Crembs Crumbs and the Return to Barbarism
By Vince Michael with Felicity Rich
Images by Felicity Rich with Vince Michael
The car grudgingly slows but refuses to halt completely at the intersection, inching forward as I walk, its bumper harboring death lust for my Achilles tendon. The heat is stifling. I miss the civilized European lands where I spent these last five weeks, a residency in Krems, Austria. During the Marillen (apricot) festival the last day of our trip the cars got reckless, but these were rentals driven by genetic cousins of the Chicago driver nipping my heel. Usually the pedestrian and cyclist were royalty, stopping even highway traffic with a simple step towards the zebra striped pavement. I miss that. The cars were smaller and less frequent. Here I am pursued by a line of SUVs a block long watching a giant Cadillac idle outside Jewel on Ozone Action Day. It feels like I am being forced to watch pornography.
I miss the feel of real money, heavy metallic Euros, rainbow bills that Ray Charles would have loved, each denomination a different size. I miss real bicycle lanes, actual recycling and the absence of fast food packaging and those cardboard coffee cups held aloft on every street corner. These are the white brown and green cigarettes of 2005, required in every meeting, held proudly in parks, on streets, in cars and buses and allowed even in libraries. In Krems they gave you a ceramic cup. You drank the coffee and gave it back. That was civilized and I miss that. I suppose there is something titillating about waste and discarding, but right now it just seems wrong.
They say we idealize other places, especially when we arenít fluent in the language and don't notice the boors and idiots conversing just like at home, and we see the pretty historic streets but ignore the IKEAs and TESCOs that make rural Poland and Hungary the socioeconomic equivalent of Iowa, Idaho, Indiana and Illinois. I donít want to idealize Europe but they have been doing this longer than we have, and even as they lurch into Americanism they don't go for the whole SUV.
I had this idea for my residency that I would attack identity and place so I put Route 66 stickers up surreptitiously and photographed them in Europe with Baroque buildings in the background to make a glib sophomoric comment on globalization or some such.
Only then we pass Route 66 cafes on the road to Budapest and Route 66 signs throughout the Hungarian crafts market set up on Buda Hill. Message art seems as impossible as folk art in a global world. You can get your nesting dolls, choosing between Saddam and Bush and Kerry and Michael Jackson and even Putin and Berlusconi. I guess the joke was on me but it isn't really a joke.
Krems is a creation of the 1990s, part of the cultural explosion of the Clinton era, when art, schooling and history became top grossing industries, driving the triumphant tourist economy worldwide as the exchange of people, ideas and expressions trumped, metal, plastic, sand and food.
It is a reflection not of its 16th century buildings but of the 21st century visitor caught in mirrors facing each other on a particularly narrow stretch of the Landstrasse in Stein, a little art installation that lets you multiply yourself until you outnumber the old buildings.
It seems counterintuitive to call Krems a 1990s creation when the hills just steps from the city center are corn rowed with grapevines that have waxed on these same terraces for over a thousand years and the close curving streets of Krems and sister city Stein are belly by belly with medieval buildings bulging and bowing, uneven bays and windows dressed up with painted quoins, sgraffito, brackets, niches and cornices in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, a world heritage stretch of churches and palaces and real Renaissance courtyards, dressed up as shops in Krems, still silent in Stein but everywhere festooned with window boxes, wee red flowers and even grape vines wandering onto the sidewalk cobbles.
For a preservationist and architecture buff it is heaven watching the onion domes frame the sky, jerkinhead rooflines of onetime warehouses now elegant restaurants, learning about the symbols that conveyed 'bakery' or 'winery' to a preliterate world, basking in the elegance of small squares with their trinity sculptures and the athletic emotionalism of those over-the-top Baroque interiors, featuring their own favorite son, Kremser Schmidt, master of the altar painting, the big emo artist of his day. The Austrians were hell bent for Baroque leather, gilding swags and whorls, piling putti on impossibly ornate baldachins and generally confecting a Baroque so ecstatic it makes Rome seem bashful.
So they strip and rebuild the conical turrets flanking the Steiner Tor, a great Renaissance gate that once guarded Krems from Danube floodwaters. They pop the new easy-open, Super-plastic double glazed screenless Euro windows into old facades and squirt foam in the gaps, cram glass entries onto medieval towers and shoehorn cheap Chinese showers into erstwhile linen closets. I can complain about the tacky touches or the cheap fixes but I still like that landscape and those streetscapes better and I miss them, not just because they have all that history but because it still works, which means there is a way to live in the modern world that doesn't require an SUV and a flat screen TV and cardboard coffees, because Krems is modern.
This is not about modernization or globalization in any political sense, but about how a town over a 1000 years old, celebrating its 700th year of incorporation, is a creation of the 1990s, because the 90s was the death of communism and since then the simple reality is that culture is sex and sex sells and every sexy landscape needs a good agent. Package that stunning historic ensemble that is the outdoor of Krems and Stein with a new university and a new art museum spooning a regional prison and a collection of satellite museums and an international bike path and you have the youth and imported artists to create the cultural critical mass to draw tourists into the deservedly scenic Wachau.
University and Kunsthalle crafted 1994, same year as the Burren College of Art and the same year I came to SAIC to teach students how to be agents for old buildings. Three years later, 1997, the World Heritage nomination for the Wachau. And now in the Marillen festival it is paying off, and you need no more evidence of the payoff than the new rude drivers arriving with the ridiculous impression that they could ever, ever have the right-of-way.
Tourists ignorant of zebra crossings and breakfast beer consume the landscape like American fast food from their upgraded Mercedes flooding the Wachau faster than the rainwater, eroding the appeal of Salzburg and Innsbruck as surely as global warming thieves the Alpine glaciers, and even staid old Vienna steals the Beach Party from Paris, piling sand on the shore of the Danube to the strains of Caribbean music, tropical drinks and Ernest Hemingway. The brochures tell me that Vienna knows what tourists want and what tourists want in 2005 is LIFESTYLE, a hoary word trumping art and history.
They define lifestyle as: Events, Shopping and Restaurants leavened with just enough but not too much culture, tradition and history. The cool, youthful cache with just enough sound bite history, instant messages, wifi and wildfire, the magic mixture to drag devalued dollars out of Americans like me who once thought Vienna too stuffy and classical to visit and never even heard of the onion-domed vineyard villages of the Wachau. We never heard of it because in a sense it wasn't there until the 1990s, when historic buildings and post industrial revolution art schools became equal players with auto plants and stock markets.
Krems even pulled trump from dummy in local archaeology when they dug up Fanny of Galgenberg in 1986, now displayed in the newly done Krems museum, a figurine more than twice as old as the nearby Venus of Willendorf, appropriately more svelte and dynamic for the 21st century, a diminutive metallic Diana, lithe and shining, adorning new wine labels in this suddenly reborn non-Alpine region, a symbol that Krems could be even older than its Austrian siblings and thus somehow mathematically better, cooler and more attractive to us outsiders who crave that European lifestyle, crave older cultures, worship alternative everythings, forms of transportation and energy and curse the fossil fuel overheated overcooled car that won't stop now no matter how fast I walk in this hot hateful summer.
This was written in late July after my return from Krems. I wondered if my reaction to American vehicles was overstated but then the Austrian artist who stayed in Chicago as part of the exchange was bicycling near the lakefront and was struck by a car, breaking her leg quite seriously in three places and delaying her return home.