the relatively unknown Viennese artist Gerd Löffler. Formally, his work is probably the wildest in this exhibition, which overall makes a severe and ordered impression. Löffler succeeds in transcending his own, systematic negative mental state. In his illusory city of pill boxes, cardboard and polystyrene foam, there are also photos of shabby and irrelevant corners of various real cities. One of them shows a yellow car parked in front of a dilapidated shop. The shop – this is written in large letters above it, also in yellow -  was called “Make Cash”. The capitalist imperative and its failure is highlighted here more vividly than almost anywhere else in the exhibition.
Despite the expectations raised by the title of the exhibition, the sociological point of view is seldom taken. The common basis of the altogether 18 works shown is less Bourdieu than Sigmund Freud. To be more precise: Freud’s essay “Grief and Melancholy”.  In this article, the psychoanalyst calls the depressive disorder a reaction to an unconscious loss, and differentiates it from simple grief. “In the case of grief,” Freud writes, “the world has become poor and empty, in the case of melancholy it is the ego itself.”
The Swiss-born Chilean artist Hans Rudolf Wildi, for example, tells of an empty ego of this kind in a video portrait that his sister made of him (“Portrait Oblique, 2005). The artist Ingrid Wildi confronts the viewers with abrupt cuts between the various parts of the conversation to further underline the mood swings of her brother. He also knows all about mood-altering drugs.

Even if viewers encounter names like Iproniazid, Trofanil, Ciprolex and Floxyfrat for the third time here: the exhibition works. because it doesn’t just use anti-depressants to establish connections. For example, one connection between the completely different formats is the key word “borders”. In his video, Wildi talks casually about everyday, racist exclusions to which he is exposed. In so doing, he confirms one of Judith Butler’s views. The philosopher pointed out, in connection with Freud, that melancholy also sets the conditions for “seeing the world as contingent upon and organised by very particular kinds of exclusion.” The everyday nature of exclusions and borders also explains what Doris Frohnapfel’s large, projected colour photos of the eastern border of the European Union are doing in the exhibition (“Border Horizons”, 2004). Here, one sees not only border towers, fences and guards, but also almost picturesque landscapes. Simply the normal and everyday aspect of the border.

Other works also deal with everyday phenomena. Since, according to Freud, the losses underlying fundamental disorders are usually unconscious, one is thankful for reports on concrete causes. Three former left-wing activists who were arrested in Turkey as “urban guerilleras” after the military coup in 1971, tell of such concrete reasons. The three women interviewed by Gülsün Karamustafa (“Making of the Wall”, 2003) confirm what we have already heard from other political prisoners: it is possible to bear all kinds of political pressure, but when a tree is felled in the prison yard or a quarrel breaks out among one’s comrades, everything breaks down.
On the other hand, political resistance or the enquiry after forms of self-organisation that could possibly counter the loss (of ideals, for example) is not discussed in the exhibition. And that is actually a good thing. For the exhibition is at its most powerful when it is really frustrating. The fact that certain experiences and analyses can be turned into art is actually in itself a potential reconciliation with the situation. There is no need of the positive aspect “for the development of the artist’s own personality and of the relationship to his/herself and the Other”.that, according to the press release, is to be emphasised by some of the works.
Two works that don’t exactly build the viewer up, for example, are those by Pawel Ksiazek and Fritz Rücker. The series of five paintings by the Polish artist Pawel Ksiazek is devoted to the life and work of the writer Sylvia Plath. The works are about the suffering fed by biographical causes, illustrated using this concrete example. Just as the title of the exhibition uses a line from a poem by Gérárd de Nerval (1808 to 1855), Ksiazek quotes from Plath’s poetry: “You flicker/ I cannot / touch / you”. The moments in which life flickers and cannot be touched are probably not dissimilar to those in which the sun turns dark.
Rücker’s pictures, in contrast to those by Ksiazek, for once do not tell of depressions. They induce them instead. The Salzburg artist discovered a collection of holiday pictures in his grandparents’ house and now presents them as a slide show. Grandma Else stands in front of buildings, places of interest and landscapes in 160 pictures. Obviously, the grandfather placed her there and photographed her in this way for years. This is funny and oppressive at the same time. As if life were only justified in this stiff form, always the same, as if this were the only way the world could be grasped. The poor woman. The poor man. It makes you want to cry.

“Soleil Noir. Depression and Society”, Salzburger Kunstverein. 20 July to10 September 2006.