The bar

The history of the artists' bar in Vienna

Untitled, 1997, Franz West & Heimo Zobernig
Installation view Fundação de Serralves, Porto
Photo: Archiv HZ

No art without alcohol. The artists' bar has a rich history in Vienna, more than perhaps anywhere else. Why do artists not only build but also go so far as to run bars themselves? Why do we give in again and again to the dubious charms of bars? With an introduction by Thomas Miessgang.

“Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar” runs a line in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s “Alabama Song”. “For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar/I tell you we must die.” There are times when bars are a matter of life or death. “Keine Schönheit ohne Gefahr” (no beauty without danger) wrote Blixa Bargeld, the frontman of Einstürzende Neubauten, who back in the early eighties occasionally worked behind a bar to supplement his income. A bar has always been more than just a place selling drinks where people more or less decorously knock back booze. It is also a site of sociability, of at least temporary community, where acquaintances can be struck up spontaneously, friendships cemented, love affairs embarked upon or more or less spirited discussions initiated. A bar always holds out the promise of an escape from the banal routine of everyday life, and the hope of being struck by at least a minor moment of mad inspiration that could send your life a different direction. At best, a bar can be a “counter-site”, “a place outside of all places”, where, as Foucault put it, “all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are be simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.”

What bars and art have in common is their opposition to the orthodoxy that all irrationality must be purged in the name of social functionality. So it is no surprise that the atmosphere of bars – where eros and thanatos are inextricably entwined, where the range of emotions goes from fashionable cool to utter despair, from the sound to the fury – exercise such an irresistible charm on artists: back in the 80s, Jörg Immendorff was running the La Paloma bar in Hamburg’s red light district. For a while Martin Kippenberger ran Berlin’s legendary bar SO36, hoping to link avantgarde and excess – until a couple of angry punks gave him a bloody nose. But in Vienna, too – more than elsewhere – it is hard to imagine art without bars, or even bars without art. It took Vienna an especially long time to shake its postwar tristesse, and it was the generation that came of age in the post-punk era that started going to bars such as the Ring, Blitz, Flieger or Rastlos, and filled them with life and a boozy anarchism. Many of these establishments were not only egalitarian places to meet but also venues for exhibitions, DJ evenings and musical performances. This is why artists were particularly attracted to the idea of setting up bars of their own, sometimes very utilitarian, sometimes more dreamy or rarefied into the surreal. These were bars that exposed the existential core of being; their design was determined by the vagaries of the artistic imagination. One legendary example was set up by Franz West and Heimo Zobernig in 1997. There were televisions, mirrors and floral-design furnishings: everything was about as simple as can be, and nonetheless transcended the banality of the all-too-human. The point is to construct a virtual room in real space, one that offers people a chance to experience and understand a world beyond language and thought, one that activates the body and the soul, and by such means offers a firm ontological footing in the complexity of contemporary life – if perhaps only for a couple of hours at the end of the day.

 

THE LAST UNICORN, 2013, by Noële Ody

You’ve already built several bars. What exactly is it that interests you about them?
First the form, and then the situation.

Could you describe your work in a little more detail?
An object or a sculpture from which ice cream is sold. The ice cream is an important component. I make it myself, and maybe that is the real work.

Do you see your bars as sculptures that can still function without social interaction?
Most of my sculptures are well suited to social interaction. But of course they can work without it as well.

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ERSATZBANKBAR, 2012, by Fabian Seiz

The substitutes’ bench [Die Ersatzbank] was a collaborative project with the artist Andreas Duscha and the writer Clemens Berger. We wanted to make a bar for watching the European Football Championship. I see this bar and all the other bars I’ve made as sculptural interventions as well as sculptures that serve a specific function: that of communication. The fact that a bar has two sides produces a very specific hierarchy of communication. A bar develops its own space in and around itself, which can be noticeably influenced by the way the physical bar itself is constructed: where and how people are able to lean on it, how high the bar is, how much space there is for your feet. All these things create a very specific atmosphere. (Fabian Seiz)

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CAFE HANSI, 2015, by Hans Schabus

The Cafe Hansi is really a sculpture and not a bar. The original Cafe Hansi is a bar in Vienna’s 20th district. That’s where the light-box sign comes from that’s now part of Schabus’s work, along with many other objects and posters. They all have the name “Hans” or include the name “Hans.” It’s a rather absurd attempt to create a picture of a “Hans.” The inside is completely covered with silver-colored tin panels, also in the toilets. In the middle is a large mirrored table, which the artist used to serve beer, wine and schnapps to the guests every Wednesday evening for a few weeks. In contrast to its exterior, which puts on view an archive of signs, the sculpture on the inside is not only a room but also what goes on inside this room. (Anna Ebner)

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BATTERIE, 1995, by Manfred Erjautz

Batterie is a sculptural trap, which on the one hand deals with the power of brands, and on the other with human inhibitions and the process of overcoming them by communicating and breaking through limits. The work consists of uniform glass bottles, which are filled with various different kinds of liquor, from the cheapest rotgut to the highest quality spirits for connoisseurs. Since the various different kinds of alcohol cannot be identified from the shapes of the bottles or their labels, they can only be chosen by guesswork, on the basis of the color of the liquid in them.

The sculpture was part of an exhibition titled “self-construction,” held in 1995 at the 20er Haus site of Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig. It was placed in the vestibule of Karl Schwanzer’s building, meaning that visitors to the show had to pass through it twice. They could not avoid it any more than the desire to have a drink there. The only problem was that there were no glasses. The sculpture’s colorful bottles enticed visitors into hoping they might get a free drink, forcing or seducing them into asking one of the gallery guards for a glass to drink it from. The dilemma they had deliberately been placed in then deepened as they tried to choose the right drink, because the “error” of choosing the “wrong” shot meant that you had to empty your glass before you could try again. The visitor’s experience of the rest of the exhibition – a kind of “self-(de)construction” – was made under the influence of the contents of my sculpture. Batterie was drunk dry in the first days of the exhibition. The gallery staff did their bit to help. (Manfred Erjautz)

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Marcus Geiger

Marcus Geiger’s bar was first set up in 1998 for his solo show in the main room of the Vienna Secession. It was then in storage for a while, before the artist Marco Lulic brought it out again for “Social Space,” an exhibition he curated in 2009.

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VE.SCH BAR by Martin Vesely

The Vienna art scene used to meet regularly at the bar and exhibition space, that Martin Vesely ran, together with other artists, from 2008 to 2015.

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MILCH BAR #2 (STOFFMUSTER ALVAR AALTO), 1997–2001, by Flora Neuwirth

Flora Neuwirth’s work Milchbar / Stoffmuster Alvar Aalto (1997–2001) opened on July 21 and 22, 2001 in Wolfsburg, Germany, on the square in front of the historic milk bar in the Alvar-Aalto Kulturhaus. Based on this milk bar, which Aalto built inside the arts center in the early 1960s, Neuwirth had her own mobile milk bar set up on the terrace in front of the historic site. During happy hour, the bar even served “Wolfsmilch” – wolf’s milk – with vodka in it.

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BRUSSELS BRIDGE BAR, 2013, by Julian Turner

How good a bar is depends a lot on who’s there, but the design also makes a quiet and unobtrusive contribution. The Austrian architect Hermann Czech said that architecture is background, and he built some great bars, where every detail is just right: the height is right for every size of person, the lighting is pleasant, and the overhang on the bar bulges out underneath so you can easily grab hold of it if you’re in danger of falling off your stool. The proportions are really important: knocking something together from bits of old shelving is going to work about as well as making a battleship out of Formica.

So far I’ve built about ten bars – some of them more than once. Bar tables, smaller objects, the bar on the bridge in Brussels. I was in Brussels and wanted to make some kind of architectural intervention there. The whole city is so strikingly divided and overbuilt. I had in mind a place where you could pass the time, and a bridge lends itself to that because there’s always something to look at. I went looking for a narrow, cast-iron footbridge over the Charleroi Canal that I’d seen on an old postcard. Then I found the big bridge by the lock. I built two lamps – with their bases in the shape of the bridge’s railing, and their shades the shape of oversized schnapps glasses – and I wrote the word “bar” on them in Dutch, French, German and English. Then I invited some friends and strangers to come and have a drink. It was the middle of January and bitterly cold, but the Ukrainian vodka helped us forget about that. (Julian Turner) 

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Translated by Nathaniel McBride

Thomas Miessgang is a journalist and writer. He lives in Vienna.

 

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarterly N° 45 and is available for purchase at our online shop.