Austrian Cultural Forum Bares All for “Beauty Contest”


Jakob Lena Knebl

Austrian artist Jakob Lena Knebl does a performance piece for the opening night of the 'Beauty Contest' exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Photo: Alexa van Sickle

When transgender Austrian artist Jakob Lena Knebl told her audience that she uses her body in her art, they probably did not expect to see such a literal demonstration. Minutes later, she lay naked on a white canvas while another naked artist, Hans Scheirl, spattered her with paint in the style of Jackson Pollock.

The performance installation was part of the late September launch of the Austrian Cultural Forum’s exhibition “Beauty Contest” which features 20 artists and will run until January 2012.  Now in its tenth season, the Forum is Austria’s cultural embassy in New York and is located just off Fifth Avenue on 52nd Street.

Forum Director Andreas Stadler said that “Beauty Contest” is “about the social construction of beauty as it is linked to sex, gender, and race—and is hugely topical for our time and for New York City.”  He explained that the show’s purpose is to critically reflect on the global obsession with beauty, to subvert concepts of what is beautiful.

Around 200 people attended the launch, squeezing into the 23-foot wide building — so narrow that the Bösendorfer piano is stored in a panel in the ceiling.  Also in attendance was Martin Eichinger, Director General of Cultural Policy at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who made a speech in which he described the Forum as “the flagship in our 30 fora across the world.”

The exhibition features many Austrian and U.S.-based artists but also features Greek, African-American, and Iranian ones, and includes video, sculpture, paintings and photography, among them two pieces by Cindy Sherman. About half of the pieces have been lent by the official art collection of the City of Vienna.

“The common denominator with the artists we selected is that they are outsiders in a way,” said curator Claud Grunitzky. “Some are more established, but we wanted to explore what it’s like to work on the fringes of the art scene in New York, and to cover beauty in a way that has not been done before.”

Jakob Lena Knebl ended the installation with a reading from Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” dancing around covered in paint, before she and Hans signed the canvas with the imprint of their behinds stained in deep blue paint. Hans and Jakob explained to the audience that they are making fun of the standards of beauty by parodying Yves Klein’s painting of beautiful women, and that their performance is “not meant to shock, but to invite.”

If any of the audience were shocked, they did not show it. “I am Austrian, so I ‘ve seen this kind of thing before,” said Elisabeth Fraller, a philology lecturer at the University of Vienna. “I don’t think that people who would find this shocking would come here, but I think in some contexts you wouldn’t be able to do it. I think it’s very funny — this kind of ironic self-humor is very Viennese.”

Other pieces in the show include a giant wedding dress, and buttocks constructed from red and white drinking straws titled “A beautiful piece of Austria.” The straws are a play on Austrian flag, which is red-white-red.

Some guests were not so enchanted. “Calling something ‘Beauty Contest’ makes it hard to pull off as a show, said Seph Rodney, who holds a doctorate in the study of museums. “It’s a challenge to actually question the concept—and this show does not really question it, but just kind of thumbs its nose at it.”