Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

Art and Tart in the Heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

  • The logo of Angewandte
    The logo of Angewandte
  • At Hotel Magdas
    At Hotel Magdas
  • One of Mozart's favorite meals: liver balls (knödels)
    One of Mozart's favorite meals: liver balls (knödels)
  • Milchrahmstrudel (not the best one that I've had), but still great
    Milchrahmstrudel (not the best one that I've had), but still great
  • Klimt was here...!
    Klimt was here...!

In Vienna I have always felt that I am in a huge highbrow antique shop. The buildings are beautiful, but the imperialist style has kept me aesthetically alert. And like in Istanbul, in Vienna one is touched by a feeling of decay: this was once the center of the world.

January 6-9 I visited the city with my colleagues from ViCCA. We were enchantingly hosted by our Viennese Professor of curatorial studies, Nora Sternfeld, and her colleagues at the University of Applied Arts (Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien). The extremely impressive MA students of Angewandte’s curatorial program gave us insights on the fashion-oriented exhibition at the school’s Innovation Lab. It was lovely to be all the time meeting the critical wing of the city, which can be a hard task if you are just a tourist.

This trip was also special because we stayed in Hotel Magdas, which is run by refugees from Africa and the Middle East. This could be seen in the relaxed amateurish atmosphere created by the nice staff and the oriental flavors at the breakfast table. I can without doubt recommend this great ethical choice for any stay in Vienna.

In one sense I feel that Vienna is analogous to Helsinki. It is a city which has always represented the West at the same time as it has been a part of the Eastern hemisphere. In both cities the strongest easternization happened in the 19th century. But as Helsinki became the governing center for the small Grand Duchy of Finland under Russian rule (1809-1917), Vienna, which had already ruled e.g. Hungary for long, dominated for a while the whole Austrian Empire (1804-1867) and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) with its 52 million inhabitants. Vienna had tentacles as far as Serbia and Slovenia, besides the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian areas which are more famously recalled as its territories.

In Vienna local intellectuals keep on claiming that the city suffers from a closed mentality – Thomas Bernhard has famously made an art out of this in his super ironical literature – and some of its neighbors (on the side of Czech Republic and Slovakia) keep on saying that the people of Vienna still act arrogantly, echoing the city’s days of glory. I am, though, more interested in the way the city is between East and West. While one eats goulash and Esterhazy tarte it is hard to think that there would be no Eastern impact and when one talks with people in Vienna it seems that they are proud of the Eastern mentality and their cultural connections to the East.

How sad that Helsinki has been cleaning up its eastern traces by changing the onion-shaped Russian church towers into German Lutheran ‘cubes’ and by actively forgetting that many words in Helsinki slang are actually Russian. If Finland would be a food country we would have kept at least the Russian cuisine.

Besides the fashion exhibition in the Angewandte lab I did what I always do. I went to the Kunsthistorische Museum to see some of my favorite Brueghels and Caravaggios. And in Vienna I enjoy just walking around thinking about all the gigantic personalities of political and cultural history who have been spending time here (Freud, Wittgenstein, Hitler). For the first time I saw the Wittgenstein house. I never liked the philosopher, but as being in the same business I suppose you just have to go there once. It was bigger than I thought.

I was also thinking about Karl Lueger, the ex-mayor of Vienna (1897-1910) who created the classical political slogan “they come and take our women and jobs”. (A famous art school dropout admired him very much.) Here one really dwells in the history of Western racism. Following that the radical left wing is here very strong. I was lucky to have many interesting discussions on art and politics.

One of the nicest surprises was the sky bar Le Loft which was designed by Pippilotti Rist. Total kitsch, but fancy. I love the cafeterias of Vienna and I had to eat Milchrahmstrudel (Millirahmstrudel in Vienna I heard), local liver balls (a treat Mozart used to love) and all the possible local sausages available. The cake scene in Vienna is maybe the best in the world, challenged only by some smaller towns in the same country.

If many Hungarians consider themselves to belong 60% to the East and 40% to the West (according to one recent article) I wonder what the stats would be here. What makes Vienna really interesting is its mix of East and West.

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