Mon, 22 July 2024

European culture takes to the hills

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by Edward Steen, Bad Ischl, January 29, 2024

The misquotation of Göring, or possibly of Goebbels, lives on: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”. It aptly describes the kind of trouble Culture can cause. The current Capital of European Culture in Bad Ischl is no exception, one of three (the others are Bodø (Norway) and Tartu (Estonia) sharing the title.

I have no idea if the other two provoked the same kind of polemics as here in the Austrian lake district, compounded by combining 23 different, not-automatically-harmonious  Alpine villages – Bad Ischl’s population is only 15,000 – to enjoy the honour together. It has at least done the opposite of celebrating kitsch, which hereabouts involves the Habsburg legacy and especially the difficult and troublemaking late Austrian Empress Sisi. But Thomas Neuwirth, aka Conchita Wurst, dressed up in a Sisi ballgown for the opening night, sang and went down ok. The bearded cross-dresser has by now become a familiar figure in European as well as Austrian culture.

But the real trouble came with  “Powder Dance”, which involved 10 less-than-youthful dancers, two in wheelchairs, cavorting in the nude at -16C in clouds of baby powder. Pudertanz is an obscene reference to the Austrian slang for sexual intimacy. The work of celebrated Vienna choreographer Doris Uhlich provoked immediate complaints to the police and days of grumbling in the press, unlike the enthusiastic yodelling of 1000 young people led by another popular local singer, Hubert von Goisern.

Dancer and choreographer Doris Ulrich

Undeterred by the freezing temperature or anything else, the ever-cheerful EU ambassador to Vienna, Martin Selmayr, said the Capital of Culture idea, inspired by Melina Mercouri when she was Greek Minister of Culture 40 years ago, built cultural bridges “and triggers impulses with long-term effects…. the title of Capital of Culture will also have an impact for many years to come. Dornbirn and St. Pölten had also applied to be 2024 European Capital of Culture. “Both cities have developed great initiatives. I hope that they were able to implement these and gain a lot of positive things, even if finally not winning the title.”

Werner Kogler, Austrian Vice-Chancellor responsible for culture, recalled the beginning of the First World War with the declaration of war “To my peoples” by Emperor Franz Joseph, signed in Bad Ischl in July 1914 at his desk in the Imperial Villa, said all the right thing. The EU, Kogler said, was a peace project facing the rise of authoritarian politicians.

Hannes Heide MEP centre, Selmayr left

Hannes Heide, former mayor of Bad Ischl, now a Socialist MEP, was one of the driving forces behind the Salzkammergut’s successful bid to showcase one of Europe’s loveliest rural regions. “Art and culture are socially formative,” said the event’s Viennese artistic director, Elisabeth Schweeger. She  has weathered noisy criticism from local politicians and artists, not least for defending the Poder Dance.

Capital of Culture events were not “navel-gazing”, she insisted, “but must always take place in dialogue with global art trends.” Responsible for the 30m € budget, she had significantly less than Graz and Linz had at her disposal.

The well-produced 345-page Kultur salzt Europa  book describes the region’s history and  events such as an “Art with Salt and Water” exhibition in Ischl’s old brewhouse, open until the end of April, with works by international artists. Such “lost places” have been revitalised, such as the often run-down railway stations. The dark sides of the region – such as the Ebensee concentration camp and the “Alpine fortress” of Nazi bigwigs who fled here at the end of the war – are also under the spotlight, including the miraculous rescue of works of art hidden during WW2 in the Altaussee salt mine.

So has it all been worth it? 

Franz-Joseph’s first ride in a car, 1908: he hated it, and all modern technology, especially the telephone.

Soon after the opening, Bad Ischl fell back into its quiet spa-town lethargy, which is possibly what the emperor loved, apart from the hunting, holidaying here 60 times and massacring thousands of deer. By 8pm on opening night, hardly any restaurants were open; even the famous Zauner coffee-house closed early, as usual.

Nor did the absence at the opening festival of most mayors of the other 22 municipalities bode well. Gmunden on Lake Traun, Bad Ischl’s forever rival, duly delivered its share of the 30m €  budget but not much else. St. Wolfgang, also nearby, simply opted out altogether. To the chagrin of some, there seems no immediate danger of the over-tourism plaguing Europe’s beaches. Only medieval Hallstatt will endure its annual invasion of a million tourists, perhaps more now (mostly from Asia).

As with the Capital of Culture in Linz, Linz09, there has been much rivalry and backbiting. Elisabeth Schweeger has become a bogeywoman for many locals, as was the brilliant Swiss director of Linz09, Martin Heller. But La Schweeger has coped with the headwinds rather bravely, was the verdict of Die Presse in Vienna: “Disappointing expectations and yet fulfilling them in unexpected ways – that seems to be her programme.”


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