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Archive: In These Great Times


Old Haunt

In English, the idiom ‘old haunt’ refers to a place frequently visited in the past. This expression, which resists literal translation, conjures the image of the ghost. Ghosts of the living and dead alike, of both individual and collective spirits haunt places. In a word, places are personed and ghosts help constitute their very real, yet intangible historicity: namely their living memory. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, personal or political, global, local or detached, particular or allegorical. Memory is subject to both (self-)censorship and projection.

Around a table an ensemble of five speakers re-visit – in the Swiss German dialect and accompanied by wine and cigarettes – their memories of the famous Café Odeon in Zürich: a contemporary, not yet crumbled ruin in whose still intact art-nouveau interior lie former utopias, stories and characters.

The video Old Haunt re-imagines this event as a polyphony of names, dates and anecdotes performed by a choir of soliloquists who move through harmony and dissonance. Joined by members of the audience, the a capella quintet delves into the past but performs in the present.

Workshop Participants: Martin Dreyfus (literary historian), Urban Gwerder (artist), Peter K. Wehrli (author), Sissi Zoebeli (fashion designer), Stefan Zweifel (art historian). Moderated by Michael Hiltbrunner and Martin Jäggi


Frieze | Felicity Lunn | January 2009

Uriel Orlow, ‘Oddly, one lived the war in one`s mind more intensively than in a country at war’ (detail, 2008)

Uriel Orlow is best known for his contemplative video works that investigate the roles that language, image and memory play in structuring private and collective experience. However, ‘In These Great Times’, his new exhibition at Blancpain Art Contemporain, puts the medium of drawing centre-stage, in the form of a group of 35 marker-pen portraits (‘Oddly, one lived the war in one`s mind more intensively than in a country at war’, 2008) of men and women who clearly belong to another age. Because some of them – such as Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein and James Joyce – are immediately recognizable, it is inevitably frustrating that the others, apparently also part of this intellectual elite, elude the naming process. Orlow`s decisions to make the drawings in a small format (28 x 38 cm) and with the graphic sobriety of marker-pen enhance this shift between the tangible and the fragile: whilst encouraging a sense of intimacy with the subject matter, the size and medium render the faces impossible to grasp.

Although some crossed paths elsewhere, the figures featured in the series all frequented Zurich’s Café Odeon, the famous haunt of intellectuals, radicals, asylum seekers and artists. Orlow extends and intensifies his investigation of whether the café`s history can be told coherently with a number of other elements. A pile of newspapers at the base of the wall displaying the portraits is updated daily and opened at reports of conflicts from around the world. Referring indirectly to the involvement of many of the portrayed figures, such as Stefan Zweig and Mussolini, in the two world wars and the role of Café Odeon as a place of verbal exchange, this neat insertion of a contemporary element subtly questions the power of newspapers today to disseminate information.

In These Great Times (2008)

One of the two videos, In These Great Times (2008), juxtaposes the café being prepared before and cleaned-up after opening hours with scenes of a wood, accompanied by the raucous sound of printing machines, referring to Austrian journalist Karl Kraus` description of the three hours it takes for a tree to be transformed into a newspaper (the title of the video is taken from a 1914 lecture by Kraus). The silent stories contained in the faces are thus fast-forwarded to the present, collapsing the hierarchy of time and opening anecdotal history and current affairs to new associations and chronologies.

Orlow creates images that challenge our desire for understanding and classifying the past and its relationship to the present. In focussing on the appearance and atmosphere of the Café Odeon – the curve of a wooden armchair, a chandelier, a marble tabletop – the video Ornament and Crime (2008) would have been anathema to architect Adolf Loos. His 1908 essay of the same name, in which Loos denounces ornament as a crime against aesthetics, was written in the period of utopian fervour that inspired many of the intellectuals who visited the café. In the context of the portraits, the video questions whether it is possible to unite the material facts of the place with the conversations, ideas and thoughts that occurred there.

‘In These Great Times’ asks whether history and memory should be understood less as being structured by time than as being rooted in a specific place and in the connections made by those present. It is the disparate nature of the project, employing different approaches to image-making, fragments of research and narratives that refuse to be brought together in a single story, that points to ways of translating rather than telling history.

Felicity Lunn


Mike Sperlinger | In These Great Times | 2008

History requires tact. For example, in the anecdotal history of Zurich’s Café Odeon we find configurations of artists, asylum seekers, radicals, war, isolationism, newspapers, censorship and reaction – chains of association and connection which might tempt us to presumptive conclusions, or even parallels. To preserve what is powerful and immediate about these membra disjecta, however, restraint is called for: they are vital because they are incidental. Interpolation would rob them of their eloquence. Instead they can perhaps be ushered into new configurations, which start to collapse our comfortable sense of chronology.

In his series of works based on the Café Odeon, Uriel Orlow presents us with a film’s exploded elements: shards of research, location scouting, casting. The characters, the café’s denizens, are rendered as iconic pin-ups, but while some are immediately recognisable – Brecht, Lenin, Einstein – many remain intransigently unfamiliar. Meanwhile the café itself decomposes into its elements: its illustrious history becomes untethered from its physical facts, its marble and wood, which seem to open up onto their own more primeval histories. These moments of close attention to surfaces and materials – of ‘vulgar materialism’, as Lenin might have put it – represent a limit, the point at which we must ask what really constitutes this place: can mere matter have a history? Even if we treat the café as a social space, a crossing point for various erratic paths, its temporalities seem to telescope: should we consider it in terms of the years, or decades, in which particular people frequented it – or should we think about what time of day or night might have found them there, at a favourite table? Since most of them will have known each other only slightly, if at all, and since they had no unifying philosophy or cause, what does it mean to gather them together now, in this uncanny class reunion? Can there be a history of customers – of consumers?

Orlow’s challenge to our desire for continuity is radical: the truth of this peripheral space is not one, he suggests, that can be told narratively. In an era where every fashionable bar flaunts the supposed history of its space (usually now-displaced manufacturing), Orlow’s work asks us how we can read the past in a way which does not involve a simple hierarchy with the present. More than this: he wants to know what history is and how it binds itself to an institution, a thing, a space, a face. These faces in the drawings are not there simply to be named, identified; their self-evidence is an enigma. The fragility of the whole project is its fidelity to its subject’s fractured nature, which demands that it run the risk of a certain kind of silence.

Karl Kraus, the sometime habitué of the Odeon, wrote the lecture which here lends its name to both the show and the video in which it features. Kraus wrote in that text a series of taboos on what, in Austria in 1914, no longer seemed possible for language; his lapidary sentences recognise, in an exemplary way, their own terrible predicament. But his ironic rallying cry might still be the model for a response beyond resignation, and one which Orlow has heeded: ‘Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent!’ ”

© Mike Sperlinger


The Noise is Too Loud

The video shows a casting session with a native German speaking actor who is recording Karl Kraus’ famous outcry against the corruption of language in times of war given as a lecture in 1914.

Actor: Jürgen Schwarz


Ornament And Crime

The video shows a slow close-up pan which creates an tactile inventory of the surfaces and materials of the café’s interior and its ornamental vocabulary, making an implicit reference to Adolf Loos’ 1908 essay of the same name, in which Loos denounces ornament as a crime against both aesthetics and function, and which was written in the period of utopian fervour prescient of Modernism.


Three Hours and Twenty-Five Minutes

Soundscape by Mikhail Karikis

The wish to establish the exact time that a tree standing in the forest needs in order to be converted into a newspaper has given the owner of a Harz paper mill the occasion to conduct an interesting experiment. At 7:35am he had three trees felled in the forest neighbouring the factory, which, after their bark was scaled off, were hauled into the pulp mill. The transformation of the tree trunks into liquid wood pulp proceeded so quickly that as early as 9:39am the first roll of newsprint left the machine. This roll was immediately taken by car to the printing plant of the daily newspaper four kilometres away; and no later than 11:00 am the newspaper was being sold on the street. Accordingly, a time span of only three hours and twenty-five minutes was required in order that the public could read the latest news report on the material that stemmed from trees on whose branches the birds had sung their songs that very morning.

[Karl Kraus]