Reading recommendations: … of bread, wine, cars, security and peace

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Recommendation by Michael Simku

Michael Simku, art educator at Kunsthalle Wien, recommends the novelette Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang:

In an unspecified future Beijing is physically divided into three zones and the population into three classes. The different parts of the city are not located, as one might expect, beside one another, rather they are layered upon one another, spatially separated, and organized temporally in a 48-hour cycle.

The first governing class, with a population of five million people, inhabits the city for a full 24 hours. The Earth’s surface turns upside-down with all of its luxury apartment buildings, lush parks, and architectural monuments. Then, from below, the middle class, with its sober offices, relative comfort, and functional infrastructure, unfolds and rises. For this segment of the urban population, numbering 25 million people, the day lasts 16 hours, before it folds down again. Finally, the third class emerges from below, which consists of 50 million people. Their version of Beijing is considerably more congested and dirtier than the other two. The first class rules, the second is the management, and the third is primarily responsible for the waste the others produce. When it is time for a certain class to fold down, the inhabitants enter into an artificial sleep. Transfer between the zones is next to impossible, and any attempts are punished with lengthy prison sentences.

Readers explore this world through the eyes of a protagonist in the third class, a waste processing worker. Due to chance events and driven by financial problems, he must set forth on the risky journey from his zone to the first class and back: his mission is to deliver a love letter there from a member of the second class.

In the course of the story, one learns that it would be possible in this version of the future to abolish the economic inequality, which is described in great detail, with the aid of available technologies. However, as these technologies are not put to good use, the 50 million inhabitants of the third class are kept in precarious employment, while the second class manages this system.

The interconnections of social status and wealth with physical well-being is more topical – and clearer – than ever in the current situation. Who can afford to stay or work at home? Which professions are particularly valued and appreciated in and by society? Will it be possible in the future to organize social life around work? How does the growing inequality affect our lives and what role will technology play?

The author Hao Jingfang has been awarded numerous prestigious prizes for her novelette Folding Beijing. Her success is an illustrative example of the growing international importance of Chinese science fiction. In the restrictive media climate of the People’s Republic, this genre appears to be one of the few realms in which people can express critique of society. The “abstraction” through fiction, which projects contemporary issues to somewhere in the future, offers a means to negotiate fundamental social, ecological, and political problems of today. The great demand locally proves just how great and urgent the need is in China for these (literary) perspectives.

This novelette was published in the anthology Invisible Planets, among others. This publication is a groundbreaking compilation of Chinese science fiction, which has popularized some of the most gifted authors in this field for the first time outside of Chinese-spoken territory. The volume was translated into English by Ken Liu, himself an important representative of the genre, and published in 2017 by Head of Zeus.

Recommendation by Vasilen Yordanov

Vasilen Yordanov, assistant to Kunsthalle Wien’s directors, recommends Up the Down Staircase (1964) by Bel Kaufman:

If you’ve never had a brush with school administration, you might get into the first chapter and mistake this book for a parody, for absurdist fiction or literary nonsense. Teachers out there (or in my case: the son of a teacher), however, might recognize their school, the work atmosphere, and the difficulties they encounter within the schooling environment.
“Hi, teach!” is the last thing inexperienced but optimistic Sylvia Barrett expects to hear on her first day as a teacher for classical literature at an average metropolitan high school. Initially, it’s hilarious. There are students, but no chairs; there’s a chalkboard, but no chalk; there are bells which must be ignored, a perpetually broken window, and a custodian who sends back a written note from the basement: “No one down here”. The kind, polite pupils she had imagined are apathetic, absent-minded, aggressive, arrogant, bursting with teenage sexuality and meandering thoughts. The bureaucracy is drowning her in forms in triplicate, and on top, she has to deal with the larger human issues of her reluctant students.

Despite its sombre undertone, the novel is actually a light and accessible read. Its bulk is comprised of homework fragments, excerpts from intraschool communication and notes from pupils, personal letters and forms, one more ridiculous than the other. The doodles on pieces of scrap paper feel like hilarious intertitles in a silent movie. Behind them, you learn even more about the students’ struggles and drama.

In the end, Sylvia’s stubborn attempt to climb up the down staircase doesn’t leave her unscathed. However, she finds her calling despite all obstacles. You might argue that one teacher won’t solve the very real problems her students are facing, and you would be right – but that’s what makes the novel realistic and emotional.
“The frightening thing is their unquestioning acceptance of whatever is taught to them by anyone in front of the room. This has nothing to do with rebellion against authority; they rebel, all right, and loudly. But it doesn’t occur to them to think.”

A paperback of Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase is available from Vintage Books, New York.

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Recommendation by Christina Zowack

Today, Christina Zowack, Head of Visitor Services/Shop at Kunsthalle Wien, introduces a book she discovered by coincidence, but then intrigued her all the more: Making History by Stephen Fry:

I read this book a long time ago, but it has been stuck in my mind ever since – something you cannot say about many books. And I didn’t buy it either; I found it on the Kunsthalle Wien ticket desk, where no one came along to pick it up in the end.

Actually, I just wanted to skim a few pages as I had absolutely no time for a book at the time, but it had me firmly in its grip after the very first page, and I read it for nights on end. Stephen Fry has a very subtle sense of humor and inspires reflection at the same time.

The book is about a young historian who, together with his doctoral supervisor, hatches a plan to prevent the birth of Adolf Hitler, and thereby poses the question whether one can/should alter the course of history (if one could).

In my opinion, a great recommendation, especially for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp on May 5, 1945.

A paperback of Making History is available from Soho Press, New York.

Recommendations by Anne Faucheret

Anne Faucheret, curator at Kunsthalle Wien, recommends two books:

1# The short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman narrates transformation and liberation through writing. A young woman is forced into isolation and idle by her doctor husband who diagnosed her “neurasthenic” and “lightly hysteric”. She arrives in a rented country house in the countryside and starts writing her diary in secret.

The hideous and mysterious yellow wallpaper covering the walls of the room where the woman stays seems to somehow already be animated or inhabited: “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.”

It quickly becomes the theatre of hallucinatory images, which are at the same time a sign of the growing madness as well as the emancipation of the narrator – even if only a spiritual one. She finally frees herself from her confinement, from the patriarchal and disciplinary structures that subjugate her: “I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if Jennie asks me to. For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way. Why there’s John at the door! It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!”

The final apotheosis, ironic even almost burlesque, is exquisite.

 The Yellow Wallpaper (original: The Yellow Wall-Paper, New England Magazine, January 1892) is available in paperback from Penguin Random House.

2# In Illness as a Metaphor (1978) and in Aids and its Metaphors (1988), Susan Sontag develops an analysis of the cultural and political meanings attached to diseases. Starting with cancer – which she was diagnosed with in 1976 – and AIDS, other illnesses such as pest or cholera are raised when she revisits theoretical and literary texts, among others by Machiavelli, Balzac or D.H. Lawrence.

Diseases become metaphors (to describe social problems or to name “public enemies”) just as they also are the object of metaphors (and lexical fields of war, invasion or boundaries to be preserved). For Susan Sontag, these metaphors signal a refusal to get closer to the ill bodies, as well as an indulgence into bio-/necro-political management. The social, political and cultural treatment of disease is a particular locus of the reproduction of power relations – class, race, sexuality, gender – that Sontag highly criticizes. Her views have helped me to understand the military rhetoric used by our politicians in the current coronavirus pandemic, supposed to legitimize authoritarian measures.

“Since our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture, for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling, for our reckless improvident responses to our real “problems of growth,” for our inability to construct an advanced industrial society which properly regulates consumption, and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history.”

Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor was first published by Farras, Straus and Giroux, New York. A paperback of Illness as a Metaphor & Aids and its Metaphors is available from Picador.

Recommendation by Adina Hasler

Adina Hasler, staff member of Kunsthalle Wien’s marketing team, recommends Und wie wir hassen!, edited by Lydia Haider:

I wanted to have this book as soon as I had heard that it was going to be published – and even more when a few texts from it were read by the authors at the opening of our exhibition … of bread, wine, cars, security and peace. When I finally held it in my hands the quarantine in Vienna had just begun and I could devote myself completely to reading it.  For Und wie wir hassen! author Lydia Haider has gathered 15 female artists from different fields to write in 15 diatribes about things they hate, things they simply don’t like, things which have always annoyed them or made them furious for ages.

Some of the texts already existed, such as lyrics by musician and rapper Ebow, which are placed like poems between the other texts, as well as the well-known status messages by author Stefanie Sargnagel or a text by Sibylle Berg from the year 2013 about a mother who can’t stand her own son anymore. Others have written completely new contributions for this book, such as visual artist Sophia Süßmilch, who describes in detail what she hates in form of a list and does this in an incredibly direct, trenchant way. Or Maria Muhar, who reflects on what to hate while playing with words and sentences as if they were set pieces.

Stylistically, each of these coolest ladies uses a different form to settle her score. But they all have recurring themes in common, which weave these different contributions together: the reckoning with patriarchy, binary gender conceptions with which one is still permanently confronted and against which one has to fight all the time, or the political situation – and of course much, much more. Telling all this which would go well beyond the scope of this recommendation, and besides that: not everything should be revealed, but best read by yourself.

However, a diatribe by Lydia Haider herself is missing in this collection of texts, which is why I wishfully hope for a second edition. After all, the year 2020 seems to already offer enough material for it. Seldom have I laughed so much while reading a book and never before have I been so empowered at the end. And attention please, spoiler-alert: Cat content is also hated.

The book was published by Kremayr & Scheriau, a small and independent publishing house from Vienna in March 2020.

Recommendation by Michaela Schmidlechner

Michaela Schmidlechner, who is a member of  Kunsthalle Wien’s educational department, recommends the artist’s bookThe Trolls in Hellsinki by Egill Saebjörnsson.

Ūgh and Bõögâr are two trolls from Iceland, who are more than 36 metres tall and able to  transform themselves into various creatures or objects. Michaela first encountered them in 2017 at the 57th Venice Biennale, where the trolls, together with artist Egill Saebjörnsson, created the installation Out of Control in Venice for the Icelandic pavilion. She immediately fell in love with their wild, anarchic and creative nature and has since then followed their artistic career with keen interest.

The book The Trolls in Hellsinki describes how Ūgh and Bõögâr travel to Helsinki together with Egill, where they produce their first paintings for a group exhibition. It turns out that their paintings have several dimensions and that they too can move and change themselves. Visitors to their subsequent exhibition, which takes place in an underground cave, can enjoy the so-called troll paintings while sitting down with a delicious cup of coffee: If they look long and attentively enough, the paintings sense this and start to change their colors – so that the visitors can view something they have never seen before.

The Trolls in Hellsinki proves once more that humor and creativity can be of great support in such demanding  times.

The artist’s book was published by argobooks (Berlin).

Support your local bookseller – many bookshops in Austria currently offer online ordering services, find out more here: http://www.buecher.at/buylocal/

Recommendation by Flora Schausberger

The current situation reminds exhibition manager Flora Schausberger of the title of a book by the American author Chris Kraus, which she read some time ago – Torpor.

Torpor (lat.) is a state of stiffness, inactivity and anaesthesia that occurs in (small) mammals when they reduce their metabolism to a minimum due to a lack of food and water or due to excessive heat or cold. Chris Kraus chose this term as the title of her novel, published in 2006 by Semiotext(e).

Torpor accompanies Sylvie Green and Jerome Sharif, an intellectual couple from New York, on a road trip through crumbling Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Sylvie wants to break out from the state of torpor that characterizes her relationship with Jerome: she has spent the past years as a ghostwriter of his academic essays and as a silent companion to dinners with his intellectual male friends. It is the summer of 1991, the Berlin wall is open, Ceausescu has fallen, Nirvana is on the radio and Sylvie is convinced that only two things can save their relationship: the adoption of a Romanian child and the completion of Jerome’s Anthropology of Unhappiness, a book about the Holocaust. On their trip the couple is accompanied by Lily, the dog – crammed into a nylon bag, she seems to be the only thing that still connects them.

For some, torpor might offer a strategy to survive the upcoming weeks. Or maybe we are just waking up from a torpor that spanned many decades.

Recommendation by Aziza Harmel

The personal recommendation of curatorial assistant Aziza Harmel is for book she was currently reading and inspired by: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country by Etel Adnan.

This book is written like a palimpsest bringing together, in seven separate sections, work that spans from the 1970s to the present. For example, Adnan wrote the first section of the collection upon her return to Beirut from California in 1972. Inspired by William H. Gass’s collection of short stories of the same name, she uses prompt words and phrases – People, Place, Wires, Weather, The Same Person, Another Person, Church, Final Vital Data, Politics – to trigger a series of automatic writings: “Like a salmon I came back here to die. But this place is not a place. I am unable to die”.

The book has been translated into numerous languages, including German and English.

Recommendations by Laura Amann

Laura Amann, curatorial assistant, shares her personal recommendations for three books that can be understood as extended references of the exhibition … of bread, wine, cars, security and peace. The selection creates a loose link from understanding the role of exploitation in building our societies, to comparing anarchist and capitalist models of human interrelations through science fiction and ultimately leading to an ecofeminist proposal that unfolds in a quarantine-like solitude and suggests the shedding of binary ideas as a possible way out.

1# Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, was first published in 1971 and is still considered the go-to reference for post-Columbus history in Latin America. Narrated in a style that is closer to a captivating novel than dry historicity it tells history from a different point of view than the one dominant in our Euro-centric educational systems. It details ‘five centuries of the pillage of a continent’, namely Latin America, and is a forceful account of how ‘our’ wealth in Europe has been built through a violent history of genocide, exploitative trade deals, and a string of murderous US-backed dictators. I think especially in the context of Austria, which likes to excuse and extricate itself from any ‘colonial’ activities, it is perhaps even more relevant to confront ourselves with the reality of how our ‘developed’ countries have been built on the backs of others, and how the disadvantage of others is therefore very much our responsibility.

2# In the science fiction novel The Dispossessed author Ursula K. LeGuin describes the coexistence of two very differently functioning societies on two neighboring planets. Though they are economically codependent, they stubbornly keep their distance to each other, the anarchists afraid of hierarchical capitalist ideas and vice versa. In an exceptional case a physicist is allowed to cross the otherwise strictly closed border in order to develop a ground-breaking technology. LeGuin’s story and the inner conflicts of its main character invite us to look at and rethink a variety of anarchic and capitalist proposals alike, related to coexistence, family-structures, sexual relationships, possession and societal organization at large. After all – as one of the characters poetically declares: ‘Our Earth is their moon, and our moon is their earth.’

3# Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall is a forceful novel disguised in the simple narrative of a journal. It describes the everyday life of a woman who is trapped in a hunting lodge on the mountains and cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible wall. Her only companions being a dog, a cat, a cow and her calf, she describes the transformation of herself and the way she relates to her environment in order to survive and ensure her physical and mental health. Almost uncanny in its relevance – even more so in times of quarantine – it is hard not to read it as a premonitory eco-feminist work, which comments on modern life by actually describing its end. Oscillating between a utopian paradise and a dystopian nightmare it becomes obvious that survival can only be achieved in shedding any binary preconceptions such as human – animal, masculine – feminine, culture – nature, colonizer and colonized.