Carola Dertnig

At the center of Carola Dertnig’s artistic work, her thinking, and her research1 stands the idea of performativity. Texts, images, live actions and videos join to establish interwoven performative levels on which Dertnig confronts the seemingly known with neglected flipsides and counter-concepts. Dertnig examines and reflects upon her themes from a critical and feminist perspective coupled with an explicit interest in the politicization of gender. The idea of the performative with which Dertnig infuses her conceptually diverse works is conceived broadly and draws on both “classic” action and performance art and the effects that media culture and the culture of tourism have on society.

The slapstick video series entitled True Stories (totaling seven videos, 1997–2003) features Dertnig herself as the main protagonist of her subtly and ironically humorous “vignettes” about fleeting events. The golden thread in True Stories is embodied by the awkward or embarrassing situations that Dertnig stumbles into in the various scenarios. By resorting to the tradition of slapstick film, Dertnig almost casually injects elements of anarchy and destruction into quintessentially everyday situations. By melding filmic staging and live performance, Dertnig explores norms of social behaviors. This applies not just to the individuals that happen to be present at the scene of the action and their various reactions, but also to those watching the video, to whose imagination it is left to judge just what is staged and what is “real.” The protagonist’s provocatively clumsy behavior and the embarrassing predicaments into which she gets herself evoke desires to either help her or ignore her, as well as feelings of malicious joy and scorn. Precisely because the audience cannot quite tell where the film directing stops and bystanders’ reactions are actually spontaneous, Dertnig succeeds in building up a sort of tension that goes beyond comic effect to deliberately give rise to a quasi-existential uneasiness, albeit one that is counteracted by the comedy of the protagonist’s “Buster Keaton”-like role.

The intensity of Dertnig’s miniature scenarios is owed to more than just the situations they portray; indeed, the decisive factor consists in the filmic means she employs. These include shots from varied perspectives, as well as postproduction sound effects and editing sequences that support the buildup toward the events’ climax. Repetitions and loops blur the chronological sequence and give rise to irritations, as Friedrich Tietjen notes: “She [Dertnig] opposes this with a fragmented, fed-back and multilayered temporality that is of no use to progression, a temporality in which the past, more than being just a necessary and completed stage leading up to the present, remains constantly at hand—albeit perhaps repressed—in said present.”2

It is no coincidence that these videos simultaneously reflect on Dertnig’s situation as an artist, as well as on her precarious living conditions in New York, where she took on factory jobs to stay afloat. A recurring theme in her work is the World Trade Center, where she had a studio thanks to a grant; it was only due to a fortunate coincidence that she was not there when it was destroyed. Dertnig employs her critically analytical gaze to highlight an aspect of the global economy that is not typically publicized: run-down offices that were apparently abandoned in haste, alarming signs of economic failure. Her difficulties getting through the revolving door are quite ostentatiously caused by the equipment that she has on her person: the tools she needs as an artist. The videos shot in Vienna are about being a stranger and about coming back to the town from which she had been absent for several years. Her presentation of herself, ranging from the self-possession of her conformist café guest and rail traveler to the embarrassment of the snafus described above, hence goes beyond any individual insecurity to refer to the generally insecure status entailed by her living as an artist.

It is with all possible irony that the issue of gender also plays a constant role in Dertnig’s work. She deliberately belabors clichés—that is to say, certain types of conventions tied to the construct of “femininity” such as clumsiness with technical things, wardrobe malfunctions, and lady-like comportment taken to the point of being ridiculous. Dertnig describes it as follows: “In these videos, I assume the clown-role much like Buster Keaton did. I am the protagonist, but I’m also a projective surface acting as a catalyst for the most varied reactions by inhabitants of the public realm. It’s about the attempt to be inconspicuous resulting in one’s actually being that much more conspicuous.”





1 One focus of Carola Dertnig’s research is Austrian action art and performance art of the past 50 years. Together with Stefanie Seibold, she released the following publication: Carola Dertnig and Stefanie Seibold, eds., let’s twist again. Was man nicht denken kann, soll man tanzen. Performance in Wien von 1960 bis heute / Let’s twist again. If You Can’t Think It, Dance It. Performance in Vienna from 1960 until Today, (Gumpoldskirchen / Wien: D.E.A. Kunstverlag, 2006).

2 Friedrich Tietjen, “Failing, Passing. Carola Dertnig’s Afterimages of a Non-simultaneous Present,” in Carola Dertnig. Nachbilder einer ungleichzeitigen Gegenwart, ed. Silvia Eiblmayr and Galerie im Taxispalais (Innsbruck-Bolzano/Bozen-Vienna: Skarabaeus im Studienverlag, 2006), 10. Exhibition catalog.





1963, Innsbruck / AT


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