Place Van Hoegaerde, 22 Van Hoegaerdeplein

Damien Airault & Kurt Ryslavy

I proposed to Kurt that we work together to try and find the best way to present his multiple activities. This would take place in the small art space at my disposal in Paris: Le Commissariat. Multiple activities, since Kurt is not only 'the' importer of Austrian wine in Brussels, if not the whole of Belgium, but also an artist working in diverse media (painting, project design, installation, photography, etc.) and a discerning collector of contemporary art, furniture and rare objects.

Of course, this places us within several networks, of differing economic scope, and close to several different ways of life (producer, merchant, consumer), which could lead to stances that, without knowing the individual concerned, might appear contradictory. This also forces the exhibition curator into a corner: how can we present this complexity in the fictional space of a gallery? We are slowly learning to negotiate the diversity and depth of visual forms, but the complexity of an individual, the multiplicity of his positions, still seem a neglected field of exploration. In this case, we could almost talk about exhibiting a particular psychology. And if Kurt has taught me anything – and he would remain adamantly committed to this – it is by refuting the notion of a style, a shape, an artistic practice and even of spaces dedicated to art, of traditional forms, of those reassuring points of reference that are works of art; that, at some point, a visual form may not be enough...

Here is the idea. Kurt Ryslavy has an affinity with conceptual artists on the fringes of performance art, but also and most importantly Marcel Broodthaers, whose influence can be felt throughout Kurt's practice. After all, it was Broodthaers who said: "I don't believe in film, nor do I believe in any other art. I don't believe in the unique artist or in the unique work of art. I believe in phenomena, and in men who put ideas together."1

The significance of Broodthaers' practice, in terms of conceptual art, lies not so much in that, like his American contemporaries, it aimed to overcome materiality and therefore the commercial character of an object, but more in the way that this practice takes the idea as also constituting the pre-text, the source of all form of human exchange. For who can really be interested in any one work of art superseding any other? Of course the symbolic nature of objects continues to be challenged through Broodthaers' modes of diffusion, production and authentication, and Broodthaers himself was a skilled speculator. He does remind us, nevertheless, that each object is a phenomenon, subject to changes and fluctuating interpretations, and that, where energy springs up, the most important things remain the minds of individuals and the coming-together of ideas, projects and people.

Visual production

Before going into business, Kurt Ryslavy was primarily a painter of abstract, opaque, quasi-expressionist pieces. Based in Vienna, this work enabled him to build a rapport with artists such as Franz West, who himself was relatively unknown at the beginning of the 1980s. Repeatedly encountering failure, our artist had to find something else to do. "Although I was by no means a star (and my earnings were such that they could hardly materially decrease further), I allowed myself to be inspired by that fatalistic atmosphere (...) to the point of developing a very extreme form of conceptualism: the establishment of what we might call a good bourgeois existence. In order to do this, I decided to set up a wine importing business. True, I had no real, professional experience – beyond excessive private consumption – but I was sufficiently pushy and disdainful of conventions (...). Besides, I had entered into a credit arrangement that obliged me to sustain a relatively steady income." Compare and contrast with the notorious statement "I too asked myself if I couldn't sell something and succeed in life. (...) The idea of ultimately inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work immediately."

Broodthaers; once again.

Only, on reaching this important point in his career, Kurt Ryslavy chose not to abandon making art. Indeed, going into business became part of his practice. He continues to add more notches to his belt: making paintings of his invoices, showing paintings at professional wine fairs (burgundy monochromes in the best of taste), focusing on his signature and simple slogans. And vice versa: he asks waiters working in restaurants whose wine he supplies to participate in his art projects and to create work as part of processes of his own devising; his contribution to one exhibition took the form of donating the drinks for the opening (for a blind tasting) and treating his stand's signage as a sculpture. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. It is contextual work with an element of farce, for which all methods are valid. All methods, fine, but all spaces are fair game to Ryslavy too. In a less subtle manner, he invites a popular comic actor to substitute for him in one of his performance works, and he will use every conceivable option to improve on a situation, the context of an exhibition (re-painting, proposing a classy launch event, adding sound-proofing). It is also a game of hide-and-seek, where the artist is alternately seen as an invisible, respectable civilian and an (anti-)hero. In every situation, he targets whatever will transform an incongruous object or gesture into art, in order to seek out its limits – but that's perhaps a somewhat obvious interpretation.

Starting with Ryslavy's 'accumulation of mandates', another level of interpretation reveals that, quite unobtrusively, Kurt is carrying out the Sixties fantasy of combining art and life into one. As will become clear, this is easier said than done.

This mélange can produce a critical discourse with bearing on human activities: can these be organised into a hierarchy and by what criteria? Is it fundamentally more important to be an artist than a doctor or professor of mechanics? What is the essential distinction between a banker, a sandwich vendor and a performer of baroque music? What connects a profession one assumes (out of pleasure or obligation) and a way of being? Of course, human activities are categorised and, according to our value systems, judged more or less beneficial to society, or even, in certain cases, to civilisation.

Now, one criterion appears particularly significant: that of personal fulfilment, which goes hand-in-hand with the notion of integrity (it is difficult to fulfil yourself if you're working counter to your own interests all day). Whereas Broodthaers lays claim to bad faith, to "insincere" work, whilst at the same time insisting on his vocation as a poet, Kurt Ryslavy, with nowhere else to turn, himself a wine lover, declares that he wants to become a proper bourgeois, swimming against conventional artistic archetypes; this is a provocative stance at the very least. As if, from another perspective, it were not the most sincere and authentic idea to wish to live in apparent comfort. This is why there are no masks in the world of Kurt Ryslavy. He is both wine merchant and artist, the two activities co-existing in reality, in his actions and, imperceptibly, in Ryslavy himself. Moreover, whether we sell wine or art, we benefit from the pleasure of others, and have in some way (although sometimes not at all, completely or artificially), participated in the awakening or the tutoring of this pleasure. Kurt Ryslavy is an educator.

We could note another difference between him and Broodthaers. If the latter can be seen as less than prolific and constantly caught up in a survival system that he frequently turns into a performance, Ryslavy is hyperactive and driven to complete every project, through continual re-useage, recycling.

The accumulation and exchange of symbolic capital

Kurt Ryslavy is surrounded by works of art: those he buys, those he may sell and those he produces. For to be a collector of art, and to live in a house that is comfortable and tastefully decorated, is good for business.

In fact, Ryslavy is a superb collector, with a good eye and, furthermore, someone who knows how to make the most of his contacts in the art scene. He is a champion networker.

We could say that Ryslavy has created a sort of private museum. You can simply call the proprietor if you wish to visit at leisure. To put one's collection on display imposes certain roles and requirements on the collector, and produces a strange relationship between the property and its would-be public. The house becomes a space in which all functions are re-negotiated. Simultaneously a public and private space, in which the individual is isolated, a setting for sales and brokering of deals, somewhere the artist lives and of course; a studio, office and permanent exhibition. The ultimate benefit being that the situation allows Kurt Ryslavy subtly to validate his own artworks or to create – if we look hard here – a system of self-validation. Ryslavy has warned us; it is autonomy that he is seeking.

Nevertheless, that an artwork may effortlessly travel from the studio where it is painted into the collector's salon, where it may rub shoulders with a Franz West on one side and a Richard Hamilton on the other, is rather shocking. What about all the usual intermediaries, the gallery owners, museums, art centres, etc.? In an inevitable irony, Kurt Ryslavy rarely shows his paintings within the structures of the contemporary art world. As we would expect, it is generally those artistic practices that stay especially close to institutional expectations that get shown within the institutions. Ryslavy keeps his abstract paintings for those who buy his alcohol. In his public museum, then, we encounter games played with packaging and context, and an austere and subtle practice; in the house, on the other hand, we find paintings that you could call the result of 'a hobby'.

In order to understand another advantage to living in the house of a collector who is none other than yourself, we must turn to sociological pioneers such as Torstein Veblen, and to his principle of 'conspicuous consumption'. By accumulating external signs of wealth, but only selecting the most cultivated, attractive or idiosyncratic of these, Kurt Ryslavy appears to his wine industry clients to be a person of refinement. The tasting salon becomes the place where many of his deals occur, which is to say that it becomes, in a sense, another studio. Carefully arranged down to the very last detail, the 'mise en scène' also includes the presence of his cleaning lady, a sure sign of affluence, as is a diary bulging with appointments. Apparently at least, business is good.

In the end, a taste for both wine and art truly shows that one is attached to what is noblest in society. Photographs of the cleaning lady also function to show Kurt Ryslavy's activities, besides which she becomes a sort of badge of power. As with the abstract paintings hanging on Ryslavy's walls, we are no longer dealing only with conspicuous consumption, but with "conspicuous production". This is the creation of a spirit that plays with self-deprecation and social status, to the point, occasionally, of mimicking misogyny or moral righteousness; a kind of sardonic admission of weakness, the ironic obscurity of the self-portrait. In this context, all of these activities are transformed into artefacts, while still, by their own strength as things, remaining completely real.

Myth and the play of contradictory and multiple interpretations

While acerbically or humorously targeting the contemporary art scene, it is possible that Kurt Ryslavy's practice produces, as we have suggested, a kind of living self-portrait. The artist's gesture is firstly discernible in the crafting of this portrait, but then also in what he chooses to display around him, seen in reflection.

"The interior is the asylum where art takes refuge. The collector proves to be the true resident of the interior. He is concerned with the idealisation of objects. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he can bestow on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector delights in a world that is (...) better – (...) in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful."2

The art viewed in Ryslavy's house by a connoisseur transcends the categories of merchandise or of an object's practical functions, achieving a superior value. An abstract painting seen in the same house by a wine-buyer is to them a sign of a flourishing enterprise, for it is simply part of a confirmation of luxury.

Competing ideologies and cultures may thus be represented in the same environment, depending upon the person who engages with it. This is the reason for stating that Kurt Ryslavy's self-portrait is reflected in a mirror and one that is parallax, as occasionally, it reflects more of the interpreter, on-looker, spectator or the buyer than Mr. Ryslavy. It reflects unconscious interpretative reflexes.

So, if Ryslavy avoids games of masks and bad faith, he does not escape representation and a complex tangle of 'mythifications'. This he has anticipated.

"Since the publication in 1957 of Roland Barthes' Mythologies, we have accepted that the process of cultural reception should be defined, essentially, as the subjection of a primary language to the interests of a mythological secondary language, that of ideology. As Barthes maintains, it is clear that artistic discourse is more susceptible to appropriations excessively caught up in the demands of bourgeois ideology than are the discourses of poetry or mathematics, whose autonomy protects them against excessive interpretations or the imposition of secondary meanings. Yet Barthes provides an insight into the aesthetic strategy he calls the process of secondary mythification. This consists of the creation of a fictional myth which, in aesthetic terms, through imitation, itself anticipates its final stage of mythification."3

We return, then, to Kurt Ryslavy's decision, made when he announced his wish for a bourgeois life: He acts in a speculative manner, in the construction of his sales-space, but also – which is harder to accept – in his production of paintings, of project designs, of artistic gestures and attitudes. This speculation is also a multiplication of appeals to mythification, to play with secondary significations. Hence, the intentional absence of a viable object, of a stable physical work, is compensated by an over-abundance of codes, or interpretable material, which exist because, with all their visible contradictions, the objects that may or may not be part of his everyday life – exactly like his lifestyle itself – form a unique artistic gesture. And although this is not explicit, there is nonetheless a powerful declaration of intent behind it.

Consequently, by acting through anticipation and reproduction of the (bourgeois) ideologies brought out by Buchloh, aiming not to deflect them nor to change their content or modes of appearance, but rather to decontextualise them through his activities as businessman, collector and artist, Kurt Ryslavy uncovers the containers, the moral frameworks and materials of each of his professions: a complete sociology of art. Thus we have the complex practice of someone who has bought his freedom perhaps in order to exploit it, who pushes at the boundaries of nonsense, of the unjustifiable, whilst staying true to the logic that creates both it and society.

Copyright Damien Airault & Kurt Ryslavy & Autoren 2009


  1. Marcel Broodthaers, as quoted by Michael Compton in "A Programme of Films by Marcel Broodthaers" (London: Tate Gallery, 9 – 18 February, 1977), p. 38.

  2. Walter Benjamin, 'Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century', in The Arcades Project, trans by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (Belknap Harvard: 2002) p 19

  3. Benjamin Buchloh, La fiction du musée de Marcel Broodthaers, in Museums by Artists, A A: Bronson - Peggy Gale (eds.), Art Metropole, Toronto, 1983, p.47.