Austria makes soaring debut on the New York arts scene

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's not enough that Austria boasts glorious classical composers or that Vienna jump-started the 20th century with avant-garde innovations in the arts. No matter how illustrious, no country wants to be known only for its past.

To shed its lederhosen image, Austria has opened a new outpost in the happening hub of world art: Manhattan.

With yesterday's inauguration of a new home for the Austrian Cultural Forum on East 52nd Street, in a radically unconventional building by Austrian-born New York architect Raimund Abraham, Austria has staked its claim as a player in the big leagues of world culture.

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The forum, funded by Austria's Ministry for Foreign Affairs, promotes awareness of Austria's culture. In this tower, Austria will show off its homegrown traditional and contemporary arts, as well as nurture collaboration with American artists.

"Austria has always been associated with very traditional art forms," says Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the forum. They date back to the Baroque period. "But ... we would like people to know there are other aspects, which make it a very contemporary, modern country."

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the cold war, Vienna went from being geographically isolated in Central Europe to being a nucleus for a united Europe.

"For the first time in 75 years, artists from Eastern Europe are coming to Vienna for art school," says Laura Heon, curator of a show on new Viennese art opening May 25 at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. "There's this flourishing scene now after 100 years of languishing."

To update its identity, the forum is sponsoring a three-month festival, running through June, showcasing 100 Austrian artists in its new home.

The challenging schedule of vanguard music, film, literature, visual arts, architecture, and digital projects is free to the public. Austria is strong in new media, electronic music, and progressive architecture, often fused in a novel hybrid.The opening festival, "Transforming Modernity," spotlights such evolving, interdisciplinary art forms, which, according to Mr. Thun-Hohenstein, signal the future.

"I'm glad the programs here don't deal with Mozart, chocolates, Lippizaner horses, and the usual Austrian kitsch exports," says Stefan Sagmeister, an Austrian graphic designer who lives in New York. "The program is ambitious and specialized enough to actually add to the artistic vitality of the city."

Indeed, even the building itself makes a distinct mark on the cityscape. Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University calls it "one of the most precise and interesting, dynamically organized works built in New York in a long time."

The design is a triumph of freedom over a constricted space. Built on an incredibly narrow site Â- 25 feet wide and 81 feet deep Â- the structure soars 24 stories. On its facade, four planes of teal-colored glass slope like ski jumps, punctuated by zinc boxes cantilevering forward.

Built to inspire

The American artist Vito Acconci, who has ongoing projects in Austria, describes the effect.

"Having almost a sliver of space to work with, [the architect] doesn't so much fill the space as slide out of it," he says. "He's made something like a landslide Â- a building-slide. The building juts out at the same time as it recedes."

Inside, the public spaces are as flexible as they are compact, with floating bluestone steps linking levels in a fluid flow.

Mr. Abraham, the architect, says he hopes the structure will not "simply accommodate" its use as a showplace for art but "challenge" and "inspire" artists to new levels of originality.

In the festival, "traditional formats will be tested and challenged by new media, such as digital and online technology," Thun-Hohenstein says.

An installation called "Wide," by Kurt Hentschlager and Ulf Langheinrich, illustrates the new sensibility. In a narrow gallery lined with mirrors, they project an infinite band of video, coupled with a rhythmical soundscape to engulf the viewer.

Besides pioneering this use of music and video as an immersing environment, Austria has a surging painting, sculpture, and performance-art scene, curator Heon says.

Upheaval sparks creativity

With its flourishing art scene and influx of foreigners, Austria has experienced some strains.In 2000 the ultra-right wing xenophobic Freedom Party won a role in a coalition government with the conservative People's Party. In Vienna, a liberal enclave, 300,000 marchers protested. Artists called for boycotts.

Mr. Hentschlager, the artist, notes a benefit in the upheaval. After years of a left-wing government, the Freedom Party's success "split the country in half and forced people to leave their comfortable space and make statements about their beliefs," he says.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and an expert on Viennese music, sees a galvanizing effect in the shakeup.

"Without energetic politics, dissent, and internal criticism, art-making is difficult," he says. "Democracy has come alive in Austria. The reaction has been an explosion of writing, filmmaking, and composing, which is a very creative moment. Artists have something to say."

Abraham, the forum's architect, felt impelled to take a stand. In March, he dropped his Austrian citizenship to become a United States citizen. "I felt the coalition with the right-wing party is a disgrace," he says, because the Freedom Party "came embarrassingly close to evoking associations with the Nazis."

Nevertheless, he praises the Austrian government's courage in funding a building that makes an outside-the-box statement. "Most embassies are commercial, institutional buildings," he says. The forum building is "an example of what is possible in the Republic of Austria."

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