Austrian Cultural Forum Exhibits Occupy Wall Street’s Artistic Side


(Natasha Mahadeo/Fordham Observer)

On a summer day a few years back, an artist named Dread Scott walked down Wall Street with an apron of bills pinned to his shirt. “Does anyone have any money to burn?” he asked repeatedly to those around him. Their amused curiosity turned to shock when Scott removed a lighter from his pocket and began to set fire to the money, one bill at a time. A few people even took up his proposition and handed over their own bills to be set in flame.

Scott was eventually arrested for disturbing the peace, but the entire performance was captured on tape. The video, titled “Money to Burn,” is now being shown as part of “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid,” an exhibition now on display at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY). The show features artwork that is meant as a commentary on the economic crisis, and frequently critiques capitalism. Though not officially associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the two were born from the same environment and reflect many of the same sentiments.

Perhaps the most curious part about the exhibition is that it’s being housed in the Austrian Cultural Forum — a branch of the Austrian Consulate. The stated goal of the ACFNY is to serve as the “cultural embassy of Austria in the United States” by housing artwork and performances from Austrian artists. Due to the fact that several of the artists involved are of Austrian descent, the ACFNY was happy to house the exhibition.

One piece that demonstrates this is Linda Bilda’s sculpture, “Labor and Capital,” which depicts capital as a shark engaged in an awkward dance with labor. The two make an uncomfortable partnership; the large and unmanageable shark causes labor, depicted as a female dancer, to struggle to hold up the sheer weight of capital. A light shining on the sculpture casts a mysterious shadow onto the opposite wall that obscures the sculpture’s form.

“I look at art as a tool to change things,” Bilda explained. That sentiment accounts for the heavily political messages that are found throughout all of her work on display. Another of her pieces is a mural, depicting corruption as the result of disjointed thought, speech and actions. “I want to dedicate my work as a political tool,” Bilda stated as she talked about the meaning of the work.

While most of the art carries this weight of political commentary, a few pieces on display take a more ambivalent look at the economic downturn. Julia Christensen’s “How Communities Are Reusing the Big Box” looks at how the buildings for large retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target become used for other purposes after the stores go out of business.

The most engaging work is often that which is most subtle, as is the case with Jan Peter Hammer’s film, “The Anarchist Banker.” The 30-minute film has the appearance of an unscripted news interview with a member of the high finance world. In fact, it is a carefully scripted discussion in which the character of the banker discusses his view that lawless greed is the ultimate expression of freedom. The way the interview unfolds subtly critiques this Randian viewpoint, as we slowly become aware of the extreme consequences of the banker’s philosophy.

The work on display comes from all different parts of the world in response to the global financial crisis, so it is strangely appropriate that they are now being displayed together in Manhattan, the birthplace of the Occupy movement. Gregory Sholette, one of the exhibition’s co-curators who has also been active in the Occupy movement, is especially enthusiastic about the timing. “When we started the concept of the show, we [said] that somehow we need to push back against the crisis and these artists represent one attempt to do that.” When the Occupy Wall Street movement started, “it was almost like… we got our wish,” Scholette described.

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If You Go
Austrian Cultural Forum New York

Where: 11 E. 52nd St. (Between Fifth and Madison)
When: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily
Admission: Free
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