Swiss artist sparks controversy in Vienna

The Element6 club is in the basement of the Secession building

Basel artist Christoph Büchel has set the cat among the pigeons at a contemporary art venue in Vienna where part of his project is the installation of a real sex club.

This content was published on March 3, 2010 - 12:58 paid a visit to the Secession gallery - currently home to a swingers’ club called Element6 that has provoked controversy among local politicians and captured the attention of the media across Europe.

The club has been temporarily relocated complete with fixtures and fittings from its normal home in the city to the Secession.

People who visit a Gustav Klimt exhibition, which is part of Büchel’s project, have to walk through the club, to reach one of Klimt’s celebrated works, the Beethoven Frieze.

The frieze was once considered pornographic because of the way women's bodies are depicted but it is now considered one of Klimt's leading works.

It is not clear whether Büchel wants visitors to confront their sexual inhibitions or if his project is all about the freedom of art or the freedom of sex. The Swiss artist is tight-lipped about that.

There are plenty of rumours doing the rounds. People are asking whether it’s meant to dishonour the reverse side of the 50 cent coin featuring the Secession building. Or if the artist has only succeeded in creating an outrage similar to that which Klimt provoked in 1902 with the Beethoven Frieze.

Although the swingers’ club is empty during the day, it’s business as usual at night.

On a visit around the Secession, some exhibition visitors are appalled and feel cheated about the entry fee. Others are much more relaxed.

Red light area

Walking towards Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, you pass the red light area of Element6. There’s a stage, black leather sofas, a bar and small tables at which some women visitors are sitting.

They are really curious about what it feels like to be in a swingers’ club but they say they’ll think twice about coming at night. The club’s head of marketing is very happy that so much interest is being shown.

Walking past separate booths with peepholes you come to the “punishment room”. An old gynaecologist’s chair, a pillory, a prayer cushion and a cross where you can be tied and whipped, are there for those who are into sadomasochism.

A young couple from Germany felt that Büchel had succeeded in provoking scandal as Klimt had done in his day. But they found the many stains on the mattresses in the booths disgusting.

The Beethoven Frieze is hard to see in the dim lighting. You can take a rest on a mattress underneath the frieze surrounded by tall plastic palms with plastic bananas.

Beautiful Beethoven

One amused visitor commented that the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony coming from a loudspeaker was beautiful.

The media-shy artist Büchel says nothing about his art and the scandal seems to have a momentum of its own.

The Secession has been trying to calm things down, arguing for example that the club finances itself in its present location with the takings from the bar, while the entrance fee goes to the Secession.

While the city councillor for cultural affairs, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny from the Social Democratic Party of Austria, has pleaded for freedom of art, city councillor Ursula Stenzel from the Austrian People’s Party feels people have gone behind her back.

She initialled plans for the project and now says that there was no talk originally of any group sex at the relocated club. Stenzel wants project subsidies handed back.

Money wasted?

There is talk of €90,000 (SFr131,727) being “wasted” on moving the club from its permanent home to the Secession.

The country’s Freedom Party has denounced the project in a number of press statements, arguing it is a misuse of the term “freedom for art”.

Party member Gerald Ebeinger poked fun at a city council meeting, arguing that sex clubs should be introduced in other cultural places in Vienna “as a wonderful source of income for ailing museums”.

However, the Greens have been calling for an increase in subsidies for the Secession.

The biggest art lies in selling and transforming your ideas into art. And on that score, you have to admit that Büchel with his latest work in Vienna has proved himself a great master.

Karin Wolfsbauer in Vienna, (Adapted from German by Robert Brookes)

Controversy in Switzerland

The swingers’ club in Vienna’s Secession is not only keeping politicians in Vienna busy, but also those in Switzerland. Büchel’s provocative exhibition has been supported with SFr15,000 from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council.

The council says that no public funds went to the privately-run swingers’ club in the basement of the exhibition hall.

A number of Swiss politicians have protested in the media against subsidising this form of conceptual art.

The director of Pro Helvetia, Pius Knüsel, says he does not fear a repeat of the case of artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who four years ago provoked the Swiss establishment with a performance in Paris. It featured an actor pretending to urinate on an image of the then Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher.

Knüsel says the swingers’ club attacks no one, insults no one and is not breaking any laws.

After the case involving Hirschhorn, parliament cut Pro Helvetia’s budget by SFr1 million a year.

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