Book Review Golden Days Before They End By Klaus Pichler Reviewed by Karen Jenkins “The golden age is over,” concludes Franz Kases, owner of Cáfe Kases, speaking of a certain type of drinking establishment that once thrived in Vienna – bolstered by a cast of robust regulars who are now dying off and fading away.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Golden Days Before They End.
Photographs by Klaus Pichler. Text by Clemens Marschall.
Patrick Frey, Zürich, Switzerland, 2016. In English. 250 pp., 120 color illustrations, 11x8¾".
“The golden age is over,” concludes Franz Kases, owner of Cáfe Kases, speaking of a certain type of drinking establishment that once thrived in Vienna – bolstered by a cast of robust regulars who are now dying off and fading away. This crystalline self-awareness echoes many other owners’ reckoning with the looming demise of their dens and dive bars, and with it those loyal patrons who once packed their rooms. Those who remain, who seemingly turn a blind eye in the face of change, who have always chosen the escapist comfort offered within, are depicted in a series of extraordinary photographs by Klaus Pichler and interviews by Clemens Marschall in Golden Days Before They End. In images and words, the idiosyncrasies of each joint are secondary to the commonalities that emerge from a shared way of life – a drinking life with a backdrop of divorce, joblessness, illness and other pains. The owners and patrons form families, manifesting as irritant and antagonist, buoy and safety net. It’s no small thing to be an outsider in these hideouts, and yet their inhabitants don’t appear hostile to the intrusion. Pichler and Marschall create a collective portrait of the last of their kind in a funny, uncomfortable, deeply moving conjuring of life’s inexplicable contradictions. These people are awful, but they’re my family. I can’t stand this place, but I’ll never leave.
Pichler’s opening photograph sets up a choice between Bíer and Realítät, and in the next image, four players establish the big themes of choosing the former – the celebratory, the combative, the distracted, the asleep. Their dramas unfold within interior spaces that read as time capsules; their tones, textures and appointments providing a same-as-it-ever-was reassurance to the regulars who have made themselves at home. Attempts at improvement and upgrade are deeply unsettling and met with regular resistance. Pichler knows how to tease out the beauty in decay (see his elegant series, One Third, about food waste). His flash may expose these sanctuaries’ dark and dingy chambers, but in Pichler’s views they are also richly burnished, with the patina of memorial. The photographs are at times crass and funny, but despite catching their subjects at moments of vulnerability and irreverence (sometimes literally with their pants down), don’t feel cruel. Balloons, those ubiquitous markers of special occasions seem semi-tragic and out of place, as these establishments are fundamentally monuments to the everyday. Life’s rich pageant is on full view, fully foreshadowing the story’s end. A man sits with red-eyed acceptance, cigarette dangling from his mouth, above his tracheostomy tube. His ashtray sits in line with a decorative urn, ashes to ashes – an encapsulated life, day by day, drinking at the bar.
Just as Roy Orbison woefully conjured those “golden days before they end” in the song It’s Over, Marschall’s interviews are spiked with a recurring lament. Where outside pressures like prohibitive parking fees and stricter drunk driving laws strain their financial viability, their core patrons and an entire generation of drinkers is dying off. Those regulars, who appear daily, committed to drinking steadily for much of the day, are not being replaced. The postman, tracked by GPS, can no longer slip in for a respite from his route and the construction worker is newly beholden to jobsite safety standards that thwart a lunchtime nip. The owners suggest that immigrants to Austria have their own places, and the next generation of the native-born has not taken on the mantle. “There’s no future in these youngsters,” concludes Manuela Molinas of Hütteldorfer Stüberl. Despite a certain resignation in their tone, the owners are largely committed to going out swinging. And so are their patrons. Their reality hinges on the bar as their idealized realm, and it is business as usual (if less densely packed) within their dark confines – full of revelry and regret, falls, scuffles and blows. —KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.
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