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Archduchess makes waves with art on the Danube

Mineral baths -- an obsession in the Hungarian capital -- are an inheritance from the Romans that was enthusiastically adopted by the Ottoman Turks who conquered the country in the 16th century. This is an excellent example of the cultural complexity of Eastern Europe, which is in turn one of the themes of "Against the Current,'' the epic contemporary art project that has been master-minded by Von Habsburg and her Vienna-based foundation, Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art (TBA21). "Against the Current'' is a series of exhibitions at points all the way up the Danube to Vienna. The constant is Kutlug Ataman's 40-part video installation "Kuba,'' already seen in London and elsewhere. This is supplemented at each stopping place by a specially commissioned piece by a local artist. In Budapest, the "Hungarian Greyhound Project,'' by László Csáki and Szabolcs Pálfi, opened the evening at the Ethnographical Museum. But why, I asked over coffee, the Danube? "The Danube in my mind connects Istanbul to Vienna,'' Von Habsburg said. "It represents borders, boundaries, divided countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Serbia and Croatia. Now we're talking about European enlargement, let's turn that into an artery of communication and understanding.'' The archduchess herself embodies a good deal of central and Eastern European history.

 

She was born in 1958, the daughter of Baron "Heini'' Thyssen, a renowned art collector with a fortune estimated at 2 billion pounds ($3.6 billion), by his third wife, Fiona Campbell-Walter, an English model. And she married Archduke Karl Thomas, first in line to inherit the claim to the Austro- Hungarian monarchy, and principal heir of the Holy Roman Empire. Habsburg is a name connected with a lot of history along the Danube; and most of the rest is a response to invasion by the Turkish Ottoman regime. The result is a patchwork of communities and religions. "There are 150 named minorities in this region of Europe,'' she said. That is why "Kuba'' struck her as such a suitable work to float up the river. (It is installed on an old grain barge, the Negrelli.) The work -- which was acclaimed when it was shown in the U.K. in 2005, and won the Carnegie Prize, is something between avant-garde art and unconventional social history. Ataman spent two years establishing trust with the marginalized and mainly Kurdish inhabitants of "Kuba,'' a shantytown on the outskirts of Istanbul. Each of the 40 video monitors shows the talking head of a different person -- a poet with a bullet lodged in his skull, drug-dealers, a Marxist tortured by the police -- telling his or her life story. In total, it is a metaphor for community and individuality. (Currently, Ataman told me, he is working in the very dissimilar society of Orange County, California, where $ 25 million housing developments are not unknown). There are Turkish minorities in Eastern Europe; here was a work that dealt with the Turks themselves confronting a minority. "It offers everyone,'' said Von Habsburg, "a mirror in which to see themselves.'' The notion of contemporary art is a novel one in much of this terrain. Nedko Solakov, the artist whose work was on show at Rousse during the Bulgarian leg of the trip, told me that his government had very recently made a commitment to support new art. Up to now, there has been no contemporary art museum, and no official funding, in Bulgaria. It is one of those countries not represented at the Venice Biennale, the art-world equivalent to "Working with curators up and down the Danube has been very interesting,'' Von Habsburg said. "They have no platform, no market, no ICA. All the institutions that do exist are stolid, heavy and bureaucratic.'' Eastern Europe was out of the modern-art loop for half a century, but now that's changing. Von Habsburg wants to encourage indigenous work rather than parachute in exhibitions by superstars. Her interest in new media -- video art, sound art -- led her to found TBA21, and now her collecting and exhibiting has led to another stage, commissioning and collaborating with artists. There's a word for this: patronage. Traditionally, it was a role of enlightened aristocrats, but there are few patrons of any kind in the modern world. She is determined to be one, and so far is filling the role with aplomb.