Minding the gap
e.d Gfrerer’s greatest success came early, when he was still a child, an exhibition of nativity cribs where every single piece sold: “I have never managed to repeat that kind of success”. A wry and understated remark that says much about e.d Gfrerer himself and about his work.
It also tells you about his instinctive love of model building. Over the years this affinity has endured, leading him to train in construction engineering, then carpentry, and finally to a degree in architecture at the TU Graz. He is drawn to architecture for its models, its spatiality, the ‘Baukunst’ element; to describe how he feels about actually designing buildings, however, he quotes Walter Pichler: he cannot imagine deciding how hundreds of people should live for their whole lives.
Yet although he was never inspired to be an architect in the traditional sense, Gfrerer’s oeuvre is architectonic both in form and content. Model building is not just an influence, it is crucial to his works. He calls them ‘constructions’ instead of installations, and sometimes ‘walk-in space sketches’—raw, sculptural models that temporarily become part of an architectonic ensemble. They are fashioned out of cardboard, wood, everyday objects, and most importantly, space.
Beyond this, there is a certain kind of urban space that catches his focus: the gap, from holes and clefts through to in-between places. Despite—or perhaps precisely because of—the small space they occupy, these unused and neutral areas are usually the location for Gfrerer’s works. They are the opposite of ‘exhibition space’. The site of his 'from here on' construction at the Efendi pizza and kebab house on the corner of Münzgrabenstrasse, for instance: a tiny back room with three doors. Nevertheless, he was invited by owner Mustafa Gül to make something of it. Gül had recently been visited by a Styrian wine sales rep, who suggested turning the space into a traditional Weinstube. Working from this idea, on the ceiling Gfrerer constructed the kind of wagon wheel that you would find decorating a wine cellar. His, however, was put together from Efendi’s pizza boxes and junk salvaged from the back yard.
On a slightly larger scale, the house containing the Efendi locale is itself a form of urban gap: surrounded by three shiny monumental buildings that house the Vienna Insurance Group, the TU and the Krone Zeitung newspaper offices. You can imagine this corner—with its kebab house and its tiny apartments of immigrants—being something of an embarrassment to them. I think this is probably the kind of gap that e.d Gfrerer is most drawn to—a potential embarrassment, and to the people who tend to slip down into these gaps.
His approach is not an in-your-face protest, but instead a subtle and understated highlighting of these places. During a trip to Georgia, he rented space from a woman who had been forced to sell half of her furniture in order to make ends meet. His response was an installation that focused precisely on the empty gaps and the furniture, taking a financial and social embarrassment and turning it on its head, reclaiming its value. During another trip to Odessa, he had to vacate his room at the ‘Hotel Passage’ every weekend to make way for a wedding agency; rather than being an irritation to him, the ‘interval’ situation was the inspiration for another installation.
The site-specificity of these works points again to the architectonic. His working process is not simply linked to the site but springs from it, with a period where he takes time to ‘feel’ the space, to find his reaction. What follows is more spontaneous: his materials, the wood, the cardboard, remain raw. Viewing the final product you can also clearly see the construction process. The result is a strong narrative content—not a linear narration, but a narrative made up of architectonic elements. Last summer, Gfrerer was commissioned to make an intervention at the Mariazell Basilica. His reaction – the construction 'im westen (nichts) neues' – took two defining architectonic features and turned them inside out.
Inside the 10-metre high segment of the west church tower, he built a false ceiling of rough cardboard—a “Gegenkonstruktion”—so neutralising the heavenward thrust of the spire. On the exterior, he decided to break the symmetry of the tower, and set up two weights hanging from a string, one higher than the other. It was a minimal intervention that nonetheless can be seen as throwing out of kilter the whole idea of the Church’s status quo and carefully balanced hierarchy, and also the particular harmony sought by the pilgrim—as Gfrerer puts it, the “Bitte und danke” symmetry of pilgrimage. Looking for something he could use as weights, he came across some cheap sugar cubes in a nearby shop; an unintentional but aptly biblical by-product was the swarms of insects the sugar attracted. Over the weeks it dissolved in the rain, a symbol of the literal and notional ephemerality important in all of Gfrerer’s works.
Transience and transition are notions woven into Gfrerer’s work and life. Born near Lungau, the source of the Mur, it seems only logical to him that he has ended up time and again following the flow of the river down to Georgia, like a leaf thrown into the current by a child imagining its destination. In September 2010 St. Peter Hauptstrasse was dug up, revealing a section of the Petersbach usually hidden under the road. Gfrerer staged a ‘sitting installation’ entitled Anschlussstelle ‘Schwarzes Meer’, inviting construction workers, neighbours, friends and artists to a party evening by the exposed urban stream, to enjoy a transnational connection across the miles to the Black Sea.
Similarly, the caravanserai is a recurrent source of fascination for him. As part of the 'from here on' project, one Saturday evening the Munich-Istanbul coach was diverted from its usual motorway route. Instead they came through Graz and were welcomed by Jakomini locals for a rest at the Efendi kebab restaurant: a modern caravanserai.
Gfrerer’s short film 'Zchwrebi (sheep)' shows a herd of sheep on a Georgian hillside. We arrive on a truck to strains of country & western, then follow the shepherd and his flock as he guides them through the skeleton lobby of a ruined, half-built hotel in the middle of nowhere. At one point the shepherd chides Gfrerer for not standing where he’s told. Then we are back to the wistful music and the truck, driving off again down the road. The whole thing has only lasted a few minutes, yet it feels as compelling and satisfying as a really good arthouse film.
Like all of Gfrerer’s work, Zchwrebi somehow manages to combine a stark and authentic clarity with a feeling for the bizarre, for the genuine, mysterious complexity of life, sometimes joyful, sometimes uncomfortable. Not to mention an outstanding sense of irony. The caravanserai and the flock of sheep bring our conversation back around to the nativity crib. e.d Gfrerer laughs and says he thinks he might try building some more next Advent, maybe he’d be able to sell some again.