Kunsthalle Wien: Beton 06/2016, Camera Austria International

Many a vision has been projected onto the material’s sometimes smooth, sometimes rough surface, and today, concrete often evokes modernist utopias gone awry. Its seemingly endless formability has spurred the functionalist ideas of architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. And it remains the basic material for creating and re-creating the vast urban landscapes that span our globe. Throughout the twentieth century, new forms of art increasingly became involved with architecture and urban development—just think of the massive sculptures Gordon Matta-Clark created from condemned buildings, literally cutting into their bodies to alter everyday perception. Less physically involved than Matta-Clark were artists working with documentary media, architectural photography being the first genre that evolved with the advent of the technology. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the contemporary positions presented in the group show bearing the blunt-sounding title “Beton” (“concrete”) are photographic.

Andreas Bunte’s “Welt vor der Schwelle (O.T. [Kirchen], O.T. [Language, Truth & Logic])” (2012), an installation composed of two video works and several concrete blocks, takes images of brutalist churches built in the 1950s and 1960s in post-war Germany as its point of departure for developing a narrative that reflects upon the changing meaning of sacral architecture in an increasingly secularized state, which took shape in forms that were new and radical for the time. One of the videos is accompanied by a voice reciting from the church construction manual Kirchen. Handbuch für den Kirchenbau (1959) by Otto Bartning and Willy Weyres, which discusses among other things the impact of architectural space on emotional states and behaviour. Whereas the aesthetics of exposed concrete sometimes sought architectural equivalents for new post-war identities, the material was often chosen for new forms of social housing, as well. The resulting megastructures, however, often failed to materialize the utopian ideas for a better way of living and devolved into (quickly decaying) suburban homes for the socially underprivileged. This is also the story of the brutalist housing complex Vele di Scampia, built in Naples in the 1960s and 1970s, that Tobias Zielony surveys in his stop-motion film “Le Vele di Scampia” (2009), which is based on photographs he took there at nighttime that capture a surreal scenery with ghostly individuals and graffiti flickering in the semi-darkness. His subjective camera takes the point of view of the individual roaming about, overpowered by the massive construction.

Another take on the relationship between architecture and ideology is Heidi Specker’s series “Travertin” (2010). Travertine is a concrete-like type of limestone that the Romans used to build massive urban complexes such as the Colosseum. In 1938, Italian dictator Mussolini used it to build the new district EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) in Rome as the site for a world exhibition that was never held due to the onset of WWII. With its wide streets, powerful pillars reminiscent of imperial Roman architecture, and massive symmetric blocks, EUR is one of the most vivid representations of fascist ideology. Rather than reproducing well-known views, Specker chooses to zoom in and depict details of the material burdened with the ghosts of the past. Michelangelo Antonioni shot scenes of his film “L’Eclisse” (IT 1962) in EUR, as did Federico Fellini for “8 1/2” (IT 1963). Vast concrete cityscapes like EUR provided the auteurs with dramatic settings for their explorations into urban life. In re-appropriating these settings, contemporary artists allude to these iconic moments of cultural memory, sometimes with a sideways wink. With the title of her diptych “House on Haunted Hill I (Night)” and “House on Haunted Hill II (Day)” (2005), two photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Ennis House”—a flamboyant villa built from concrete blocks with ornamental surfaces reminiscent of textile patterns and inspired by ancient Mayan temples—Annette Kelm directly references the campy horror film “House on Haunted Hill” (US 1959) that was shot there.

The fact that Thamesmead, a district of Greater London made up of concrete social housing complexes built in the 1960s, became the setting for certain scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (GB 1971) (with a gang of thugs living in a desolate suburb set in the future) informs our reading of Liam Gillick’s “Pain in a building” (1999), but can be considered a side note. Architect Robert Rigg introduced canals and artificial lakes into the structure, believing as he did in a positive effect that would reduce the odds of crime and vandalism. But—like Vele di Scampia—Thamesmead turned into quite the opposite: a suburban concrete jungle that marginalised its inhabitants. In a projection, Gillick presents photographs taken there, subverting the image of an underprivileged district through simple pictures with playgrounds and lawns shot in evening sunlight that could just as well be of any other suburb. Whereas artists like Heidi Specker and Werner Feiersinger, who emphasises the sculptural value of concrete forms in his large-scale photographs of Italian post-war architecture, aestheticise their subjects in experimental approaches to space (architecture) and flat surface (photograph), Gillick chooses to demystify the place, bringing into play another potential role for photography, that of subverting conventional forms of representation.

In her installation “Project Speak2Tweet” (2011–ongoing), Heba Y. Amin reminds spectators that during the Arab uprisings in 2011, Egyptian authorities temporarily shut down access to the Internet. “Speak2Tweet” was a project developed at the time by activists and programmers: people could phone in a message that was then published automatically on Twitter. Drawing on this archive, Amin juxtaposes recordings of the messages with black-and-white video images of architecture in the conflict area projected onto three screens showing unfinished concrete buildings in a deteriorated cityscape. The work reflects upon the corrupt urban infrastructures that spurred the crisis and delivers a visual antithesis to the widespread images of protesters globally associated with the revolution. The dynamics between political power, concrete structures, and urban development is also what Miki Kratsman investigates in his series “Public Shelter” (2006–ongoing) and “Checkpoint, Road 443” (2014), in which urban phenomena such as bunker entrances, quickly accessible above-ground shelters in the streets of Tel Aviv, and frontier posts along a road partly leading through Palestinian territory become indicators of an ongoing and ever-changing conflict.

The works, though a variety of interesting approaches, appear isolated in a course cluttered with an eclectic choice of nearly thirty positions. Concrete-as-readymade sculptures such as Isa Genzken’s “Luke” (1986) and Kasper Akhøj’s “999” (2015) are scattered throughout the exhibition space as if to complement the photographic explorations. The show offers glimpses into complex bodies of work, but its inability to render a fruitful dialogue possible offers little chance for an in-depth experience.