Selected Authors
November 1, 2005
McGill-Queen's University Press
IMAGE & IMAGINATION, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2005
Petra Halkes
Gottfried Helnwein's American Prayer - Part 2
A Fable in Pixels and Paint
Although our habit of trust in the veracity of the photo has been seriously eroded since the invention of digital transformation of images, a lingering sense of reality remains associated with anything that is captured by the camera's eye, even if it is a digital eye. The photographer's intent, whether to record reality straight-forwardly or to alter reality through unusual camera settings or manipulation of the negative in the darkroom, does not change the sense of indexical truth that clings to any photograph. Helnwein’s realistic painting style in "American Prayer" creates the look of a photograph to exploit our habitual expectation of truth in photography; the photographic realism of the incongruent scene is what makes the irony work. We weren’t expecting a duck, and certainly not the cartoon kind, in this pious picture. But here he is, in all his glory, captured by the camera.
Andy Warhol
silver print, 1983, 99 x 66 cm / 38 x 25''
Head of a Child III
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2000, 299 x 218 cm / 117 x 85''
While it is not entirely impossible to create an image of a floating duck and a mechanical boy through traditional photography, it would require cumbersome cutting and pasting, dodging and burning, and other special effects that could always be traced. Helnwein’s painting mimics digital manipulation to present a miraculous image as seamlessly as any annunciation, ascension, or flying chariot in traditional religious and mythical painting. The relationship between the pixels of the digitalized copy and what is portrayed is as arbitrary as the one between pigment and referent. Painting a digital image conflates the deconstruction inherent in both media; they can both fake the indexical truth of a photograph.
Mitchell’s recognition of the similarity between painting and digital imagery is logical and valid, but the combination of various media in "American Prayer" highlights the differences between these media as well. Te first of these differences lies in the tools and skills required for each practice. Grau has argued that the difference between the paintbrush and the computer is one of sovereignty. Tfe brush, a traditional hand tool, forms an extension of the body; its capacity for analog representation depends on the artist’s individual skills and practice. Tfe built-in limitations of paintbrush and paint are many, but the artist remains in control of this tool. The computer, with its built-in software, forms an automated entity that the artist needs to plug into. The computer springs to life in a dialogue with the artist. The interactivity of the computer creates a different relationship with the computer as a tool, one in which sovereignity is continuously contested. The creativity of the digital artist is based on this interactivity in which the artist subverts and pushes the possibilities of the program. Grau writes: "The metaphor of the tool evokes associations of human sovereignty over tools and material, but digital media require the artist to relinquish a part of this sovereignty in exchange for new and effective means of design. Conversely, the artist now operates within the force field located between the domination of the tool utilized and emancipation from the normative power of the tool, that is, its domestication." Seen in this light, the final layer of paint in "American Prayer", painstakingly applied by hand, forms a residue of a performance in which Helnwein establishes sovereignty over the ever-threatening annihilation of human agency by the apparatus.
The second, more obvious difference between painting and digital imaging is the materiality of paint and canvas. To become visible, a digital image needs the support of hardware and a screen (or, in the case of an immersive virtual art work, concrete space), but the image itself remains immaterial. Similarly, a digital print regains some of the materiality of the traditional photograph, but that doesn’t affect the immateriality of the pixelated image. The surprise of finding out on screen that "American Prayer", with its mimicry of a digital image, is in fact a painting - “oil and acrylic on canvas, 213 cm x 187 cm” - emphasizes the absence of paint, of earthly matter, of any body of work in the ethereal digital domain. The ironically religious iconography draws an equation between the belief in eternal heavenly life and the transcendence into a virtual image world. The digital duck metaphorizes the lure of such immateriality, the eternal existence of disembodied life without death. If Pinocchio is indeed praying for a virtual life in a digitally generated realm, what he will need to leave behind is the sensual world of nature and matter. Grau, like Anders, Baudrillard, Debord, and many others before him, warns of the devaluation of the real world that is inherent in the transcendence yearned for in virtual reality: "Essentially, virtual reality stands for the complete divorce of the human sensorium from nature and matter. In the history of illusionism in art and media, virtual reality constitutes the greatest challenge so far to the human senses and their relationship with the environment, which produces, sustains, and permeates them."
Death of Pinocchio (Der Tod des Pinocchio)
pastel and colored pencil, 1988, 49 x 62 cm / 19 x 24''
Throughout this essay, my arguments about what Pinocchio is praying for have been conjectural. "American Prayer" remains open to interpretation. I cannot even be sure that Pinocchio is aware of the duck; unlike the child in the religious picture who looks piously at the Christ figure (Fig 9.2), Pinocchio’s eyes are firmly shut. No contact between heaven and earth is made, and his inner world remains closed off from prying gazes. The duck, in contrast, looks at me knowingly, from the corner of his eye, as if to implicate me in a scam that involves the kneeling boy. I am roped in by this floating fowl in this game of substitutions and deceptions. In the end, the onus to untangle these clues and to create meaning from this picture falls on me, the viewer.
A picture itself constitutes neither truth nor lie. A picture is just a picture, the meaning of which lies only in the viewer's imagination. In a creative, meaning-making imagination, a distance between illusion and reality is maintained in order not to fall prey to the exploitation of illusionism. As we have seen, both painting and digital imaging undermine the illusion of reality by unhinging it from the referent through intentional manipulation, as opposed to the causal, automatic relationship between a traditional photograph and its referent. But unlike painting and, to a lesser extent, unlike photography, digital media have lost the connection with material reality. The immateriality of digital imaging allows it to conjure up a transcendental realm in which matter and bodies are represented for all eternity in indestructible, immaterial pixels. The forgotten paint of American Prayer forms a reminder of the absent nature, the absent body in a pixelated heaven, while it also reminds us of the threat of a loss of human sovereignty over its tools.
In "American Prayer", the cartoon duck’s substitution of deity suggests that a wish for eternal life is exploited by both religion and popular culture. Heaven can be experienced here and now, and we can buy the pictures to prove it. For Helnwein, who cherishes his childhood memories of comics, the Disney empire has become an emblem of the commercial exploitation of illusionism. The name Disney, he has said, brings forth conflicting associations in his mind: “The inspiring sacred comics of my childhood, that gave me a chance to escape from the cold Nazi-country into a world of joy and wonder, or Michael Eisner’s multi-billion dollar machine that smothers the world.” Like a true fable, "American Prayer" presents its moral in stark, if humorous, terms; the closed eyelids of the praying Pinocchio (and of many other children in Helnwein’s oeuvre) suggest that, if the aggressive grasp of a profit-driven image culture is not curtailed, sight will have to be sacrificed in order to save creative imagination.
Helnwein’s love/hate relationship with popular culture may at times appear ambiguous, but "American Prayer" forms an outright warning against the exploitation of our cultural practices of illusion, which have become increasingly realistic as well as immaterial. Technological imaging advancements lead us ever further into the image, without a trail of pebbles that would guide us back to our everyday world. In "American Prayer"'s entanglement of old and new media, old and new fables and beliefs, paint provides the possibility of creating such a trail.
Petra Halkes
Concordia University Montreal
Quebec, Canada
Notes
page 21
American Prayer is a cautionary tale; the closed eyelids of the praying Pinocchio (and of many other children in Helnwein’s oeuvre, see Fig. 5) suggest that if the aggressive grasp of a profit-driven image-culture is not curtailed, sight will have to be sacrificed in order to save creative imagination.
Martha Langford
is assistant professor, art history, Concordia University, author of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, and artistic director of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2005.




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