Review: Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Stefan Oláh


Book Reviews, Photobooks


This being the time of the internet and of quick, dismissive remarks, I should probably write that Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen [Twenty Six Viennese Gas Stations] by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Stefan Oláh is just a shameless rip off of Ed Ruscha’s famous work and be done with it. But I won’t, since such a verdict would not only be simplistic, it would be ill-informed and thus ultimately stupid. Art itself does not exist in a vacuum, and some art might inform and/or spawn some other art. In the case of Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen (which I’ll abbreviate as SWT from now on), Ruscha’s famous work - the booklet etc. - served not only just as inspiration. The book is a commentary of sorts, or maybe an extension of the American artist’s body of work: This is what gas stations look like here in Vienna, and here is why this is interesting. (more)

The makers go even a step further: For the cover image they Photoshopped one of Ruscha’s paintings - itself derived from a photo - onto a billboard, so the reference is right there, openly, for all to see. Art creating other art. If photography wants to be an art form, this is going to be part of it; and we, the viewers, have to realize that if we are too narrowly defining what “originality” means, if in other words we reduce everything to “rip offs” or “shameless copies”, we’re doing everybody a gigantic disservice. I can only imagine the emails I’m now going to get, but I’m not done yet: Part of this game also involves acknowledging the inspiration, which is what Hackenschmidt and Oláh do: “With special thanks to Ed Ruscha for the opening epigraph, the permission to reproduce pictures […], as well as for general inspiration.” Beautiful.

SWT ultimately is a book about Vienna, using the various gas station as markers for urbanity. You can see the images here (the text is in German, but it’s pretty straightforward to look through the images), and it’s pretty obvious that the images reflect the vast differences in the gas stations themselves, some resembling the ones in Ruscha’s book, many others merely being larger openings in buildings, with the gas pumps hidden somewhere in their bowels.

As is often the case, the simpler the idea the more convincing its outcome - SWT certainly is a very convincing and surprisingly engaging book. When I first came across it I thought there was no way it could possibly be interesting to look at gas stations in Vienna. But it actually is. In fact, it not only just interesting, it’s fun, and with its compelling imagery, the book is strangely attractive. I keep coming back to it, to look again, and to find new surprises. It’s a clever little book, by Roma Publications, where the book can be ordered.

Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen, conceived and edited by Sebastian Hackenschmidt, photography by Stefan Oláh, text by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Ed Ruscha, 80 pages, Roma Publications, 2010