In winter 2000 the government coalition of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe) along with the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) dissolved because the conservatives decided to form a new coalition with the right or even far right wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe). This led to a giant leap to the right and to a forced neo-liberal formation in Austria. For months people were protesting against the government and a sudden re-politicization of the civil society took place.
In summer 2001 Zdenka Badovinac, director of the Gallery of Modern Art in Ljubljana (Slovenia), visited us in our monochrom office in Vienna. Half a year later she contacted us again. This time she revealed that she was actually the curator responsible for the Austrian participation at the Sao Paulo Biennial 2002 and that she wished to work together with monochrom. She invited us to represent the Republic of Austria at the Sao Paulo Biennial 2002. The Sao Paulo Biennial is one of the three biggest art presentations on our small overrated planet, right after the Venice Biennial and the documenta in Kassel, and it is the biggest and most important art exhibition of the southern hemisphere. The Sao Paulo Biennial is the anti-pole of a geographic concentration of art in the westernized world. Its presumed critical stance against this kind of hegemony was one of the reasons why monochrom was glad to participate-even as the national representative of a racist European mini state. After a short discussion we agreed that we did not want to represent Austria directly but send some- one else to the Biennial. Our choice was the then 57 years old avant-garde artist Georg Paul Thomann. Thomann was born in Vorarlberg, Austria in 1945. He studied art in Vienna from 1963 onwards. Many art projects in Vienna followed. From 1964 through 1980 he lived and worked in Berlin, Paris, Munich, Palo Alto/California, New York, and London. He returned to Vienna in 1980. Thomann worked in various art contexts like concept and performance art, painting, photography, video art, and music. He received several scholarships, awards and distinctions. He taught contemporary art at various universities. As an author, he dealt with art and sociopolitical topics. Thomann was a major but somewhat clandestine player within the Austrian art scene. All this can be explained by the fact that Georg Paul Thomann does not exist, at least not as a physical entity. He is an art avatar and impure fiction. Zdenka Badovinac informed the Department of Art in the Office of the Federal Chancellor about our decision and provided an adequate contract.
The Chancellory was neither allowed to submit any press statements about the project that had not been approved by us nor to make any official statements, or else we would withdraw from the national representation project.
We began to create Thomann’s biography in detail and dealt with the proliferations of Thomann’s life for more than six months. To us Thomann was a probe to explore the art, pop, and social history of the last 40 years. He was a docile assis- tant in analyzing and reviewing the various processes in this broad field, be it a replica on Martin Kippenberger’s sexist raptures during the 1980s, on the national-fantas- tic contents of Austropop, the foreign policy of the US, or cyberpunk-science fiction theories. Thomann became a fat, bloated context-canard, crammed with references and sub-fakes and thoroughly roasted by us. The intention of Thomann-as monochrom member Frank Apunkt Schneider puts it is not to parody the more recent history of art and expose its gaping incongruities (it takes care of that well enough itself), but rather to paint its portrait, as it is the tradition in classical portrait painting, in such a way as to make it look a little better than it was in reality.” In this case the aesthetic retouching has become a theoretical one in order to provide the more recent his- tory of art with a sense and a function that is just a nuance too glamorous. Thomann became some sort of fountain pen filled with magic ink. Magic ink is that renders the occluded and obliterated contours of a “leftist” history of art visible.
In this sense, Thomann’s real oeuvre is this fake biography. Little of it can be remembered, stored, historicized, or actually put into a museum, lots of it will be left in the gutter of the street. The pictures, the music, the interventions in public spaces and other proofs of existence of the ‘enfant terrassé’ of the Austrian art scene (Thomann on Thomann) should be consumed rather quickly, because they – similar to secret messages in spy movies-once gotten into contact with the socio-physical conditions of an outside world will soon dis- solve in it.
“I’m not doing the rhi- zom’n’blues-nigger for that neo- conservative Austrian fuck! They won’t get no connectivity! They can stick their laptop right into their Lederhosen! All they get is mountains, puffed-upness and old dog-shit. You are what you eat!” (Georg P. Thomann: Paragraph 3 of the manifesto Quotable Stuff, Vienna 2001.)
Thomann is a direct detour- across the towers and into the news racks of this little snow globe called ‘Austria.’ But which project should be presented in the Austrian white cube of the Biennial building?
We agreed that Thomann did not want to go to the Biennial on his own. His installation project <Yes, Sir, I can network it out, Sir!> <Smells like team-spirit, Sir!> <We are the World, we are the Children, Sir!> is an oversized mixed-media self-por- trait in the shape of Austria’s highest mountain, and Thomann invited four young Austrian art groups to present their work to the world. Thomann not only is the Uebervater of all Austrian avant-gardes, no: he virtually becomes the commissioner of tourism for the location factor ‘young art’. The four art groups are – of course – fake, too.
“Merely by age I’m the ‘massif’ in this installation proj- ect. Actually I could be and yes I should be their father. That’s why I see myself as the rational authority within this project, but also as the ‘lone peak’ overlooking everything in a mellow mood. In turn, they are young. Fresh’n’rosy as they stand before my soiled highness with their ideas, concepts and bodies. All that still immense lifespan. That total blankness and the frankness of biogra- phies! William Somerset Maugham wrote on that. All that mystical and limitless sexuality! Here I am brown with envy like some autumn forest, here I may be. But for that I’m big. Fucking big. 12,460,629 feet tall.” (Georg P. Thomann: Paragraph 2 of the manifesto Quotable Stuff, Vienna 2001.)
The Austrian press was divided and it took the papers some time to realize what was going on. For the time being, some papers and magazines were caught in our trap of representation (which means that they didn’t investigate the matter and believed that the fake is real), just to get caught in the next trap, the trap of de-representation (which means that at some point they had to pretend having been aware of the irony all along but deliberately didn’t reveal it). Our budget for the project was not increased due to a Thomann- interview in the daily paper “Standard” in which he attacked Franz Morak, the conservative Austrian State Secretary of Art. Towards the end of the 1970s, Morak was an actor at the famous Viennese Burg Theater and he also made Austro-Pop music with a slight touch of Nina Hagenianism. Back then Thomann refused to do a cover design for his first LP, which Thomann referred to as ‘pseudo-critical.’ Morak (the real one) was totally mad about this remark. Off the record this meant a loss of approximately 35,000 Euros. In March 2002 Thomann’s biography-about 500 pages thick-was published just in time and the Biennial started. The monochrom staff was going to Sao Paolo as the setup crew. On site we were confronted with the usual disappointing picture of the common mechanism of exclusion. The strict hierarchy of mega-art structures was instantly intelligible: Biennial Board, top curator, top artist, curator, artist, technical setup crew, exhibition guide, etc. We turned the tables: When members of the administration, journalists, or curators asked about the whereabouts of Thomann, our irritated answer was that he hadn’t cared to show up so far, and that he hadn’t helped with anything, because he was supposedly watching porn in his hotel room all day, while the members of the technical crew and the guides were instantly informed about the basic idea of the project. They were also given detailed information about Thomann’s non-existence but we did not give them any hierarchic directives about what to do with their knowledge but left it up to them if they wanted to reveal the fake or keep spinning the story. Most people enjoyed doing the latter and they also kept telling different versions of the heard information until finally a bubbling geyser kept erupting in various ways and constantly led to new outbreaks of tittle-tattle. Thomann’s omni-presence at the Biennial most certainly should be read as an artistic political and collaborative conspiracy. A little anecdote from the rich pool of occurrences: we did not get our exhibition catalogues because they could only be handed over to Georg Paul Thomann himself. The basic principles of how the exhibition worked was frightening and well known at the same time: lots of little white boxes in which art was set up.
There was hardly any contact between the artists who came from more than 80 different countries. Everyone was busy building his or her own little world. Then, during the final setup phase we found out about an incident, which took place in our neighborhood through a copied note. One year ago, Chien-Chi Chang had been invited to be the official representative of Taiwan at the Biennial. But then, three days before the opening, his caption – adhesive letters – had been removed from his cube virtually over night. ‘Taiwan’ was replaced with ‘Museum of Fine Arts Taipeh.’ But to Chien-Chi Chang the status as an official representative of Taiwan was very important, because his photography art- work dealt directly with the inhumane psychiatric system in Taiwan. Chien-Chi was trying to get in contact with the Biennial administration and the chief curator (the German Alfons Hug), but didn’t succeed. Communication was refused. After that he decided to write an open letter, but the creative inhabitants of all the little white art-combs didn’t seem too interested in the artist’s chagrin as well, who now wanted to leave the Biennial out of protest.
We were interested in the situation and did some research. We found out that the Chinese delegation had threatened to withdraw their contribution and to cause massive diplomat- ic problems. To them, Taiwan was clearly not an independent country (‘One China Policy’) and they put pressure on the Biennial management to get that message out. The management did not make this international scandal public and it was quite obvious what determined their demeanor: to keep the super powers at it. Period. monochrom decided to show solidarity with Chien-Chi. We wanted to set an example that artists do not necessarily have to internalize the fragmentation and isolation that is being imposed upon them by the structure of the art market, the exhibition business, as well as the economy containing them. For us, though, this is not about taking a stand for either the westernized-economical imperialism represented by Taiwan or for China’s old-school Stalinist imperialism. This is about integrity and solidarity, values that we chose to express through a collaborative act. Together with other artists from various countries we launched a solidarity campaign: we took off some adhesive letters of each collaborating country’s signature and donated them to Chien-Chi Chang. monochrom sponsored the ‘t’ of Austria, while the Canadians donated one of their three as. The other participating artists were from Croatia, Singapore, Puerto Rico and Panama. A lot of artists and curators from other countries refused to support the campaign for fear of – as they would call it-“negative consequences.” But at least some of the artists were pulled out of their self- referential and insular national representation cubes that so rigorously emblematized the artists’ work and his or her persona as commodities.
After some time we managed to attach a sloping, yet legible ‘Taiwan’ to the outside wall of Chien-Chi Chan’s cube. Numerous journalists took notice of the campaign and Chien-Chi opened his exhibition in front of a cheering audience. A few hours later, the security guards had removed the letters again. We put them back on only to see them taken down anew. We changed our strategy. The following day we publicly announced a solidarity dance performance (‘We meet here at 4 o’clock to have a radical dance performance, we dance the word “Taiwan”‘); several security officials prevented it. For the rest of the two months of the mega-exhibition security officials were constantly on guard in front of Chien- Chi’s cube to avert interventions.
Some days later, we found out that Chinese and Taiwanese newspapers massively covered the campaign. One Taiwanese paper used the headline”Austrian artist Georg Paul Thomann saves ‘Taiwan’.” In other words, a non-existing artist saved a country pressed into non-visibility. Who said that postmodernism can’t be radical.
We don’t know how many people out there – whether members of the press, the administrational board of the Biennial or the Chinese or Taiwanese government – are still enmeshed in our Thomann construction. And we never got any official feedback from Austria’s Department of Art in the Office of the Federal Chancellor.
Epilogue: Georg Paul Thomann died on July 21, 2005 when he got involved in an accident and tried to help a person on the Inntal Highway near the small Austrian city of Hall in the province of Tirol. He was buried in that same village on July 26th, by chance not far from a psychiatric hospital. His marble gravestone is the first worldwide with an engraved URL.
Finally he could cease to not exist, a fine opportunity to kill an Uebervater who in a sense was our son-but hey, this is Freud’s country of origin, after all. In November 2005 somebody from Hall called to tell us that Thomann’s gravestone had to be removed from the park because patients of the nearby psychiatric hospital had started to put down wreaths and flowers on Thomann’s grave and frequent- ly large numbers of patients were kneeling in front of his gravestone in order to pray for him. To that end, the director of the hospital initially had the grave covered with drapery, later on the gravestone was removed and the plastic urn exhumed. We believe that his grave is under discussion to be rebuilt somewhere else in Hall.