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Tauba Auerbach. A Flexible Fabric of Inflexible Parts III, 2016/2017. Vienna State Opera. Courtesy: museum in progress

The Safety Curtain – a work of art at the Vienna Opera 0

For the 2016/2017 season, the featured artwork at Vienna Opera is by American artist Tauba Auerbach

Una Meistere

Dating back to 1869, the legendary Vienna Opera is special not only due to its repertoire (which has made it a destination for opera-lovers from around the world) and Renaissance Revival architecture, but also because it is a hospitable venue for contemporary art projects – a seemingly radical divergence from the world of conservative opera. For nineteen seasons now, the Vienna Opera’s safety curtain has featured a work of art specially created for it by a renown modern-day artist. The list of artists is quite impressive, and has included Matthew Barney, Richard Hamilton, Tacita Dean, Jeff Koons, Franz West, Cy Twombly, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, to name a few.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. “Helen & Gordon”, Safety Curtain, 2015/2016. Vienna State Opera. Photo: Andreas Scheiblecker. Courtesy: museum in progress (

The responsible party behind this idea is a just as distinctive structure – museum in progress. Founded in 1990 by Austrian curator Kathrin Messner and her late husband, Austrian artist Josef Ortner, museum in progress is a non-material art space that has set as its goal the exhibition of contemporary art in non-institutional environments – places where art is usually not seen. Instead of classic exhibitions, the museum in progress has displayed art on billboards, television, radio and the Internet, the newspapers Der Standard and Süddeutsche Zeitung, on the pages of the Austrian Airlines inflight magazine, and elsewhere. It thereby tries to find ever new ways of addressing viewers and finding audiences. In 1998, the Vienna Opera’s safety curtain became yet another of its platforms.

David Hockney. Safety Curtain, 2012/2013. Vienna State Opera. Courtesy: museum in progress (

When asked how operagoers – who are usually known as a conservative audience – have reacted to the artwork, Messner says:

“Now, it’s very good. In the beginning, of course, it was a big risk. These people were coming to listen to music, to opera, which is something very traditional and very holy. And then suddenly they were confronted with contemporary conceptual art. And for twenty minutes before the performance started, they had to look at this artwork. You can imagine… We put out a lot of information: postcards, brochures, talks, but it was difficult, of course. There was a lot of skepticism. And it really was a challenge to put contemporary art into this frame. But now – like always with art – after some time has passed, people even begin to feel a need for it. And they begin to discuss who will be next.”

Kara Walker. Safety Curtain, 1998/1999. Vienna State Opera. Courtesy: museum in progress (

The biggest uproar was provoked by the very first project, a work of art by African-American artist Kara Walker. “Some people said that it looked like a cheap bar in Africa,” Messner adds.

Read in the Archive: A social sculpture | An interview with Vienna-born curator Kathrin Messner who built a school in Sri Lanka

The safety curtain for the 2016/2017 season was unveiled on November 30. Titled A Flexible Fabric of Inflexible Parts III, the project by American artist Tauba Auerbach resembles a glowing X-ray of our times. An almost three-dimensional green-red helical grid seemingly interwoven with a bright blue background pulls viewers in, turning their minds in a centrifuge of information, in which it is impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is similar to the pace at which we are currently living, rotating in ever larger circles, and facing the risk of losing our grip on ourselves. This places even more value on the rare, luxurious moments when we can spend time on a different path – a path on which it is still possible to really experience our thoughts and feelings, instead of just recording them like pictures on Instagram. The opera is definitely one such place.

Tauba Auerbach. A Flexible Fabric of Inflexible Parts III, 2016/2017. Vienna State Opera. Courtesy: museum in progress (

The helix motif can also be found in other work by Auerbach, and, as she told Obrist (who is also one of the members of the jury for the opera curtain project) in an interview:

Everything is a helix, because everything is spinning while also moving in relation to something else. And if you combine a rotational path and translational path, you get a helical one. In this way, everything has a helical identity, from the smallest particle to the largest entity that you can think of. The helix is also amazing in that it can thread through itself, so it has the ability to bind. I think of it as the shape that allows the universe to hold onto itself.”

Auerbach does not hide the fact that, as she was working on this project, she thought a lot about the potential viewer of this work:

“Since this is not my typical audience and we are less familiar with one another, we both might have to work harder, like you do in a conversation with a stranger rather than a close friend. Different viewers will also have different experiences, depending on their seats. One thing that I dislike about the culture of opera is the class hierarchy that comes along with it. For this piece, the best seats are in the back of the house. I processed the image with a kind of hacked halftone, so the image resolves best for the people in the cheap seats, and less well for those in the front.”