Vienna Again …


Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.


The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere. 

Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.

We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day.  A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz,  a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.


Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.



On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre …  In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.

Jem Cohen at Whitechapel


As part of an ongoing retrospective Jem Cohen: Compass & Magnet, film maker Jem Cohen was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery on Saturday afternoon (April, 11th) for a screening of a number of his works: 12 short films – akin to newsreels – made during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest; Real Birds, a 10 minute film made on the 10th anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre; and a pre-release, almost-but-not-quite finished, version of his most recent film, Counting. Allowing for an in-conversation session with the gallery’s film curator and a short tea and toilet break, that amounted to nearly five hours in the Whitechapel’s less than sumptuous auditorium, hard on the bum, but fascinating nonetheless.

The only film of Cohen’s that I knew well before the afternoon was Museum Hours, a rare – and beautiful – venture into fictional narrative and, I would guess, the only one of his films to have been given a fairly widespread theatrical release. Set in Vienna, and filmed largely in the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum, its narrative revolves around a brief friendship between two otherwise lonely people, one of the museum guards and a Canadian woman who has gone to Vienna to visit an ailing but distant relative.

You can see the trailer for Museum Hours here …

Speaking about the film, Cohen was keen to stress its similarities with his other work, rather than its differences. In some respects, he said, the relationship between the two characters was like a comfortable sweater, there to help the viewer relax and feel at home with what was happening; that done, he allowed the sweater gradually to unravel until the film became more clearly at one with his other work.The idea for the film began for him, Cohen said, with the art works in the museum, the crowded paintings of Breughel in particular  – the way in which, instead of focussing the viewer on a particular aspect, a particular section of the painting, the leave the viewer free, encourage the eye to move across the canvas from person to person, incident to incident, space to space. A more democratic art allowing for a more democratic viewing and as such in keeping with Cohen’s aesthetic.

Growing up with a half-brother, Adam, whose father was Sid Grossman taught at the Photo League of New York, Cohen was exposed to the work of Atget and Lewis Hine, Helen Leavitt and Robert Frank, and street photography has remained at the heart of his work, taking on the influences of writers like Walter Benjamin and John Berger, film makers Jean Vigo and Chris Marker, as well as the numerous musicians with whom he has worked, from Vic Chestnut to Patti Smith.


The retrospective continues until 28th May, largely at the Whitechapel, but with screenings also at the Hackney Picturehouse. There are details here …

There’s more information about Jem Cohen and his work on his website here …

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