News Update
June 1, 2006
Lentos Museum of Contemporary Art Linz
"Face It" Gottfried Helnwein - one man show
Thomas Edlinger
The Search for Visibility – What do Helnwein Pictures Want?
Of course, the current studies on the face already rely less on effect-seeking, expressive drasticness. Rather, Gottfried Helnwein masks a possible mental turmoil or traumatization of his picture models, which might be suggested, for example, by the black, seemingly fascistoid and fetishized uniform parts, behind the posed expression of his children's faces. Like Laocoon, these "beautiful" children that seem as though carved from wax, no longer cry out. They bear something that is not named and yet is visible. In their intimacy, they communicate an unfathomable inscrutability. The viewer's irritation arises from not being able to find a clue to this mystery. The wound is to be kept open and no one should be allowed to heal it.
Modern Sleep
photograph, 2004
In the age of their digital simulation, pictures are more suspicious than ever. They are considered "simulacra", illusions, whose meanings are now merely simulated in the universe of technical images. Detached from their original function of representation, they have long since become a component of the generation of the world that makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish the world from the image we have of it. Whereas the flood of today's forms of visualization is both democratized due to simplified and affordable technological devices (mobile phones, DV, mini and web-cams, etc.) and specialized due to new types of image generating procedures (probes inside the body, satellites in orbit, 3D animations, etc.), the claim of bearing witness reality – even though this has been epistemologically problematized since Plato's allegory of the cave – is devaluated. The more all the different types of pictures "cover" the world (in the literal sense of not only penetrating and discovering, but also blocking and "covering up"), the more pointless our faith in their promise of truth paradoxically seems to be.
The globally circulating and self-referential streams of images reshape the real, according to the credo of postmodern media theory, developing a "virtual" life of their own beyond the real at the same time. By tapping into the real like vampires and ultimately absorbing it (as conventional talk of media reality indicates), they create new realities detached from an original real. In fact, the images tend to appear as though they were already the real, as though it only existed in its mediatization. The perception of what was once called the extra-media world can now only be imagined under media conditions. "What we know about our society, even about our world, we know through mass media," according to the famous opening statement from Niklas Luhmann's investigation of the reality of mass media. Paradoxically the media are the blind spot in media perception. Indeed they tend to make themselves invisible in the act of image generation. Watching television, one does not see the television, but always something else – just as one does not see the panel picture in the panel picture.
The imperialism of a self-referential sign universe that is tyrannical or intoxicating according to culture-critical position also indicates the frequently cited crisis of representation. If visual representation is understood in the narrower sense of making present what is absent, then the question arises as to the potentials and the limitations of depicting what is absent, becoming especially acute in light of the opacity of the possibilities for creating and modifying images today. What kind of evident effectiveness can immaterial or virtual image worlds still claim, whose vitality has emancipated itself from a referential pre-image state of a presumed extra-media reality, when both the knowledge of their manipulability and their actually practiced manipulatedness are increasingly becoming the everyday experience of society?
Conversely, the suggestive power of images working towards leveling the categorical difference between image and reality should not be underestimated. For it is specifically the widely and repeatedly attested "power of images", their magical, fetishized quality of making visible what was previously unseen, which feeds and radicalizes the desires projected onto the image: iconoclastic furor on the one side (which finds expression in politically and/or religiously motivated prohibitions and iconoclasm), on the other the idolatry that celebrates the imaginary seductive power of lasting visual presence. The two antagonistic/opposite ways of dealing with the "flood of images", in other words iconophobia and iconomania, thus prove to be two sides of the same coin.
Yet if the images are neither willing nor able to provide us with an assured knowledge of the world through representing what exists as the real, then it must be possible to explain our affective tie to the image and its appellative radiance in some other way than from a disinterested pleasure or a rationalist interest in knowledge. "Images," writes the German art historian Hans Belting, "call for our belief, but they are not made to convince us; instead they are intended to impress us." Although we know what we cannot know from images, still we continue to produce and consume them permanently. Why? Because despite all our skepticism about "false", lying images, we believe or want to believe, because we seek the "genuine", convincing image in a para-religious way, the one that could reveal truths to us beyond plain documentarism.
The US American image theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, who provided one of the key terms for analyzing visual culture with the term "pictorial turn" in 1994, shifts the focus of his deliberations in his current book What do Pictures Want? from the frequently asked questions about the truth or power of images to their libidinous charge. Starting from our image desires and fears, he is not interested in the effects of visual production on the audience (which, in analogy to research on the effects of media, are hardly to be ultimately determined empirically). Instead, Mitchell focuses on the collective sensation of being exposed to the images' lives of their own as described above, the simulation of the "lives of their own", and regards the appellative images not as an expression of planned "imagineerings", but rather attributes to them an inherently animistic quality: "Images are like living organisms; living organisms are best described as things that have desires (for example, appetites, needs, demands, drives); therefore the question of what pictures want is inevitable." As evidence of this miraculous charge, he refers to the resistance of the students in his seminars against complying with his instructions to cut up a photo of their own mothers.
Mitchell makes use of this rhetorical "as though" anthropomorphisizing of the dead pixels, colors and forms to hone his thesis of the mythical relationship between our society and the image – not only in the narrow, object-like sense of "pictures", but also in the broader sense of immaterial, mentally framed notions conveyed by the word "images". He initially summarizes the response to the wish suggested by the images quite generally in the formula of "being loved"; under the conditions of competition exacerbated under the attention economy, this means: being noticed and respected, observed and adored or feared, in short being perceived and taken seriously.
Which images meet these criteria of such a strong image? Mitchell draws a historically broad arch, giving examples from the most diverse registers. He bases his ideas to the same extent on art-historically proven examples such as Géricault's stirring painting The Raft of the Medusa from 1819 as well as couplings of image and text on the question of the gaze regime, such as Barbara Kruger's untitled work from 1981, on which the sentence "Your gaze hits the side of my face" is printed above the half-profile of an almost expressionless, smoothed head of a woman. He explores the imaginary worlds of cyberspace and the mass media images of fears of the future like the cloned sheep Dolly that mark an era. And he links Byzantine depictions of Christ from the 11th century, in which Jesus seems to look directly at the viewer, with the genealogy of the "I want you" recruitment posters for the US army that are similarly structured in terms of picture composition. (These posters call the viewer to battle with a raised forefinger and have generated a plethora of successor images up to the present, which make use of the proven power of suggestion of this pictorial rhetoric, in part to circulate contrary messages like an "Uncle Osama" call.)
In Gottfried Helnwein's portrait works and in his decades of attention to the forms of expression and textures of the human face, he has repeatedly made use of a form of representation that compels the viewer to an almost mirror-like confrontation with the gaze of the imaginary other. Pictures like the untitled portrait of a girl in semi-darkness from 1998 or its male counterpart Untitled (Modern Sleep) from 2005, showing a frontal view of a child's face against a black background, almost completely overshadowed on the right by light coming from the left, exemplify the character of a direct appellation to the viewer – with a clear affinity to the examples discussed by Mitchell. In the same way that Uncle Sam confronts the viewer with his "I want you", the two face studies necessitate – more than other images, whether they are artistic or from mass media – being perceived, "being loved".
What does this affective added value derive from? First of all, it is obviously due to the overwhelming effect of a tendency to monumentalization that has meanwhile become typical for Helnwein. The "detail" picture size of 189 x 131 cm imbues the portrait with something glorified, sublime, larger than life. In some projects Helnwein also couples the monumentalness with another moment that counters the "decay of the aura" that Benjamin noted, namely the specific place of the artwork. According to Benjamin, it is solely this singularity of place ensuring the aura, which marks the ontological difference between the original picture and the place-less copy. Yet if reproduction destroys this unique quality by cutting off the topological connection to space, then the converse conclusion also seems to suggest itself, namely the possibility of working on a reanimation of the aura by reintroducing a topological coupling of the artwork (that is quite capable of being reproduced) and the (non-reproducible material) place. It seems as though this is what Helnwein might have had in mind, for example when he unrolled the approximately 6 x 18 m large pictures from the series Modern Sleep before the audience at the Santa Monica airport in 2003, or when the Kinderkopf (Child's Head) measuring 6 x 4 m functioned as a massive architectonic intervention in the interior of the former Dominican church in Krems, Austria, in 1999. Both of these projects identify Helnwein as an artist concerned with the re-auratization of the image. He himself, however, already closed with this concept – obviously precipitately – at the start of his career: "I assumed that in the age of reproduction, the 'aura' of a picture no longer had any significance. I was enthusiastic about the apparently unlimited possibilities of reproduction and communication technologies, and for some time I only regarded the original as an intermediate product ('high-grade refuse') in the reproduction process."
Today, however, in the children's faces works such as Untitled (Modern Sleep) Gottfried Helnwein models a charged relationship between contextual evacuation and expressive condensation. He hierarchizes picture sections for the benefit of a promise of effect: nothing should distract from the human detail, from the purified expression in all its interpretive openness. Unlike many other, especially earlier works, which dealt again and again explicitly with Austrian history, here Helnwein sacrifices narration to the strangely opaque object's shiny contours set in sharp contrasts. In the reduction of its subject matter, the image rejects any superficial message. The face in it is surrounded by an inscrutable black that repulses meaning, the neck delimited by a black fantasy uniform adorned with silver. The silenced mimic suggests an in-between realm between life and death. Again and again Helnwein stimulates the phantom-like, sometimes almost eerie appearance of the imaginary wraiths of children from the opposition of photorealistic depiction and the absence of contextuality that seems to "freeze" the image.
The artistic interest in staging the uncanny – the turning effect that makes the familiar unfamiliar – is especially evident in picture series like Sleep (2004). Steeped in sickly, morbid and cold nuances of blue and black, here a girl's head is suspended between presence and absence, between magical animation and visual fade-out. Helnwein translates the more or less fading memory of the vitality of a figure into several snapshots, which seem erratically frozen, however, as though they wanted to step out of temporal order altogether. Thus the girl with closed eyes, her face turned away in semi-darkness with few contrasts, eludes the voyeuristic intrusiveness of the viewer (Sleep 5), only to turn suddenly in another variation and directly fix the viewer with the open eyes of the undead (Sleep 9).
If it is characteristic of (artistically formed) atmospheres that the ontological boundary between the world of the subject and the world of the object is blurred , then Gottfried Helnwein must be regarded as an extremely "atmospheric" artist. His often considerable production effort serves the creation of aesthetic coherence in the form of atmospherically dense works. This production is carried out, however, against the background of a notorious pleasure in both cultural and media experimentation. The former "shock" painter and media graphics artist who emigrated to Los Angeles not only has a close relationship to US American pop culture, which is manifested in his preference for Walt Disney, Hollywood film stills or the gothic look of his congenial musician friend Marilyn Manson. It is also possible to trace an iconographic interest in the fascination of the heavy signs of politics and religion or in art-historically canonized motifs like romantic nature in the example of his deserted paintings of Irish landscapes.
Yet this Austrian artist also hybridizes his production methods in terms of media as well. It is not only the well known competitive relationship between painting and photography that the artist takes into consideration in his choice of subject matter. Like the painter Gerhard Richter with his famous blur principle based on photography, or the photographer Thomas Ruff in his purposely blurred "Nudes", which are conversely based on porno images downloaded from the Internet, Helnwein superimposes various formal conventions of depiction once reserved for a specific media utilization. The sensuousness of his hyperreal works is hence not only the result of a mimetic naturalism, but is instead first developed through the layer-like distortion of the image using various techniques. As Helnwein explains his working method: "I distinguish between purely photographic works, which often lead through many stations and sources like collage and computer manipulation to the final print, and mixed media works, which are essentially oil and acrylic paintings, but are subject to a process of creation similar to the photos. As soon as I have the image I want, it is either projected onto the canvas and traced in outlines, or it is digitally printed on the canvas in a rough form and then further developed in 'old masters' method. First in acrylic, then in oil. The depicted people, objects and spaces in my pictures are from various archives (L.A. Public Library, Bavarian State Archive, etc.), from newspapers, magazines, books, and from people, objects and places I have photographed myself."
The point of this visual interruption directed against transience and a tendency to inflation in the (mass) media circulation of images, is that the exchangeability of images is to be halted specifically with the media technology means of production that promote it. Helnwein uses digital image manipulation to counter the virtualization of the image. He works with the means of technical reproducibility to re-create/re-attain the aura. Especially in his variations on the "innocent", decontextualized child's face, which appears to be detached from the flow of history, he seeks to retain or return to the images a moment of transcendence. This is naturally a dramatic gesture.
Gottfried Helnwein has always been concerned with the theme of depicting suffering. In the 1970s and the 1980s he frequently used the spectacular shock of exaggeration, provocation, grotesque forms and the grimacing mimic of tormented individuals. Sometimes grotesquely distorted, sometimes bandaged and held together with surgical staples like the Actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler in his day, they cried out their suffering to the world. Helnwein (who often made self-portraits in similar poses) also frequently linked their suffering with the inherited burden of National-Socialism and Catholicism and the authoritarian, repressive climate of post-war Austria in the picture.
At the time Helnwein was often called a media provocateur for speculating with the overwhelming force of these kinds of scenarios and suspected of kitsch. And indeed, in the sense of the opposition between avant-garde and kitsch as proposed by the influential US American art critic Clement Greenberg in 1939, that second-hand "experience" and feigned feeling , Helnwein is certainly not to be counted among the avant-garde, who are essentially defined, according to Greenberg, by self-reflection on the respective artistic medium. For the purist conceptualism of this kind of concept of avant-garde specifically postulates the inadequacy of an illustrative figurativeness in painting. Avant-garde, understood as the applied (self-) criticism of aesthetic decisions and procedures, was thus irrevocably opposed to the sensationalist eclecticism of kitsch, which primarily aimed to mobilize emotions: "If the avant-garde imitates the procedures of art, then kitsch, as we see it today, imitates its effects."
Today, of course, this kind of emotionalization of the avant-garde itself looks like kitsch. Kitsch and a productive, interesting way of dealing with strategies susceptible to kitsch cannot be cleanly separated from one another and certainly not for all time. What may have seemed truthful to us yesterday may already look like kitsch today. Kitsch is a relation, an attribution, but not an essential quality. Kitsch is therefore the object of social agreements, whose recoding is subject to the formation of fronts based on judgments of taste and the will to distinction.
Of course, the current studies on the face already rely less on effect-seeking, expressive drasticness. Rather, Gottfried Helnwein masks a possible mental turmoil or traumatization of his picture models, which might be suggested, for example, by the black, seemingly fascistoid and fetishized uniform parts, behind the posed expression of his children's faces. Like Laocoon, these "beautiful" children that seem as though carved from wax, no longer cry out. They bear something that is not named and yet is visible. In their intimacy, they communicate an unfathomable inscrutability. The viewer's irritation arises from not being able to find a clue to this mystery. The wound is to be kept open and no one should be allowed to heal it.
Niklas Luhmann: Die Realität der Massenmedien, Wiesbaden 2004, p. 9.
Hans Belting, Das echte Bild. Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen, Munich 2005, p. 25.
W. J. T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago 2005.
Mitchell, op.cit., p. 11.
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in: ibid., Illuminations, Pimlico edition, London 1999, p. 214-216.
Gottfried Helnwein in an email interview with the author, 2005.
Cf. Ilka Becker: "Körper, Atmosphärik and künstlerische Fotografie", in: Tom Holert (Ed.), Imagineering, Cologne 2000, p. 187.
Gottfried Helnwein in an email interview with the author, 2005.
Clement Greenberg: "Avantgarde und Kitsch", in: ibid., Die Essenz der Moderne (Ed. Karlheiz Lüdeking), Amsterdam-Dresden 1997, p. 40.
Greenberg, op.cit., p. 47.
Gottfried Helnwein
One man show
10. March 2006 - 5. June 2006
Lentos Museum of Modern Art Linz
Chief curator - Stella Rollig

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