triangle circle square diamond

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