AWitches are on the loose on Lake Constance. A green face with a long nose glares at passers-by from billboards at the Bregenz train station. The Viennese artist Jakob Lena Knebl has dressed up as “Wicked Witch of the West” from the classic film “The Wizard of Oz”. Together with her partner Ashley Hans Scheirl, she ended up at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. The poster for the “Seasonal Greetings” exhibition suggests that it will be peppered: Knebl pushes the broom to her wife’s bottom. But the accusation of excessive horniness has always been part of the repertoire of misogynist witch attributes.
It is the queer duo’s biggest show to date, and it has had great success in recent years. Originally, the next two summers were supposed to play in Austria’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but since the art event was postponed to 2022, the ride to Vorarlberg was just right for them. The transgender artist Scheirl, born in 1956, was already represented with her painting at Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. Her partner Knebl, born in 1970, received a lot of applause in 2017 for the remix that she donated to the Mumok collection in Vienna. With their self-ironic and sensual approach to identity and gender issues, they were also able to score at the Lyon Biennale last year.
In Bregenz, the artists designed two floors together and treat themselves to a solo each. Her weird winter show opens Pandora’s box of contemporary plagues: the topics addressed in her installations range from the climate crisis to the Neo-Biedermeier period, from propaganda to biotechnology. But it would hardly be Knebl / Scheirl’s handwriting if it weren’t for lustful and ambiguous. With their typical chutzpah, they torpedo the line between high and low, mix art with design and kitsch and, quite en passant, transform stylistic issues into socially critical issues.
“We settle down comfortably in the crisis”
It starts with ice floes made of Styrofoam, which pile up around two ice-blue sofas on the ground floor of the Kunsthaus. Vintage lamps made of so-called ice glass give off diffuse light. The installation is a kind of lounge version of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Sea of Ice” painting. We settle down comfortably in the crisis, so this walk-in environment could be read, regardless of whether it is the failed hope for political change (as in March or 1968) or the current melting of the polar ice caps. From time to time it even snows: While in the mountains of western Austria, despite the tourism lockdown, the snow cannons are constantly powdering, a theatrical snow machine with flakes of foam plays Frau Holle here.
The other chapter of the exhibition, which Knebl and Scheirl open together, appears like the stage set of a fairy tale play. There the felt floor, the painted cardboard trees and the witch sculptures shine in the same green as the emerald city of the Technicolor film dream “The Wizard of Oz” shines in. The black silhouette of a broom rider travels along rails overhead; in addition, music sounds like from “Peter and the Wolf”. The fir trees and the crispy house are reminiscent of pop-up books. The clothes and ceramic heads of the two great witch figures, in turn, reflect techniques that have long been considered feminine, less valued forms of expression.