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Exterritorial opening and discovery: the photography of Rita Nowak


Exterritorial Space – opening show 4.4.2006 21h51

The exterritorial gallery‘s latest show opened this week at with a huge crowd to see work from Rita Nowak, Mario Grubisic, Hans-Jürgen Hauptmann, Georgi Piralisvili and Hermann Fink at an all evening show starting at seven and going until late. As usual at exterritorial, superb bohemian atmosphere, great music and animated conversation.

There was sculpture, lamp creations, drawings, installations and photography.


Exterritorial Ambience | untitled: the eternal moment

For me the highlight were the photographs from Austrian photographer and artist Rita Nowak. I had never seen them before. The picture which first attracted me is “untitled (the eternal moment)” – this is a photograph of what appears to be a young actress and actor who have been out trying out their costumes and rehearsing at the Arsenal (this is Vienna’s shared stage building atelier, an enormous venue which turns into dance studios for the summer during the ImPulsTanz festival).


untitled: the eternal moment – Rita Nowak

What I like about the picture is the warmth and the grace of the pose. I also like very much the air of activity in the background. While the foreground characters are in repose, the world behind them is not. Any eternal moment is thus. Your moment of stasis is someone else’s moment of movement. Your moment of ecstasy is another’s moment of work. Yet still the moment remains eternal. The soft sunlight in the background creates such warmth of colours that one falls into the mood of the protagonists.

Artist Rita Nowak was in attendance and I spoke briefly with her about this painting and asked her from where the idea came from. It turns out that she works with great historical paintings and reworks them in modern Vienna. This is a reworking of “The Burial of Atala”, a great romantic work from 1808 by French artist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Triosson.


The Burial of Atala, 1808- original in the Louvre

Ms. Nowak manages to capture the pose perfectly from the original and the sunlight in the background is very similar to what we find in “the eternal moment”. But the themes are starkly different. Atala’s fate is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story for the Americas. The young half-European woman in the Americas who is in love with Chactas the Indian. Torn between her love for Chactas and her vow to remain a virgin and a Christian, Atala chose to commit suicide. The painting is of Chactas and the hermit Father Aubry burying Atala after an all-night vigil.

Tell me whatever you want, the girl in “the eternal moment” is not dead, the couple are not unhappy, there is no tragedy hanging over their heads. So Ms. Nowak’s work is structural. She has taken composition and pose and colour and repeated them to great effect but in another scenario.

Here is her “Venus in Trash”. More of these historical painting based photographs can be found on her website. She calls the series Memory Update.


Venus in Trash, 2004 – Rita Nowak

Sometimes, the adaptation of the historical theme works less well than other teams. It’s well worth browsing through her site to see pictures where the riff on the historical precedent works beter and others where it doesn’t work as well. Another favorite of mine which was not shown at exterritorial was “Zenita Kommad 2004” which is very successful update of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s classic “The Clown Cha-U-Koa”.

What I would criticise the series as a whole for, is Ms. Nowak’s mediocre technical mastery of her medium. There are many pictures where her lighting or exposure could be much better. As an example I would cite “Nikos Arvanitis – DJ” (2004) where the the DJ lies on his bed as though dead, much as in Henry Walls’s “Chatterton”. In the original the painter has gone to the trouble to place some light on Chatterton’s face (although strictly speaking based on the position of the window, there shouldn’t be as much light there). Ms. Nowak could have followed Walls’s lead to good effect with a small reflector board to illuminate her subject’s features. Elsewhere lighting is often flat.


Artist Rita Nowak in conversation

The technical inadequacies don’t seem to be intentional as Ms. Nowak’s more recent work follows the same thematic approach but has substantially improved technically.

Ms. Nowak has won many prizes including the Walter Koschatzky Kunst-Preis für Grafik 2005 with an award of 4000 euros for second place. A large format C-Print like “untitled: the eternal moment” has a sale price of 2,800 euros. Apparently there is a living in art photography.

I am glad to find someone on the way to wealth and happiness making beautiful pictures. Why shouldn’t fairytales come true?

For those new to his work, Hermann Fink’s art lamps were another revelation. They illuminated the enormous gallery space beautifully.

Exterritorial Photographs by Alec Kinnear. Original photographs by Rita Nowak.

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