Seeing art in the mundane

Highly credentialed artist Carola Dertnig takes the country by storm with her unconventional approach to everyday situations

Dertnig poses as a 'dumb blonde' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dertnig poses as a 'dumb blonde'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 artists.
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 society.
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 fails.
“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 issue.”
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.
“There are 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.”
Dertnig eventually 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.”
For 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 “feeling strange.”
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 Kindertransport operation.
“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 observes.
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.
One of 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.
One of 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.
“I 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 fascinating.”
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.