Opening speech by Ekaterina Degot
Landhaushof, 19.9.19, 17:00

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to the Grand Hotel Abyss!

‘Abyss’ is our name, our brand, it is written in huge neon letters on our roof; we cannot see it now, so just imagine it. Abyss is also our postal address, and it is what is awaiting you outside our walls. We actually do not know what is out there, and we are not advising you to explore. What we are inviting you to is an experience of joie de vivre, of exquisite aesthetic culinary and wellness pleasures, only increased by the feeling—the frisson—that there is a menace of catastrophe out there.

This abyss out there also means, I am sorry to say, that our hotel might collapse any minute, or turn out to be a mirage, like our villa in Ibiza you might have heard about, together with the tuna tartare and champagne and a beautiful heiress we provided. It all turned into a pumpkin by daylight, but did not the customers have fun? It was unreally beautiful! Enjoy every day as the last one!

This is what the manager of the imaginary Grand Hotel Abyss could say, but it is also me, the director of steirischer herbst, who is saying this, as we are also producers of pumpkins, into which every artwork will turn when the festival ends. We are a festival, a word rooted in the Latin fiesta for a feast, a celebration, traditionally a harvest celebration, very much related to food. After my short speech and after Zorka Wollny’s performance, I am glad to invite you to Congress Graz, whose doors will stay open from 19:00 to 21:00 for an Opening Extravaganza and obviously some wine.

This season of steirischer herbst will be all about the dictatorship of pleasure in catastrophic times, something diagnosed among others by Georg Lukács in the 1930s; something that goes even deeper and probably belongs to the genetic code of the glorious Habsburgian Kakania, permeated, defined and remembered by arts and sweets, and yet—or perhaps precisely because of that—historically and politically doomed. This is something very much present in our own times, where sweets are frowned upon, but Genuss and enjoyment are enormously promoted, together with the feeling that we are living in end times, politically and ecologically.

The abyss is never far away from a feast, and this is what Hanns Koren said, with strange gravitas, in 1968, when he opened the very first steirischer herbst:

We begin a feast. We know how serious the moment is, this moment when the bell of the world tolls. We also know that much of what sprouts hopefully in spring and makes its way towards the sunlight might be destroyed by the thunderstorms of summer.

That could be a feeling which gathers around any festival that positions itself in time, in contemporaneity. Time in general is fragile and dangerous; contemporary times are the moments when we reap what we sow, and sow what will be reapt—an edge with abysses of uncertainty opening on both sides. And contemporary art is something that takes responsibility for this moment, artistically but also politically.

Koren is also talking about something very concrete and very political—one of the numerous waves of refugee tides. In summer of 1968 citizens of Czechoslovakia—those who had cars obviously—were temporarily allowed to drive through Austria to get to the socialist beaches of Yugoslavia, something they did, only to learn in late August that Soviet tanks were on the streets of Prague, which made some of them stay in Styria as political refugees.

It is in this building that Koren made his speech, and I want to turn your attention to it for a moment.

We are standing in Landhaushof, the political heart of the region of Styria, which is at the same time its aesthetical heart. It is probably the most well known tourist attraction of Graz, one of the best Renaissance buildings in central Europe. We are literally framed by art, surrounded by art, an aesthetical as well as a political program set in stone, not just the pragmatics of a roof over someone’s head. This is a very programmatic building and it is all about art and politics.

So, how are art and politics working here?

What this building reminds me of, actually, is the so-called caravanserai, a sort of oriental hotel—perhaps I am a little obsessed with hotels these days—a hotel for merchants and pilgrims built in Turkey and across the Middle East and through India. It usually has arches and balconies, like here, and a closed square courtyard, which can accommodate camels and bales of merchandise. It is a little like a castle, and it probably is a reinterpretation of a Roman castle, but its function is very different: it is open, not closed, and it represents a constant flow of commerce and global exchange, upon which the Middle Eastern and Asian culture of the Middle Ages was built.

But let’s not fantasize about camels: what we are standing in is a European Renaissance courtyard that is also a reinterpretation of a Roman castle, but whose main function is to show that castles are not needed anymore—well, almost, as Graz Castle was still standing and still looking for enemies at that time—but Renaissance architects wanted to express the idea that the state, or the region, or the local power in general, is strong enough even without castles. It is protected by the very representation of control. The classical order of this architecture, which makes weight visible through columns and arcs, is a literal embodiment of strength and power.

It also very literally represents support—but who is supporting whom? Does power support art, or the other way round? In these buildings, power and art work in synchronicity to create an image of power as a euphemism of protection against barbarians, who are always in the background of classical architecture—those who are excluded from this order. The feeling of exclusion is held in these mathematical proportions, it is even what makes the style so beautiful and pure.

I would say that what we see here around us is a representation of pride in the European way of life, something the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, just recently described as her task as she sees it: protection of the European way of life.

Protection from what or whom, we might ask? Obviously from those who do not belong here by their ethnicity, or skin color, or education level, or cultural habits.

But what is this European way of life these people do not master, may we ask? Well, everybody knows the answer to that. What is so particular about Europe now and makes it so attractive is the fact that Europe lives well. It lives, eats and dresses, it consumes better than its neighbors, on average. (One of the reasons is because something still remains of the social-democratic agenda of postwar times, but this is usually not discussed.)

We enjoy our lifestyle of consumption, one that is universally envied, especially by those who are beyond the abyss of our Grand Hotel, this hotel that is not at hospitable to all, and indeed very selective. And this enjoyment and consumption also includes the arts. To be able to enjoy art is seen as part of the narrative of civilized Europe, and it is like mastering a fork and knife. This is especially true of contemporary art that, as it is often said, requires some sort of acquired, educated taste, like strange or bitter food—olives, or caviar, for instance.

A fork and knife can be dangerous for some people, like small children for instance, and this is why we hear sometimes that contemporary culture is not for all, that there must be simpler, more traditional forms that would satisfy larger populations—as if we think they are like children. I am not happy to hear that, of course, but I am also dreading the moment when contemporary art will be promoted even more than it is now, and an understanding of it will become part of the integration test for migrants. Right now they are asked (and I did this test too) if they agree that a husband can beat a wife—but why not ask if you can actually pee in Duchamp’s pissoir? A civilized person knows, of course, that he cannot; unless, of course, it is Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet (America, 2016), which was actually built for men and women alike to pee in, keeping in mind the reference to Duchamp's pissoir while at the same time experiencing the thrill of transgression. Is this not the Grand Hotel Abyss for you?

And you know, of course, that this golden toilet has just been stolen from a palace in England, and the question is: was it stolen by cultivated people who knew who Maurizio Cattelan is, or by barbarians from Russia or the Emirates, where they only measure things in gold and ignore artistic value, therefore reacting precisely like the artist, a very sophisticated intellectual, wanted us to react?

Today Europe defines itself through hedonism, seeing itself as a champion of it, even if this hedonism is of an educated sort, and involves enjoying bitter medicine. To me, it is a strange cultural appropriation of orientalist codes. For centuries it was the Orient that was invested with the desires of western nobles (mostly males, obviously) and represented as a place of ultimate hedonism, with its hammams, body ointments, baklavas, sweet music and harems.

With the exception of harems perhaps, this is how Europe sees itself now; but this view of a harbor of pleasures, of a Grand Hotel, is only possible through the perspective of an abyss, seen from another side by those who allegedly have no access to such pleasures. The Grand Hotel is always at an Abyss.

Graz, 19.9.19

Grand Hotel Abyss