Austria in New York: a look at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Beauty Contest exhibit

Until January 3, 2012, the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York will be hosting “Beauty Contest“, an exhibition that reflects on society’s obsession with physical appearance. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the exhibit this week and would highly recommend it, not only because it is free, but also because it is insightful and each piece leaves you thinking. When you enter the building, Beauty Contest spans two floors up and two floors down, and also includes some works on the main floor. While the exhibit is not enormous, there are enough pieces, as well as enough quality in each work, to make it a worthwhile venture.

The installations in the exhibit include an array of forms, including oil paintings, photographs, videos, projections, and even sculptures made of drinking straws. To give you an idea of what you can expect when visiting the exhibit, here is a look at some of installations.

One piece that I found really interesting was an oil on canvas painting by an artist named Maria Lassnig, who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. The self-portrait is not of the traditional kind and focuses on body awareness by featuring the artist with a prosthetic arm. It is meant to show on the outside how she feels on the inside, and is meant to be funny and grotesque at the same time.

Another installation that I found noteworthy, and had me standing there critically analyzing each photograph, was a series of slide projections by artist Petra Buchegger, who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. The slides showed female images that were taken from women’s, men’s, sex, fashion, and lifestyle magazines. Burned onto each image was a picture of the artist wearing an apron dress and making particular gestures and faces, which were supposed to affect the interpretation made by the onlooker. The goal of the work is to convey the argument of the actual verses the apparent, as well as look at the idea of being a female beyond conventional ideas. On some images I got the sense that the artist was mocking the models, and at other times I felt that maybe she was envious. Then, there were other times, for example, when she would cover their eyes, that I thought maybe she believed there was something they weren’t seeing, figuratively speaking.

Mana Petschnig, an Austrian born artist who currently lives and works in New York, also created a unique piece for Beauty Contest. The installation consisted of four channels of high definition video projection. The films were all silent, and in each one it seemed that the characters were put into different situations, given particular costumes, and made to improvise a silent scene with the setting and wardrobe acting as the catalyst for interaction. The work is meant to look at dominant ideals and what people usually associate with identity, gender, sexuality, fantasy, and society’s idea of the ideal female identity. While some of the situations appears to be more mundane, such as a group of people sitting around raising their hands, there were others that seemed more controversial, such as a group of women moving furniture and wearing a variety of outfits, such as the dominatrix-type garb shown in the picture on the right.

These are just a few of the many installations that are part of Beauty Contest. If you would like to visit the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York and check out the exhibit for yourself, the address is 11 E. 52nd St. Take the E or M train to 53rd and 5th or the B, D, or F trains to 47-50 St. Rockefeller Center.