Striking the right note?

Andrea Schurian

Striking the right note?

“Art is there to be learned”. So that’s the sort of thing we learn from Ronald Kodritsch. And, there we go, we also learn that art theft is forbidden, that invisible art is relatively safe from the unscrupulous hands of art thieves. Ronald Kodritsch. One of the triple K´s, you know, part of the Kelloggs, Kotanyi and Kodritsch troika, with each of them sharing the highly unusual virtue (come to think of it, even for the old masters) that their works really are finished when they enter the public domain. Well that’s what the collector says, at least. On the video. Or to be more precise, on the “COLLECTOR Saliera II” video. Where it soon turns out, very soon in fact, that this Leo chap – who’s well up in history and stories and that kind of thing – doesn’t think Cellini is the name of a small musical instrument or that the saliera constitutes a masterpiece (far too user-unfriendly wouldn’t you know, not even dishwasher-safe, etc.), but lauds Dürer’s rabbit instead! Even though, hang on a bit, the background…, screenplay and direction: Ronald Kodritsch. Incidentally, talking of triple K´s, Kelloggs = crunchy. Kotanyi = hot. And Kodritsch?

Well, the view on the art scene is that he’s a painter, drawer, fitter, filmmaker and, what’s more, an offender who acts on the strength of his own convictions. Ah yes, and apparently he’s working like a demon to turn his artist-ego into a comic hero.

“Art is presented in special spaces. Nothing is there to distract from art -ideally, not even the art itself.” (“ART – The great Almanac to Zetmalnach” – Part 4, Art Market Presentation Film, Poncho Brothers, 1998/99). Sure, there’s no doubt what he does is a bit strange. Very strange and funny in fact: when he sits on a garden bench and holds forth, in that languid nasal Viennese of his, on what it was like back then when he met ‘Gustl’ Klimt in the flesh, such an honour, and so overwhelming that he – awestruck, young, misunderstood artist! – was unable to get a single word out straight and couldn’t understand a thing Klimt said to him personally. Now isn’t that just typical of an artist’s bad luck? (see Part 2, Art Inspiration Information Film). Or when he morphs into R. K., the extravagant pop and painting star from Malibu (with corresponding pink patterned shirt, dark glasses and the kind of cool voice others walk miles to hear) who gives interviews in charmingly affected, increasingly whisky-fuelled American English; here he tells us lots of things, including how happy he is that people in Austria don’t live “in boxes on the road, you know”. The humour is very much off-beat. The sound quality is poor, and sometimes you even feel he doesn’t want to strike the right note, in every sense of the word. But that’s fine as it is. After all, presumably it’s only at moments like these that we have to strain our ears (and nerves) to catch everything he says: we don’t want to miss out on even the smallest phrase in this bizarre melee of quotes that happen to be taken from art history, send-ups, elevated nonsense, razor-sharp polemic, spot-on irony, absurdity and philosophy that serves as a critique of religion, art, the market, films and society. And then, of course, he loves to play with words and ambiguity. And. And sometimes so much laughter wells up in your throat you could almost choke on it, it’s stuck there, trying but failing to escape completely, yet incapable of returning from where it came.

“Imagine you’re a hen and have just laid an egg. But you know that a particularly nasty chick is going to hatch from this egg. What do you do – and why?” That’s just one of the – let’s say – eccentric questions asked of candidates wishing to enter into higher spiritual office on All Saints’ Day (well of course! when otherwise?) at the Canonisations Office (Poncho Brothers, “Aktion”, 1998). Or how about this: “Imagine Adolf Hitler never grew a moustache. Do you think everyone today would be walking around with a Hitler moustache to avoid being mistaken for Adolf Hitler?” The office is run by the Poncho Brothership. And somewhat practically, they’ve gone and recorded all of the canonisations on video.

Which means I’m finally back where I first started out, right there at the start. For once upon a time there were the Poncho Brothers. In 1998 Ronald Kodritsch and Georg Pruscha teamed up as Rocky and Roxy to become the Poncho Brothers, an anarchic duo, a panoply of parody, young, impudent, shameless and critical. The videos they’ve produced are deliberately, almost painfully amateurish in terms of sound, image and action. Here, it’s Buster Keaton, not Charlie Chaplin, who comes to mind. And of course, it’s hardly an accident that the name Poncho Brothers bears more than a passing resemblance to the Marx Brothers. Or that the duo have more than one or two things in common with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Who knows, if Austria had a BBC, the Poncho Brothers might well have become world famous, and not just by chance. And, as a wee suggestion, what if Kodritsch-esque films were seen from the perspective of Dogma films?

“We’re can openers.” They proclaimed their Ponchoist Manifesto (Dogma) on video (of course), thereby laying the foundation for their film work. As well as their distinctive dress code, they have above all defined their code of action: Poncho actions are games in and with society, they promote processes of improvement, change, beautification, refinement and lots of other positive processes besides. They’ve taken the entire range of the unspeakable, turned and twisted dogmatic maxims and empty, hollow phrases into recognisable banality. The result is a disquieted audience and laughter. Err – they were only kidding, right? “Art is a constant process of questioning. And the questions are always about the same three W´s: What is art? Art is okay. Where is art? If you think of invisible art, it can be anywhere. Why is art? Who is art?…” Questions on wise words about laws on moderation, as taken from the five-part “Art Almanach to Zetmalnach”, Part 1: Art Enlightenment Introduction Film, shooting time 10 days for all five parts. Sustainability in (film) art. Each apparently innocuous throw-away remark a successful swipe at the hermetic, intellectual, discursive art scene (no, to be more precise: at the scene which regards itself as being hermetic, intellectual, discursive – as being the very epitome of art itself). The Ponchos act with humour. Who knows, perhaps with a touch of gallows humour, even? To be quite honest, it’s all very funny and sadly enough, all very true. In spirit at least, the other protagonists in the ponchoist videos are from the brothers’ milieu and circle of friends, amateurs the lot of them, with performances that range from the seductively wooden to the surprisingly professional. For example, the voiceover (take a bow Alfred Purrer) that accompanies the viewer along all five video chapters of this peculiar guide to art is, in terms of delivery and modulation, about as dynamic as a primary school pupil reciting a poem (we note the intention and are close to giggling). When he says okay, he gives the thumbs up like a good little lad (the rigorously maintained dogma of the series is to dispense with the standard word & image scissors!). The toupee sliding down on his head gives an entirely new meaning to the German notion of ‘shame hair’ (pubic hair). Now, speaking of shame, as everyone knows, in this part of the world former Austrian chancellor Viktor Klima actually carried out his dangerous threat to make art one of his top priorities by awarding TV presenter Uschi Glas the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and the Arts. A video by the Poncho Brothers recalls the day. It also shows Ronald Kodritsch, made up as an instantly recognisable Pierre Brice, waving a banner with the words: “Give Pierre Brice the prize”, while Georg Pruscha marches in protest at his side along the Ballhausplatz wearing a paper mask of Horst Tappert. After all: “I’ve done more for Austrian science and arts than my colleague Glas.” The guards on duty can be seen grinning in the background. Passers-by stand and stare. Marika Lichter arrives. Uschi Glas signs autographs. A peck on the one cheek. A peck on the other. And it’s all true. Truth is funny. Truth hurts. This applies in equal measure to Kodritsch (when he meets the two ladies).

No, the Poncho Brothers were never nonsensical producers. Come off it! Would you say, for example, that appointing Friedensreich Hundertwasser artist was an act of nonsense? Wouldn’t it be truer to say the real nonsense is the extent to which the town and country have already become hundertwasser-ised, and how the policy debate on art has been (and continues to be) led? No, Kodritsch isn’t the kind of person to get bogged down in the small-minded discussions of everyday politics. When it comes to his films, paintings or drawings, there’s more a matter of “principle” involved, or so he says. The principle of art. Of society. Of film. Of criticism. And of the comic. Both physically and psychologically, the pictures he creates are moving. In a film chapter about “life with art” we see a cleaning lady wiping the floor in a museum, when suddenly a picture waves to her impishly from the wall. It’s a small detail which goes a long way to document his love of comics (apart from the fact that the texts, actions and behaviour of his very real, true-life performers are imbued with the same character of comics). Incidentally, this is also a recurrent theme in his films: little cartoon sequences, finger exercises of a drawer able to caricature his environment with pin-point lines (not to mention accuracy), distorted to horrifying recognition. No, there’s no such thing as upper or lower limits on the embarrassment scale in R.K.’s world.

One of the amazing things about the many aspects of Kodritsch’s film work (and there are many) is its diversity of form (and subject-matter). We are talking about profound sense and non-sense, about comics, cartoons and plot. Some of the themes emerge time and time again. Take Dürer’s rabbit, for example: in the Art Profession Representation Film (Part 3 of the Art Almanac to Zetmalnach) somebody – it could be Dürer himself, but it doesn’t look like Dürer himself – is working and working to turn his world-famous rabbit into a sexy ‘ski bunny’, the preferred term Austrians use to describe pretty girls whizzing down mountainsides on long, tapered boards. Later, as everyone knows, Dürer’s rabbit or the background (OK, the non-existent background) turns out to play a significant role in the COLLECTOR video and is itself turned into a theme – it has to be said – by a tremendous Cristo Melingo playing the part of the collector Leo; a dazzling Sonja Watzka as Puschl, Leo’s wonderfully honest wife; and the culture vulture and hack Michaela Knapp gives an extraordinary performance as a super cool, investigative, astounding and astounded cultural journalist-cum-partner.

In a word, wonderful amateurs were at work in those Poncho days, and were relieved on duty by no less wonderful acting professionals (Kodritsch himself incorporates both).

And between the two of these? Nonsense and fooling about, I reckon. “And a wash, too? – That’s a good idea, my hair needs it!” The film “Tarzan’s Sons” came out in 2000 as part of SoHo in Ottakring, a comic-like collaboration between Ronald Kodritsch and Andreas Leikauf. Now that’s what you call nonsense in its purest form, sheer non-sense, being out for a laugh, negotiating living dolls and plastic heads mounted on human bodies that the performers have to hold by hand, the plot being that Korak and Karok realise they’re Tarzan’s sons because each of them possesses part of an old amulet. Eventually, a drama filled with jealousy breaks out (it’s showdown time, folks), a dual to secure the favours of hairdresser Babsi. At the end one of them cuts off the head of the other.

“Are we on air?” US superstar Ronald Kodritsch asks the reporter (Sonja Watzka) in the film “New Ways in Art II”. The first set, the first sentence is the most difficult of all. In tennis. On paper. In film. And time after time, again and again, Kodritsch is brilliant in his send-ups of TV talk shows, artists’ slang, experts’ jargon, artist clichés, pseudo-seriousness and the arty-farty. To be quite honest, you begin asking yourself, how on earth does the bloke come up with such platitudes? And then, a little later, as you channel-zap your way through to a talk show, you get it: the man speaks telly truth. Good enough to be filmed. A great talk show guest. With fingers on the pulse of the scene. And he even finds the time to talk about his art in asides, about “sports cars, arse-fucking and becoming famous” (to quote the “Emerging Artists” exhibition in the Essl collection). But where does the joking end? And where does it begin?

“Mr Seipel. You’ve made it very easy for us to steal the saliera….We’re the patriots”. And these turn out to be Jan (Kodritsch) and Justin (Herwig Kopp). Two obsessed video fanatics with motorbike helmets and cassette recorder, dark voices and clear sentences. The theft of the saliera fascinates Ronald Kodritsch as much as the media hype, the hysterical public, the dubious role of the museum attendants, the odd reactions of the museum director, and all of these are caught on two videos “COLLECTOR Saliera II” and “The Patriots”. The latter is a completely authentic blackmail video (made once again in strict accordance to the Dogma rules). Bang on the button, razor sharp, ironic and probably terser than you’d think, just a notch away from the truth: “Pay EUR 25 million by Friday 25 July, that’s exactly half of the insured sum – as we all know.” The cultural affairs desk of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation didn’t want to show the video, and nor did ATV Plus, supposedly the broadcaster that shuns the scissors of the hands that feed it. Why? Was it because someone might have taken the note at face-value? And if so, well what could possibly lead people to think that? And why for that matter does Austria have a culture of jokes, but none of humour? Questions, questions.

“Twist and shout”: raucous words that Kodritsch and Roland Cresnar have been singing from the top of their voices year after year (receding hairlines are often a useful indicator of the passage of time). They encapsulate the joy of living, singing, smoking, playing, gambling and fooling around in general. It’s the overall plan, after all. The main thing is to ensure the video camera’s switched on, now let’s be quite dogmatic about this, so no editing, no audible post-dubbing, and the setting has to be as simple as possible: a sofa, a little table for the instruments and sheet music, two guitars, two blokes. Basics I to V; while Kodritsch and his artist’s friend Roland Cresnar down a bottle of red wine, they sound off a few chords on the guitar once a year, specifically on 2 November (at least until one of the two finally croaks), and it’s always the same songs played in the same sequence, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, all this in a nebulous alcoholic blur, but the more the evening goes by, the more the mood picks up, “just remember, that death is not the end”, and every now and then the authentic and very realistic statement “Come on, surely we can hack this”, fingers completely in time along the frets, it’s all about “falling in love with you”. Real basics. I love the basics.

Andrea Schurian

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