The headquarters of ÖVP, the Austrian People’s Party, lie adjacent to Vin Vin, in which Karoline Dausien’s solo exhibition “JENNY” is currently on view. Like many parties that blossomed into mainstream political forces after World War 2 and have been agonizingly fading like unwatered cemetery flowers over the past decade or so, the ÖVP’s position on many issues is vague, if not inexistent. The one thing it clearly expresses on a regular basis is a largely unjustified entitlement to power. It seems unlikely that Dausien wasn’t conscious of the party’s physical vicinity to Vin Vin when she started working on her show: the delightful winks to the aesthetics and structures of provincial politics in her show are far too smart to be coincidental.
Dausien’s works are exhibited in a strange, cellar-like space, painted in all possible shades of (off-) white, ecru or beige. If some House of Cardsish series were to be set in Austria, this is where a machiavellic underdog called something like Norbert or Kevin – (to insist on his working-class background) would probably have his secret campaign office, plotting against the old guard and drinking too much Red Bull (again a subtle marker of his humble origins). Yet it could as well be the building’s laundry room, a space where in Vienna, you often bump into your janitor, which in 90% of the cases is a grumpy, slightly racist eastern European woman who likes her polyester bedazzled and yours out of the laundry machine ASAP . The space’s kookiness seemingly offers numerous opportunities of interpretation for both viewer and artist – and boy, did Dausien joyfully grab these opportunities by the balls.
In the first room, a series of wall reliefs and textile pieces adorn the wall. Vaguely reminiscent of cushions, they are embroidered with naive depictions of people – lying around, trapped in a spaceship, colliding with unidentified objects – or abstract structures looking like miscalculated graphs. Additionally, two works (Relief Nr. 9 (Jenny) and 12 (Woty), both 2016) appear to be faces, emerging from a magma of black patent leather. Those two seem like the leaders of the pack, sternly scrutinizing the room for any disturbance. The rest of the works are kept in the same muted tones of white and beige that are found in the gallery’s space. Here the first puns kick in: a female artist working with textile and matching her art’s colors with the ones of the space in which it is being shown already reads as such a misogynistic and stereotypical move that you can literally feel the irony being sprinkled in your face. However Dausien’s execution pushes this ironic commentary beyond cynicism: the works are bloated, irregular, sketchy; like juvenile fungi seconds before hatching, they’re glistering and bulbous and pristine, yet earthy and – can I say it? – Almost tangy with flavor.
The hanging’s grid-like regularity gets cheerfully disturbed by the works’ tumefied structures and the amateurish quality of the embroidery. The scenes on Dausien’s Pillow series, as ambiguous in meaning as they seem free of any plan in execution, may or may not reflect a political party’s portfolio of voter-friendly ideas: scientific progress, women’s health, efficient bureaucracy. Yet the figures she stitches almost get swallowed by the edges of the leather and PVC, and we don’t know if they’re running away from the center of attention, or if they desperately try to anchor themselves on the works’ shiniest spots, but keep sliding off. Whatever the case, the neurotic chaos that transpires from this neat arrangement seems like a compassionate clap on Kevin the political underdog’s shoulder, and by extend, a satisfying shrug towards any kind of ambitious white male politician who enjoys spending time in the boulevard press and at his expensive hairdresser a bit too much.
The gallery’s second room contains only two works: the first one, prominently displayed in the center of the wall and almost facing Relief Nr. 9 (Jeny) and 12 (Woty), is Relief Nr. 11 (WH), a larger, more precisely executed visage in a wannabe-subtle shade of greige, the sort of color in which fancy stationary or pseudo-luxurious bedsheets aimed at suburbian twentysomethings are usually produced. Relief Nr. 11 (WH) appears to be frozen in an exclamation of outrage or unpleasant surprise; his dampened color only adds depth to the comical drama of his powerless grimace. Note how through a cleverly executed installative scenario, the show has pushed me to actually identify the art works as beings, and not as objects -except maybe one: Cigarette (Table), 2016 stands in a corner, unassumingly. The sculpture reminded me of a table, and then of an ironing board, and then of a springboard, and then actually of a cigarette, and then revealed itself as the one work everting the show’s comedic bravado the best. An undefinable monster – something between 1990s office furniture, fake marble countertop, art-deco cupboard, and geriatric massage table, Cigarette (Table) can also be found stitched on several works in the first room. A placeholder for whatever neoliberal virtue one potentially feels obligated to abide to – diligence, precision, efficiency, and other petit-bourgeois values of that order – the work runs amok and fulfills the exact opposite of what it symbolizes: it disrupts the scenes on the Pillow series, the room in which it stands, and finally, the show itself. Once you grasp the power emanating from its beastly and absurd humor, it metaphysically chases both the Red Bull drinking intriguer and the Swarowski-loving janitor out of the room very, very quickly.
When I asked Karoline Dausien why she titled the show “JENNY”, she wrote back: “JENNY” is sort of a synonym for me. A female ghost that floats over the exhibition (…)”. Observing the silent scenes of grotesque conflict that run through the show with hilarity, I can only imagine that once visitors leave, JENNY stops floating, leans against a wall of Vin Vin, has a good laugh and lights a cigarette, oblivious to the fact it’s most certainly forbidden to smoke in there. Who could fight her on it anyway?
Text and images: Karim Crippa