Hertha Hurnaus


About the exhibition

Untergründig / Under the Surface

Above ground, the chandeliers sparkle. Everything wants to be in the limelight. Down below it’s quiet and cool, no pomp and no public. Twelve meters below Vienna’s surface level, it makes no difference what’s being performed above. In the deep basements of the buildings along the Ringstraße, the utility rooms silently keep to themselves. Here, on the underside, the mechanics of the things work without being noticed. It is their nature to go unnoticed: In the noise-sensitive monumental buildings the services installations must function smoothly, provide fresh air silently, keep up heating and cooling systems. Their task is not to let anybody in the upper state rooms run out of breath.

The ventilation shafts, air locks for fresh air and capillary shafts, costume depots and décor warehouses, heating systems and cisterns – they all form a separate world below the Ringstraße – a world with its own iconography and monumentality that is not addressing anybody. These spaces do not represent, the just are.

Whoever enters this underground world, moves along the limbs of a colossal apparatus and becomes accomplice of a system of mechanics, that guarantees the operation of all those magnificent buildings. As a matter-of-course, the technical staff sets in motion the processes in the deepest basement storey: They open the shafts at the right moment, crank gear wheels, and know every corner in a patched-up infrastructure.

Here and there, the odd chest, chair or bench standing around are proof that people linger here, incidentally and with no intention of staying. Sometimes one stumbles upon a cosy alcove with a workplace: table, chair, lamp, snack. Far from daylight and quite surreal in its normality.

Sometimes, one just has to push past an inconspicuous concealed door to find oneself backstage of a historicism hiding behind a paper-thin façade. Behind and under the stage on which Vienna “is giving its performance”, one finds the counterpart of the perfectly illuminated presentation of the Ringstraße. Shafts and corridors, cathedral-like or claustrophobic tunnels of circulation, serpentine paths of fresh air from somewhere to somewhere else, charged with nothingness. The technical equipment remains mostly mysterious or altogether invisible even in the rooms that it fully occupies. Cables and tubes appear and then disappear, rusty nicks in the floor are archaeological traces of already obsolete turbines. There are also traces of history here that haven’t been covered up. Notes on the walls, arrows pointing to escape routes of the past, long forgotten technical secret codes.

The underground of the Ringstraße – a reserve for suppressed memories.

Gabriele Kaiser, Maik Novotny

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