All art, by definition, must introduce a previously untested element to our
existence, but Carola Dertnig often goes a step further. The 46-year-old
Austrian artist has made a name for herself by taking everyday situations and
pushing and pulling them to the brink of absurdity.
Last month she spent
three weeks at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim as part of the Teddy Kollek
Scholar/Artist in Residence Program, with support from the Austrian Ministry of
Culture and the Austrian Cultural Forum Tel Aviv. During her stay in Israel,
Dertnig managed to work with arts students from a wide range of disciplines,
while taking in as much of our cultural sights, sounds and energies as
possible. She engaged students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design,
the School of Visual Theater, and the Naggar School of Photography, Media and
New Music in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, as well as presenting a
gallery discussion at the Israel Museum.
She also shared some of her
experience as a professor of installation art at the Vienna Academy of Art,
presented a lecture about installation art in Vienna since the 1960s and offered
an alternative angle on the history of art, particularly performance
Dertnig has an abundance of credentials in the latter area. For
some years, she has been taking common situations that any average person could
experience but goes to great lengths to accentuate and exacerbate the state of
affairs. One of her pet themes is the way women are undervalued in
Her short film series entitled True Stories features all sorts
of ridiculous situations. In The Car, for example, she dresses in a classic
“dumb blonde” get-up and proceeds to parody the classic macho attitude toward
women drivers, almost totaling her car in a parking lot as she hits practically
every object in sight. The scenario hits full slapstick dimensions at a gas
station when she parks her vehicle out of reach of a fuel nozzle and goes to
extraordinary lengths to try to stretch the hose to the gas tank. Naturally, she
“If you take something like that seriously, you are going to think
that what I did was really stupid,” Dertnig notes. “But if you realize there is
some sort of conceptual thought behind it, you might understand the
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But it is not just about the way society relates to the gender
divide. During a long sojourn in New York, Dertnig says she also gained a keen
sense of what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.
all sorts of things, like you try to figure out which money or coin works in a
tram, and you feel kind of alienated.”
She had a similar experience here.
“When I got to Israel, we went straight to Haifa because there was a performance festival there, and it took me a really long time to buy some food
at the market because I hadn’t figured out how the shekels work. I felt kind of
stupid and, of course, I don’t speak Hebrew, either.”
got her shekels in order but says that finding one’s bearings in a new cultural
milieu can be much tougher. “You know you are in a space, maybe on the
street in a new country, and you behave in a way that is foreign.”
the Austrian, that can connect directly with art. “You do all sorts of things
that turn into sort of performance art. You are embarrassed, and it can turn
into something like a circus act,” she says.
That is portrayed in
Dertnig’s short film Strangers in which she wends her way around a train station
in Vienna, apparently oblivious of the fact that her red tights are slowly
slipping down through the bottom of her pants. The soundtrack is provided by
Dertnig’s staged telephone conversation with someone about the meaning of being
“a stranger in a strange land” and how alienation ends as soon as one stops
The choice of location for Strangers connects
indirectly with Israel.
“I did the film in Westbahnhof [train station in
Vienna] because of the history there,” Dertnig explains, referring to the fact
that it was from there, between December 1938 and August 1939, that thousands of
Jewish children were sent by their parents to freedom to Britain in the
“The film was not staged, so all the reactions
of the people stepping over the red tights and me bumping into things were all
natural. The people around me also became part of the actual piece I was
creating,” says the artist.
The responses ranged from seeing and
expressing the comical side of the evolving red trail to evident discomfort at
such a blatant and off-the-wall display of women’s underwear. Naturally, there
is also a gender issue here.
“It is maybe not exactly the correct thing
to happen in such a public place, and maybe there is some kind of failure
involved, and feminism and humor are not really supposed to go together,”
Dertnig has traveled widely and has worked in many places around the world but says that coming to Jerusalem meant a
lot to her.
“I am the first Austrian artist on this residency program,
and don’t forget that Teddy Kollek came from Vienna, so I feel a sense of
history of Israel, relating to the Holocaust,” she explains.
Dertnig’s pieces was a collection of photographs of works of art that had
belonged to Jews before World War II. Some were returned to their original
owners, while others were not. The latter are represented in Dertnig’s
exhibition by catalogue numbers.
“I think the spaces for the works of art
that were not given back maybe express the pain and the anger. It is a question,
a contradiction that I tried to show,” she says.
Dertnig got her first
taste of unconventional behavior as a child. “There was a man called Struppe, a
guy who lived in our apartment building when I was small,” she recalls. “He wore
all sorts of strange and wonderful clothes, all sorts of colors. He sometimes
dressed up in drag or dressed up as a nurse. Back then, people in Vienna dressed
very conservatively. Girls wore tartan skirts, and men wore blue or gray suits.
And then there was this amazing figure of Struppe. I always waited for him to
come by. It was like performance art the way people reacted to him and how he
reacted to me,” she says.
That maverick neighbor probably put several
noses out of joint, and Dertnig says she sometimes looks to provoke people and
get them to reexamine their way of thinking about some seemingly mundane topic
she believes needs to be addressed. But that doesn’t always work out.
When she was living in New York she had a studio in the World Trade Center, and
one day she made a big deal out of trying to maneuver a large object into the
building through revolving doors.
“People either ignored me or managed to
get past me or pushed me out of the way,” Dertnig recounts. “I suppose that’s
New York for you. Everything there is so fast.”
She also had a similar
sense of transience here. “My program is so packed. I feel I have to keep a
diary because there is no way I can remember it all,” she says.
those experiences was shared with students and teachers of the Naggar School
when she spent three days with them in the desert near the Dead Sea.
was very impressed with Carola,” says Musrara school head Avi Sabag. “The
students did performance art things in space, in the desert, and Carola gave us
all a lot of insight into how to develop performance art. It was fascinating to
see how she works.”
One thing the students no doubt learned from the
Austrian is that anything can be turned into art, and that an artist should
always keep his or her senses tuned to the surroundings.
“I found it
interesting to see people eat here,” says Dertnig. “I know food is a big issue
here, but in the hotel you get all these people from different countries and
cultures, and they all relate to food and eating differently. That’s
Religious aspects of life here also caught Dertnig’s
attention. “I went to the Western Wall, and first I was surprised that it is a
lot smaller than it seems on TV, and I also saw that the women’s section is a
lot smaller than the men’s and how the women tried to peek over the top of the
partition when the men lit the Hanukka candles. I will take a lot of experiences
and new things back with me to Vienna, and I really hope I can come back to
Israel again soon.”
It will be interesting to follow Dertnig’s work in
the near future to see how much of her Israeli experiences filter through into
her performance art and other works.
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