In Linz, Art at the End of the Tunnel

Wall Street Journal 11 July 2008

More than 20 kilometers of tunnels run underneath the Austrian city of Linz. Some were dug during the 19th century, their constantly cool temperatures perfect for storing beer. Others, built by forced labor from German and Austrian concentration camps, are a grim reminder of the city's Nazi past. Adolf Hitler went to school in the city and later had plans for making it a center of the arts. During World War II, the tunnels were used by the weapons industry and as air-raid shelters. Now, after more than 60 years of disuse, they have been re-opened as a unique underground art gallery.

The Offenes Kulturhaus Oberösterreich's new contemporary-art exhibition "Tiefenrausch," or rapture of the deep, is part of a program celebrating Linz's selection as European Capital of Culture in 2009. The OK commissioned many of the pieces in the show, some of which reflect the gruesome Nazi-era history of the tunnels. The exhibition is subtitled "Stream of Forgetfulness."

Visitors enter through two huge industrial steel doors built into a hillside near the city's botanical garden. Heavy sweatshirts are available to ward off the cool, damp atmosphere. Inside, the tunnel system opens up under huge sandstone vaults. The air smells of earth. Water forms in puddles on the floor.

The first installation visitors see is "Shining Spectators" (2008), by Austrian artist Ursula Witzany. Six crystal chandeliers sparkle in the gloom, their light reflected in puddles on the floor, while projectors send white silhouetted figures scuttling around the walls. Some carry suitcases and wear trench coats. The scene evokes images of people who sought refuge in the tunnels during wartime air raids.

Croatian artist Kruno Stipesevic focuses on forgetfulness in his "Alzheimer Phase III" (2008), in which a room and its furnishings are covered with Post-it notes in orange pink, yellow and green. "Waiting for Sinbad" (2007/2008) is Swiss artist Christoph Draeger's tribute to the forgotten thousands of Africans who have died trying to sail flimsy boats to Europe. It's a painted wooden boat that landed in Tenerife in 2006. Its hull is cracked and broken, a symbol of the metamorphosis between hope and catastrophe.

War is the subject of several works in the show. Red electronic lettering moves along the wall of an otherwise totally dark tunnel in "Ausrottungserleichterungen," a one-word poem by Austrian artist Heimrad Bäcker. The word means the facilitation of genocide illustrating the banality of evil. Afghan artist Lida Abdul uses kite-flying boys and the wreck of a Soviet airplane in "In Transit" (2008) to remind us of another, now almost forgotten, war. Spanish artist Sánchez Castillo uses the memory of Franco in his installation "Up and Down" (2006/2008). Visitors need a one-euro coin to raise a mounted effigy of the late dictator onto its white pedestal. After 20 seconds the sculpture disappears again into forgetfulness.

Canadian artist Vera Frenkel's work, "Body Missing 1994 & Ongoing," reminds us of Hitler's dream of turning Linz into an art capital by building a giant museum to house looted masterpieces. Her installation uses light boxes and monitors to document the disappearance of many works in the chaos of the closing days of World War II.

The OK museum and the directors of Linz 2009 now are determined to reinvent a city formerly devoted to heavy industry as an art capital of another sort, one in which international art fills public spaces and artists are free to experiment and voice a loud protest against injustice and war.
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