It’s not too often that publications focusing on a single artist are featured on the Graffiti Review. In this case Schnellbahn is a photographic monograph presenting the work of Astro Polygon over a two and a half year period. More specifically the book focuses on the body of work produced by Astro on the ET4020 model of electric multiple units that operate on the Vienna S-bahn. Spread over nearly three hundred pages, short essays by various contributors narrate the pieces documented within. The 4020 is currently in the closing stages of being withdrawn by Austria’s national rail operator and so this project serves as something of a nostalgic farewell.
It’s the hardcore damage that most readers are gonna be after and the book doesn’t disappoint as two hundred pieces grace the pages of this book. It’s not just the sharp cornered alpine shapes, which have become the signature style of Astro, that are a pleasure to look at but the entire photographic content is top-notch. A personal favourite doesn’t even contain any graff but instead shows two 4020’s lit up by a lamp in an otherwise pitch black scene. The name Edward Nightingale has become associated with captivating graffiti images and the photographer also contributes some exceptional examples in a section showing an action involving one of the few remaining 4020’s.
Amongst the flicks the book contains an entertaining essay, ‘Form Follows Function’, by Moses™ in which a Palaeolithic origin story of graffiti is imagined as arising from a lovers tiff in a Mediterranean cave. Fast forward to the beginning of this millennium and the complexities of twentieth-century New York letter-styles were being stripped back to their geometric shapes. And so enters the Viennese maestro Astro with their instantly recognisable polygons. Later on another contributor describes the experience of trainspotting in one of Vienna’s main stations. Stefan Wogrin laments the withdrawal of the 4020 while relating a short history of graffiti on Viennese trains. At the end of this history are Astro’s polygons which have become an unmistakable visual feature of the ÖBB service.
Schnellbahn is tinged with melancholy for this beautiful blue-and-white EMU that is fast disappearing to be replaced with, what one contributor describes as, trains that “are ugly as sin”. Perhaps the upcoming generation will come to cherish the new model but there is certainly a beautiful design aesthetic being lost with the 4020 which their replacement sorely lacks. One essay in the book relates the futuristic promise of the 4020 as it eases into Wien Mitte station. A collaboration is created between the Astro piece adorning the side of the train and the conceptual art of Kurt Hofstetter that is permanently installed on the platform concourse. Hofstetter’s artwork can be viewed as a commentary on the abstraction of time in which commuters unwittingly perform as their recorded images are transported into his digital recreation of a clock. In his badass book, The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch explained how the railways revolutionised the concept of time in the nineteenth century. Prior to the invention of the steam locomotive, travellers had interacted with the landscape as they passed through it. The railway, however, abstracted the passenger from the space they were travelling through, thus dissolving time into new units of measurement dictated by the railway machine. Schivelbusch argues that the steam engine “possessed a binary-digital logic all its own” and so remade the world in its image. Thus, when Hofstetter’s digital artwork is punctured by an alien object, in the unexpected form of Astro’s polygons, a whole new layer of complexity and meaning is added to both works.
Packed full of quality photographs Schnellbahn is punctuated with a range of entertaining anecdotes and thoughtful essays. In one such text Skel relates being seduced by the lure of the 4020, something that the book manages to do for its reader. Finally, the publication ends with some details of the interiors of the 4020 model alongside Astro pieces which have been painted using matching colour schemes. Perfect.