Semiotic Sabotages

In his Vienna Secession solo, Heinrich Dunst steered into the rift between what you can show and what you can say

Art in America, 07. November 2014

Rarely does one come across work capable of unhinging the conditions of its own appearance to the point that those conditions start hovering out in the open. The Secession's recent show of Heinrich Dunst's semiotic sabotages provided one such encounter. After exploring the legacies of modernist painting and design as part of the Viennese Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, along with colleagues such as Heimo Zobernig and Gerwald Rockenschaub, Dunst (b. 1955) felt he'd reached a dead end in the late '90s. Yet, since 2006, he has been developing a fresh approach that takes conceptual art's encircling of sign, image, language and medium to a new level-mainly by integrating the speaking and pointing body, the centerpiece of Ludwig Wittengenstein's late philosophy. In one of Dunst's speech performances rooted in Viennese concrete poetry, the artist says, "The tongue/My pink tongue," and exposes the speech tool right after.

The serial structure of Dunst's performances is shared by his installations. For his show "Da" (There), he bisected the big hall of the Secession diagonally with a freestanding wall that served as a carrier for arrangements of mainly banal objects, displayed in the serial order of a book page or a film strip. On one side of the wall, the viewer found a raw piece of canvas; a long narrow black monochrome painting that could be read linguistically, as a conjunction or a redaction; and a pressboard panel on which hung a small aluminum plate marked with black and yellow paint along with a pair of pants stained with paint of the same colors. Between the plate and pants was written the term "PROJEKTION," like an explanation in a scientific diagram.

A purple-painted board on the other side of the wall held excerpts about the human hand from Wittgenstein books and photocopies of images with hands in action, among them Wittgenstein's one-handed pianist brother playing his instrument. Nearby, part of the wall's wooden skeleton was exposed and, at one end, pink polystyrene insulation panel covered the drywall. "Austrotherm," the name of the foam's manufacturer, was repeated over its surfaces. On each side of the wall leaned the large letters "D" and "A," cut out of pink polystyrene. "There," they said, and there they were; without a clear referent, the performative act fell back on itself. Dunst uses cutout foam letters in many of his installations, maintaining a provisional, never-to-be-finished alphabet. With the foam's industrial purpose linked to acoustics and the color to the mouth and tongue, the letters function as a bridge to Dunst's performances, resulting in an odd personal presence—like talkative ghosts of Minimal art.

As Joseph Kosuth has vividly demonstrated, there is an unbridgeable rift between what can be said and what can be shown. Dunst's combinations of decoupled, insignificant objects steer right into this rift, creating absurd comedies. Image slides into language, sculpture shifts into speech, and vice versa. The humor, characteristic of the Viennese, that comes with these fluctuations is based on unconditional severity. While younger post-Internet artists juggle new disjunctions of matter, medium and sense, Dunst, firmly grounded in history, delves directly into the core of their questions.

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