On Icons, Idols, Avatars, and Other Proxies
At the end of the twentieth century we can be witnesses of a miraculous event — on a public square in Vilnius, Lithuania, we observe the erection of a statue of Lenin.
This unusual act in the video Once in the XXth Century (2004) by Deimantas Narkevicius resembles a public spectacle, applauded by a large audience. The usual strictly stylized celebrations for the ideological leader of the communist idea who turned Marx’s “religion is the people’s opium” into the propagandistic version “religion is opium for the people”, however, do not take place. The cheerful public festival proceeds without the state-prescribed choreography of quasi-religious rituals of adoration.
Deimantas Narkevicius used in his video footage of a Lithuanian TV station. This shows the taking-down of a Lenin monument in the 1990s. By filmic cutting, it was turned into the erection of the monument. After the majority of the socialist monuments were taken down at the end of the last century, either spontaneously or prescribed by the state, they now serve as only fleeting and dematerialized traces of a collective yet unfulfilled belief in a social alternative. With his ‘reversal of images’, Deimantas Narkevicius pulls the personality cult and the public installation of ideological symbols, which have long become history, back into our time.
The Lithuanian filmmaker thematises in his films the relationship between individual and collective memory, with the events in his homeland in view, taking as a point of departure his personal biography. Once in the XXth Century is an ironic commentary on the scenes of ideological manifestations ‘in stone’ that repeat themselves in the various political epochs, and the iconoclasms that follow them, meant as radical measures to correct history. History shows that the destruction, desecration, or removal of political relics of faith often lead to an unbroken reproduction of icons and forms of icon veneration. Thus the video does not just undermine the demanded believability of (TV) images from that moment on when a social order becomes history. It also tells of the exchangeability and depletion of ideological signs and rituals. 1
The destroyed remnants of a lost utopia can also be found in the film The Role of a Lifetime (2003). The film shows how Soviet monuments, stripped of their former representative function, are displayed like decommissioned veterans in a bizarre theme park in Lithuania. The closed electric power station in Energy Lithuania (2000), once a symbol for the communal belief in socialist build-up and progress, is in these images only a ghostly site, an immense echo of a failed utopia.
We Are Replay
But what can come after a social change that is characterized by the failure of a (final) utopia? Can there still be something like a collective belief, a communal vision of the future, or is only a retreat to the joys of the private sphere still significant? And, if we can still speak of a continuance of ideas and convictions, this question follows: In the era of post-communism, what do we believe in?
The Halle artist Daniel Hermann has students at a cooperative comprehensive school asked each other: what do you believe in? They are young people who were untouched by the ideological experiments of the former GDR, but not by their consequences. East Germany is one of the three countries of the former Eastern block that has the most atheists (in absolute numbers), where a high percentage of citizens holds on to the materialist worldview, and where the knowledge about the Christian religion is full of gaps, especially among the young.
The sixteen-year-olds grew up under the brand-heaven of consumerist capitalism, that is to say, in a utopia-free age. Where the search for a community and happiness is fulfilled by the promises of marketing and advertising in the sense of “We Are Replay” by the jeans label of the same name, and less in institutionalised fantasy worlds like “we are pope.”
Conversations in workshops and in a project week about their own yearnings, role models, and goals were supposed to find form in the attempt of a (voluntary) declaration of faith in the format of a shrine or a poesiealbum [an autograph album with verse or sayings contributed by friends]. Daniel Herrmann explains:
”The shrine – the ark, the portatile (a kind of mobile altar, often taken along to the crusades) contains forms of relicts or votive gifts or figures of saints. The modern version of this are objects and mis-en-scènes in the private sphere. It can be an overstuffed beauty-case, perhaps filled with golden soap balls from Douglas, rare pills as party trophies, Mediterranean shells, and a friend’s lock. Or it is a rucksack full of buttons and a Diddl mouse. A further example is the mirror with a lipstick homage, pictures of boyfriend or of friends, or concert tickets attached to it. In Perfect Childhood Larry Clark said everything there is to say about the significant underside of a skateboard.
The poesiealbum contains pictures and icons, wishes and dedications. More modern declarations usually contain pointers to preferences (food, songs, animals, stars) of those writing in the album. Sometimes the pages are preformatted with questions like, for example: “Which actor do you like?” or “Where do you like going best?” With stickers of glittery hearts and magazine pictures, the pop star can be individually highlighted.”
Removed from the discourses of cultural criticism or religious studies, the point of departure of Was glaubt Ihr are questions about everyday needs. But what ideas and visions does the new generation have that goes beyond emotional ties and social affiliation within the private sphere of family and friends?
My Private Idoland
One aspect of private practice of faith, the veneration of an idol, is the object of critical reflection of the artist Denise Rönsch, who is also from Halle.
She designs her own “private idoland” around the politician and private man Otto Schily. To do so, she collected and archived numerous photographs, newspaper articles and video clips on Otto Schily. Apart from the use of documentary material and everyday objects, Denise Rönsch also visually realises fictional scenes from Otto Schily’s life. She plays through variants of reproduction and appropriation of the idol, and uses different media formats of representation, staging herself as a proxy of different positions with numerous different motivations for the idolisation. The resulting oil paintings, fan posters, photographs, objects, and the life-sized Schily doll are finally combined in a room installation. This arrangement has the quality of a fan corner, a vestry, and a cabinet of devotional objects.
The subjective approach to and appropriation of the public figure Otto Schily, with a simultaneous skilful play with numerous individual articulations of the star cult and veneration, raises the room installation My Private Idoland (2005/2006) into a site for encounters and the imagination. It becomes a symbolic site for intimate revelations and rituals of disclosure.
In a small public happening, Denise Rönsch performed a subtle parody of the deification of politicians in the media. Like in a lonely nocturnal procession, just before the election of the chancellor in 2005 she carried the venerated person on a poster designed by her, installing it on a traffic island in the city of Halle. Before Otto Schily entered political insignificance after the election for parliament, a temporary monument was set up for him in the city of Halle, giving him a special kind of promise of loyalty.
Britney Spears, or the Injuries of Iconoclash
The face, scratched up beyond recognition, on always the same poster, belongs to one of the most successful idols in the world – the American singer Britney Spears. Millions of young people belong to her fan community, fascinated by the perfect self-presentations of the pop star.
None of that is anymore visible in François Bucher’s Spiritual Still (2005). The more than 30 photographs, taken in the New York subway shortly after September 11, 2001, bear traces of a communal ‘spiritual’ awakening. The New Yorkers, who because of the events in their city are obviously no longer able to bear the glamorous and superficial self-presentation of the singer, attempt a collective protest. All imaginable forms of displeasure are directed with the quality of a secular iconoclasm against the idol who, unimpressed by everything, advertises her concert in Las Vegas.
With the attack on the poster, the singer ironically undergoes almost a quasi-religious ‘reanimation’. Corresponding to her oscillation of staging herself as a whore and saint, these pictures of Britney Spears speak well-nigh of martyrdom. The singer seems to question the sufferings inflicted on her with a corresponding pop-pathos, but at the same time she seems to bear them stoically, as her song Girl in the Mirror reports:
There's a girl in the mirror
I wonder who she is
Sometimes I think I know her
Sometimes I really wish I did
There's a story in her eyes
Lullabies and goodbyes
When she's looking back at me
I can tell her heart is broken easily
If I could
I would tell her
Not to be afraid
The pain that she's feeling
That sense of loneliness will fade
So dry your tears and rest assured
Love will find you like before
When she's looking back at me
I know nothing really works that easily
I can't believe what I see
oh the girl in my mirror
The girl in my mirror is me
Ohh ... is me
For François Bucher’s artistic practice, the engagement with the image, its tradition, charge, and meaning dependent on the context in visual culture is decisive; this can also be seen in his new film Sopraluoghi a Roma (2006). 2
While here the city of Rome presents itself in advertising, shows, TV, or guided tours for tourists, the voice-over makes clear that the film is looking for something else. Starting with Caravaggio’s Supper in Emmaus (1602/03), the camera begins a search for an image that will only come into being in the course of the film. So we hear, for example,: “these images were not taken by me ...”, “I could use the face of this person for ...” or “I have no words for these images ...”.
St. Francis of Assisi
Not just the saints of today, but also those from the history of religion often serve for engaging with personal, artistic, or political concerns.
Thus the popular book about the new world order and the collapse of the Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ends with a solemn left-wing Catholic gaze into the future which is oriented on the work of St. Francis of Assisi: “In opposition to nascent capitalism ... he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds on the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power and corruption. Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being.”3
While the monk’s charismatic work is interpreted by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri dialectically as revolutionary because it anticipates the “lightness and joy of being communist”, in the works of Andrea Büttner St. Francis the man is interpreted existentially. Following his “sermon to the birds”, the artist sketches in her drawings with just a few lines the attempts of animals like a snake, dog, or lion to speak with St. Francis. Thus the hierarchical relationship between speaker and listener in the “sermon to the birds” is here reversed.
For the engagement with his person, Andrea Büttner is also following a biographical impulse; her high-school was run by Franciscan nuns. Apart from her current research on nuns who were artists such as Sister Corita Kent, and her evenings of drawing in a Carmelite convent in London, she has been working on the topics of ‘shame’ and ‘radical objectivity’ in recent years. These themes are both the subject of her text works, woodcuts, and installations, as well as a stylistic instrumentarium for the use of ‘uncool’ and ‘poor’ materials.
The seemingly very personal revelatory character of her texts and her radically naive and reduced visual vocabulary (reminiscent of comic strips) undermine patterns of visual and verbal communication, reducing them to the bare essentials. The gesture of self-revelation and the public struggle for self-description are direct and disarming. The limits of shame, simplicity, or embarrassing imperfection are opened up within the artistic context.
About her series of drawings, Andrea Büttner writes: “Since 2003 I have read a lot about and by Francis. What I like about Francis is that he called poverty, in the language of the troubadours, ‘Lady Poverty’. That he was the first to write a poem in Italian. This poem, the Canticle of the Sun, ends with a verse that according to legend he wrote just before his death: ‘May Thou be praised, my Lord, for our sister, bodily death, whom no man living can escape.’ I only recently discovered that the maggot drawing has to do with what I think about saints: that there were some who loved reality. That this is precisely what sainthood is.” Thus the series of drawings Tiere predigen dem Heiligen Franziskus [Animals preach to St. Francis] (2004) shows in a beautiful mirroring St. Francis not imparting his faith through his word and his life, but listening to the animals.
The woodcut Waiting for the Miracle to Come (2000), another work shown in the exhibition, shows a sentence that expresses both a practice and a hope.
Nowadays it is not a wayside cross and a little chapel, but rather huge posters in the streets that make us pause. It is not gazing inside, but navel-gazing of the new saints of the fashion worlds speak in every city from huge posters of the fulfilments of a holy-ideal world of beautiful people, luxury, and vanities. The idea of transcendence has given way to an aesthetics of being. The less vision, the more perfect the stagings of the “world of the economy of desire”. “And accordingly, the post-materialist customer does not buy commodities, but stories, emotions, dreams, and values.”4
Walls, towers, pedestals, doors, even tower crosses of the miniature Speyer cathedral by Hans Hemmert are completely covered by the consumerist objects of adoration of our time, such as the unaffordable real-leather handbags and shoes, tights or accessories by Louis Vuitton Melletier, Paris. Speyer cathedral undergoes a radical shrinking into an assembled handbag that one could imagine being carried lasciviously by one of the top models shown on it: the brand handbag as a miniature altar, equipped with the insignia of the designer, as a constant companion and spiritual guide. Adorned with today’s icons, and reduced to a single advertising and projection area, the cathedral tells of the seductions and re-enchantment of consumption. It presents a seemingly endless offering of answers to the needs of the individual who makes his or her way through the market of beliefs. In the time of church and capital, the religious charge of contemporary saints’ images is guaranteed. Catholicism and consumption share the similarities of an ‘eye religion’.
God is Love
In his documentary film Counter Communities (2003), made in co-production with Oliver Elser, Oliver Croy deals with five alternative architecture projects in the U.S. that all go back to utopian tendencies of the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from his interest in the innovative use of building materials, the artist focused especially on the different utopian social models that were supposed to be realised with these projects.
The research for the film also resulted in a series of photographs about ‘Salvation Mountain’. This architecture does not represent a community or a collective utopia, but is rather symbol for a private and eccentric practice of faith. ‘Salvation Mountain’ near Slab City in California is a mountain painted in different colours, initiated by one man alone, Leonard Knight. The monument, adorned with numerous statements of faith and a cross on top that can be seen from afar is intended to speak of God’s universal love, and be open to all people. Mr Knight asserts that he refused substantial monetary donations from supporters who would have wanted to change the message of God’s almighty love.
Oliver Croy describes the history of ‘Salvation Mountain’ thus: “Leonard Knight, a veteran of the Korean war, invested five years of intensive work in a huge hot-air balloon with the slogan ‘God is Love’. The balloon however was too large to ever take off. Knight decided to build a monument on a hill in the desert instead, dedicated to God. He adorned it with messages from the New Testament and decorations, using thousands of litres of paint donated to him. The mountain received the name Salvation Mountain.” Even though the project was never authorised, in 2002 it was listed as a ‘national treasure’ and is now protected. In the immediate vicinity of Salvation Mountain Leonard Knight, as his latest building project, is now making a copy of the hot air balloon, consisting of mud, hundreds of bales of straw, old car tires, and dead trees that are to support the whole structure. Asked about this daring and most precarious construction, he commented on his task rather laconically: “God showed me how to do it”.
The Overhead Projector and the Problems with Mediating Blessings
“5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way. 7 The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers and diviners to be brought and said to these wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed on purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.’ 8 Then all the king’s wise men came in but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.” (Old Testament, Daniel 5, 5-9)
The Writings on the Wall (2005) by Martin Conrads and Ingo Gerken interrogates the efficacy of the pope’s blessing when transmitted through the media. Originally, the presence on St. Peter’s Square or being in a visible distance to the one giving the blessing was necessary. But in 1967 the Holy See confirmed that the apostolic blessing could also be validly received if transmitted through the radio, and similarly, almost twenty years later, in 1985, through TV. After another ten years, in 1995, a similar decree was issued concerning the mediation through the Internet. Saving and repeating the blessing, however, would lead to an invalidity of the blessing. Yet as far as the direct transmission through the Internet is concerned, even during a live streaming, the data are briefly buffered. In this case, the transmission of the blessing is more a question of faith rather than simultaneity, the artists suggest.
Why, the artists ask, can the temporary file-saving of the blessing not also be transferred to other media without loosing its validity?
After all, apart from the successively increased media compatibility of issuing and receiving blessings, there were also other significant deviations from the tradition of the blessing, such as the ‘silent’ blessing caused by the frailty of John Paul II, which was given equal standing to the ‘spoken’ one, although this privilege was only the pope’s alone.
In accordance with these modifications, Martin Conrads and Ingo Gerken reach the conclusion that the overhead projector as a medium for live-transmission and the transparency as a so-called saving programme would be an ideal, but so far neglected medium for papal blessings. Biblical motifs like a blessing hand and the aureole that surrounds holy people like an illuminated circle of clouds, or the writing on the wall, about which we can read in Daniel 5, support the idea, they say, that the overhead projector could serve the Holy See as a perfect medium for transmitting the blessing through a medium.
Taking these considerations as a point of departure, the artists wrote to several church authorities, asking them to respond to the following questions:
- Do you know whether (just like the radio, TV, Internet), an overhead projector transparency would be suitable for transmitting a papal blessing?
- Is there a decision by the Vatican that takes a positive stance to the suitability of the overhead projector?
- If this is the case, please send me an overhead transparency bearing a papal blessing.
That the reception of a blessing mediated by an overhead projector must be an individual matter of faith and opinion – that is what the Writings on the Wall tell us.
Meditation Room for Avatars
With their Internet project Non Chat Chat – Meditationsraum für Avatare Hörner/Antlfinger want to give visitors of the exhibition as well as users in the World Wide Web the opportunity to meditate together in a virtual room. At issue is pure presence, not talkative chatting.
One source of inspiration for this project can be traced back to the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation, which for the artists is associated with unbelieving amazement and a certain fascination: “The really decisive thing for us is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s desire to prove his technique in the light of science. He tried to prove the positive effects of transcendental meditation on the community with elaborate field studies. When 7000 siddhas, e.g., trained meditators, meditated in one place together, it was supposed to have concrete effects on the crime rate, economic growth (lowering of unemployment and suicide rates, higher per-capita income and higher stock market indexes), and on personal happiness. These field studies are of course controversial, and at some point were not pursued anymore. At issue was in the end to prove the existence of the ‘Unifying Field’5, a field to which everybody has access, where he or she can develop energies that can affect others.”
According to Yoga theory, at the source of one’s own consciousness there is an area of complete silence and peace and simultaneous complete alertness. The clear experience of this goes hand in hand with the experience of utter happiness. The state of peaceful alertness is a fourth state of consciousness (together with the known states: alertness, sleep, dreaming), and in different cultures it is also called: transcendence, samadhi, nirvana, absolute being, metaphysical centre, God’s heavenly realm.
The artists connect the following questions with their work: Is meditation a practice that can be extended to an electronic data network? Is it also effective with proxies, avatars? And what experience does this result in for the real subject?
Once again Hörner/Antlfinger:
“We claim this also very much in the sense of Pascal, who recommends gaining faith back by acting as-if, because one has nothing to loose, on the contrary, one could gain everything.”
Through the World Wide Web, the artists want to create a forum for the happy believers of the Biennale and for those who want to become happy believers with the aid of art and the techniques of meditation. If the project succeeds, we might conclude, following the title of a film by the American filmmaker Les Blank 6: God respects us when we work – but he loves us when we are happy.
An offer that cannot be turned down!
Translated from the German Original.
1 The film Disgraced Monuments by Mark Lewis and Laura Mulvey is a work that describes an aspect of Russian history as a succession of monumental veneration and subsequent destruction of buildings and monuments. The alternating erection and destruction of political and religious architectures in accordance with the respective ideology reigning at the time on a Moscow square within a century is traced with the aid of documentary material.
The erection or rather destruction of the Lenin statue in Once in the XXth Century happens against the foil of the Catholic church SS Jacob and Philip in the background, which survived the eras of the Soviet Union and post-communism unharmed.
2 The title is an allusion to Pier Paolo Pasolini's motif search in Palestine, Sopraluoghi in Palestina, for the film Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964).
3 Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri: Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2001, p. 413.
4 Norbert Bolz: Das konsumistische Manifest Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 2002, p. 109.
5 The unifying field is a term from theoretical physics. Unified field theories aim at merging all matter and the energy fields of the universe into one formula, the 'unifying field'. A unified field theory, also sometimes called world formula, is intended to explain the relationships between matter, electric energy, magnetic energy, and gravity.
6 The correct title of the documentary film about a special highpoint in the hippy and counter-cultural movements is: God Respects Us When We Work ? But He Loves Us When We Dance.