Hidden depth

Yesterday's storm seemed to have passed quickly, but out there were indications that it may still have been bubbling away out there to reappear. For all the pressure that had built up, a little spit seemed anticlimactic. And sure enough, there was some actual rain later on in the afternoon, though we had already retreated to the rooms before heading out to dinner.

The day began in quiet as I ate my newly defrosted cup-o'-muesliβ„’. We had been recommended the Albertina museum by a friend, and it turned out to be a great find. A fairly unassuming building held some amazing artwork and photography. We started in the contemporary section, the first real modern art we'd yet encountered on the trip, and it was an instant favourite.

The enjoyment of art for me is always about trying to interpret the artist's intention and finding the meaning behind it. In the classic impressionistic style we had been seeing a lot of, there is little to admire beyond the artistic ability of the painter - it takes a particularly special framing or subject to really interest me. Bowls of fruit, abstract nudes, portraiture, Christian imagery - it all gets boring rather quickly. But trying to understand a mess of colour, shapes, and textures in the context of the artist's career and what they named the piece? That's a challenge I enjoy.

There was also a large photography wing showcasing pictures by Joel Sternfeld. I had never found such work particularly interesting until today. The exhibition chronicled his art over the course of thirty years, and detailed how his use of colour photos (originally strictly considered the domain of advertising and pop culture, while true art was black and white) instigated an entire new documentarian aesthetic, often with a sociopolitical bent. His profiles of American life in the '70s were interesting, and his gradual transition to pictures of people rather than broader scenes held some great work.

But what truly blew me away was the innocuously titled 'On This Site' series, a relatively recent work. The photos are simple, elegantly framed but with a slightly confusing ordinariness that begged the question, 'well, okay, but why photograph this?'. The answer, deliberately separate from the photo itself, was printed on the wall beside it: a description of a startling event that took place there. A plain motel balcony? It was where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. The site of a young boy's murder. The empty houses built over toxic landwaste that had caused birth defects in a community. Mount Rushmore, from a distance, through the trees, where the Sioux people are still fighting for recognition of the land stolen from them by the state in breach of a contract.

It was devastating.

By separation of the photograph and the event, you were forced to juxtapose and compare, examining it and yourself. Alone, the photo is innocent. Can you see evidence of what happened, or am I imposing on the image what isn't really there? Isn't it really still just an innocuous photo? The horror comes from the gradual realisation that these awful moments occurred not in some detached reality, but in a world that is utterly ordinary. Our world. The simple wire fence of a postal office is the same wire fencing around thousands more. But through this one an angry worker went on a shooting spree and killed twelve colleagues and himself.


When it was time to hit the supposed main event, a large collection of work including many Picassos, I was still reeling from the previous galleries. While seeing Degas, Renoir and Monet side by side is nothing to sneeze at, nor some early pre-sideways face Picasso sketches and pottery, we were back in the territory of 'oh, that's an interesting take on a vase' territory.

Dinner was at a fantastic restaurant and bar called Finkh. It was off the main shopping street but was well within walking distance of both it and our hostel. Small, but not crowded, it was fitted out in the kind of indie vogue aesthetic that is all the rage right now; mismatched chairs dotted clusters of tables, a small bar served a couple of unusual beers, the patrons smoked inside and on its airy street tables, and cool lounge jazz whispered round the walls. If it was in Adelaide or Melbourne there would be a line out the door seven nights a week, but here in Vienna, it was barely one third full. Proving that hipsterdom is universal, on the table across from us a guy was using a mid-nineties film camera to take snaps of his friends.

The food was brilliant too - chicken on corn mash with roast vegetables would cost $30+ in Australia but was under €13 here. Sam's spinach option looked almost edible, while the chocolate lava gateau and apple strudel were demolished before the bowls even hit the table. The bartender, fluent in English and friendly, turned out to be a co-owner, and seemed bemused by our suggestion that if he opened up down under there'd be a line down the street. He admitted that he wished it made more money. (When presented with the same statement, the waitress at Frei Raum - "open space" -  assured us in winter they are booked out well in advance, and it was only the heat deterring customers from coming inside tonight.)

Shallowness is enervating. The mundanity  of most conversations, typically on the level of one's likes and dislikes or that weird dream you had, bores me to tears. So when there's something to really be surprised or challenged by, I leap at the opportunity. Deep in the unknown, unclear, or underappreciated lies the opportunity for an experience of a uniquely personal kind beyond the norm.