Refugee Art Exhibit Rekindles Best, Worst in Austrian Town

For decades, Nickelsdorf, Austria has had refugees coming in and out of the town, and for the most part, the locals had welcomed them. However, a recent exhibit in the town’s annual Konfrontationen Festival has caused unease among the inhabitants. A simple white truck, which was discovered August last year, has reached millions across Europe with a grim reminder of the dangerous trials Middle Eastern refugees must face on their journeys. Abandoned on the shoulder of a road near Parndorf, Austrian police discovered 71 decomposing bodies, including several children. Authorities state that they had been left there for several days.

The Konfrontationen Festival, traditionally hosted by café owner Hans Falb, showcases experimental art and music each summer. This past July, it brought 500 visitors to Nickelsdorf. But while the town expects numbers to vary each year, this year the town of 1,700 reacted with discomfort and even complaints. From the Cold War through the Balkan Wars, refugees going through the town were a common sight, but this has changed with the influx of asylum seekers across Europe. Gerhard Zapfl, the town’s mayor, explained the difference between the East Germans arriving before and the Middle Eastern refugees coming now. The former had no intentions of staying; they simply passed on through. And this difference has caused wariness among the locals.

Arnold Haberl and Christine Schörkuber’s exhibit featured a video installation of a man cleaning the white truck and hanging the clothes of the dead to dry. Though the footage has evoked sympathy from the town inhabitants, many are still wary. Another of Ms. Schörkuber’s works, a group of colorful tents inspired by a refugee camp in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, had caused her to be evicted from her building, where the tents had been housed. Mr. Falb, the cafe owner, cited in a New York Times article, “They don’t like the Arabs; they don’t like them coming here. They’d rather read in the newspapers about 2,000 to 3,000 people drowning in the Mediterranean.”

Siding with the refugees, Falb defiantly embraced the controversial art exhibits and placed the tents in front of his jazz café. Being a border zone with close proximity to the former Soviet bloc, Nickelsdorf has been isolated for decades, and he wants to change this by giving locals exposure to outside things. Others, like him, aren’t uneasy about the incoming refugees either. Marianne Falb, (not related to the café owner) has made great efforts in helping refugees adjust to new lives and learn German, becoming an adoptive mother to many asylum seekers. Despite their hopefulness, however, fear remains. Mr. Falb worries that strengthening border control in response to refugees will bring Cold War-era isolation back to Nickelsdorf.

More about the story can be found in the New York Times article.