Helmut Grill – Do you believe in reality?

We live in a time where Google has replaced contemplation, and wikipedia has replaced our memory. We increasingly outsource our minds, and we deliberately and voluntarily succumb to mental immaturity. As such, our first step in learning about an artist is no longer to visit their exhibition or to consult a library, but to surf the internet. So if we, in this manner, visit Helmut Grill’s website, we find the following statement, written in bold letters right under his name: reality is irrelevant.

What is reality?

Our first impulse upon reading this statement is inevitably that of a contradiction. It is a half-occidental philosophy based on gaining knowledge from perceiving and reflecting on reality. To get to the bottom of this statement claiming that reality should be irrelevant, and to find out why it is significant enough for Grill to put it right next to his name, we must determine first what we consider to be reality. What does reality mean, what is real?

The thing that we generally consider to be reality essentially is but an interpretation of our brain. We trust our sensory organs and assume that our perception of the world around us is an objective reality. “Objectivity is the delusion that observations can be made without an observer,” wrote Austrian physicist Heinz von Foerster. We always approach the reality we think is “out there” with certain basic assumptions that we consider to be established, “objective” aspects of reality, while they are actually just the consequences of the way we search for reality. Hence, what we think is real depends largely on our personal interpretation, on our knowledge, our experiences and of course on the cultural imprints on our perception. To see means to construct! Is reality, therefore, not only relativized, but even made irrelevant, because we all create our own realities?

What about the foundations of our knowledge, the facts and matters that constitute our insights, our values, and our society? It has been considered self-evident that they, like cells and atoms and quarks, just exist “out there”, waiting to be discovered by scientists. French philosopher Bruno Latour, however, has shown in his publications from the 1970s and 1980s that scientific facts are essentially products of their relevant scientific questions and research; results of selective processes and interpretations – and he has sown doubts about the irrevocability of such supposed facts. He saw himself as a close ally of the sciences, and he was not the one to open the doors to the invasion of “alternative facts”. His ethics of responsibility led him to state that not even the most secure knowledge can stand for itself. “Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” This common culture of a decent and critical public, however, seems to have been corrupted. Diligent journalism and respectable science are being compromised and denounced by terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts”. Facts, matters, truths – they no longer seem significant; instead, the only determining factor is who can efficiently sell something as reality. We are on the way to becoming a post-factual society, in which facts are no longer the base of political decisions, and instead politically opportune but factually misleading narratives are the foundation for political debate, for the forming of opinion, and for legislation. Societal reality is increasingly determined by who has prerogative of interpretation in the attention economy.

The rapid ascent of “alternative facts” has made it clear that the degree of truth or the accuracy of a statement or an image do not determine whether they are believed or not, but the conditions of their construction: who has produced said statement or image, who is being addressed, and which institutions are disseminating them. The question must therefore be: Do you believe in the real world?

Do you believe in reality?

Helmut Grill has worked with photographic image manipulation from the very beginning of his career. On behalf of the advertisement industry, he has contributed to the construction of a smooth world of illusion, which, rid of any negativity, was not allowed to show signs of manipulation. In 1991, he turned his back on this world, and instead towards those very signs of manipulation within the construction of the illusory world.

Grill finds his photographic material in the world wide web, adds his own photographs to it and fuses the two into one entirely new image that, despite not having existed as such before, still seems known and familiar. He creates a new reality out of bits and fragments of the real world, which appears exaggerated yet realistic, artificial yet natural, constructed yet iconic. There may be a mountain, rising up in that shape, somewhere in a foreign land, but certainly not with a brand logo on its summit – not yet, anyway! There may be a sacred space composed of such architectural elements, but certainly not with a Hermann-Nitsch work as an altarpiece – not yet, anyway! And there may be a replica of the Wailing Wall, with a heavenly garden on the other side, but not in Disney World – not yet, anyway!

For his critical analysis of our time and his analytical view of social developments, Grill has chosen photography, the as-is, as his means of reflection, and the form of possibility, the not-yet, as his means of depiction.  He creates photographic tableaus that are irritating, maybe even unsettling, but that still always reveal their artificiality, their construction, through their perfect glossy aesthetics. Moreover, his works, in their seemingly surreal juxtapositions, reflect our viewing habits when it comes to the media. Be it finding terrible news about war zones next to ads for exotic holiday destinations on the internet, or reports about the working conditions in the South-East Asian textile industry next to commercials for the latest summer fashion; be it scrolling through hundreds of image per minute on Instagram, diving into the shoals of human vanity. As if it were natural, disparate things are seen as one, but almost never thought as one. It seems that the context of the arts is required, of the conscious orchestration of the homogenised heterogeneity, to create awareness of the fractures, the absurdities, and the manipulations. Between 2010 and 2014, Grill worked on a series called the “sceneries”; constructed landscapes that seem like backdrops; and over the course of this series, he developed those picture elements that have been defining for the series of this publication: Ruins, remnants of walls with graffiti, aeroplanes towing banners, mountains with distinctive summit marks, religious architecture with neon signs.

Sacred spaces

In his “Temples” series, started in 2015, the artist has focused on interiors of buildings for the first time. He composes sacred spaces out of architectural elements from different cultures and eras, most of them showing traces of deterioration and signs of decline, but some radiating flawless shine and glory. Ultimately, it remains unclear if the signs of decay are limited only to spaces the styles of which stem from traditional, time-honoured religions, and if merely the already eclecticistic buildings of more recent religious movements are still gleaming in unspent splendour. In light of Grill’s complex image compositions, this would likely be too simple an assumption, even though it might seem that way at first glance.

Into these auratic spaces, that never conceal their construction and artificiality, he puts signs and products which take on the character of promises of healing in our society, through targeted marketing and psycho-politics. For this, the artist employs a selected arsenal of symbolic elements, which he applies always using the same system: Brand names and logos are harmoniously integrated at part of the wall design or staged as graffiti; luxury items such as Prada shoes or Chanel handbags are seemingly casually put down next to church pews or kneelers; Lego figurines, Barbie dolls or superhero figures are sitting on tables, benches an in various corners, as saviours and role models for all ages; mottos and aphorisms on the walls symbolise fast-paced insights suitable for marketing instead of the in-depth, spiritual digging in the sacred scriptures. Upon taking a closer look, one also notices the numerous colourful, analgesic or psychedelic pills that often ornamentally shape the architecture. Religion and capitalism are staged anaesthesia, ecstasy, addiction, or the “Opium for the People.” The credo is always the same: „more more more“. The invitation at the Damien-Hirst altar, “Please feel free” (don’t panic, love is on the way, 2016), thus seems almost cynical – after all, the religion of capitalism, just like any other, is a church of addiction and dependence. But a neoliberal, post-factual society is not about feelings, moods, and emotions anyway.

Consistently, there is also a porn chapel among the sacred spaces.  Egon Schiele’s “The Embrace” (1917) as an altarpiece is surrounded by erotic temple sculptures from the Lakshamana temple in Khajruaho (10th century), murals of copulating humans in any and all positions and constellations, a Madonna sex doll, the obligatory Porn neon sign above the entry to the private area for priests, with a doorframe illuminated in red, and countless condoms strewn across the floor. The bodily union of man and woman has always had a spiritual dimension as well, and in the era of turbo-capitalism, where everything has to be instantly available, sex is often a shortcut on the way to salvation, as metaphysical certainties remain unavailable. And once more, capitalism, addiction, and the search for quieting an inner void interpenetrate.

The God to whom these temples are consecrated is called Mammon; his saints, to whom one can address intercessions and from whom one expects to gain certain benefits, are named after luxury items; and the metaphorical golden calf before whom to respectfully bow, is modern art. For every single photo tableau, Grill chose an iconic work from the last 100 years of art history as an altar piece (the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, as part of his work “inhale love” from 2015, is the only exception); from Paul Gaguin and Gustav Klimt to Jean Dubuffet and Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst and Andish Kapoor. Much has been written about art as a substitute for religion, and museums as churches and temples, and even more has been debated. To some artists, such as Gerhard Richter, art really is “interpretation, design of meaning, equal to a search for God and religion”. Elsewhere, he even talks about it being “not a substitute for religion, but religion itself”.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently stated in an interview: “God isn’t dead! God is mutating into money”. Agamben refers to Walter Benjamin with this statement, who considered capitalism to be a religion, and whose collected works Agamben had published in Italian. Benjamin’s fragment, “Capitalism as a Religion”, describes the religious elements in capitalism with four characteristic features. He describes it as “a purely cultic religion”, that has “no specific dogma or theology”, and thus places it near pantheist religious beliefs – it is the invisible hand of the market that regulates everything. Moreover, capitalism knows “no day that is not a feast day”. Benjamin refers to the “permanent period of cult”. The capitalist never-ending Sunday is an alienation of humans from their initial spiritual destiny, which leads to a permanent washing over and narcotisation by consumerism and the entertainment industry. As a third characteristic feature of capitalism, Benjamin states that it is “probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement”, a cult that tries to lead the entire world into a state of atonement. The last characteristic, to him, is that the God of capitalism “must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when his guilt is at its zenith”. It is the human being itself. And it is also the reason why in Grill’s works, there are illuminated letters, graphic lettering or murals around the respective altars, stating “Ich Ich Ich” or “me me me me” or a capital “I”. It is where the human being manifests as the actual God of these temples.

Sacred walls

The question of finiteness, of what remains, has led Grill from his “Temples” series, with its sometimes even ruinous signs of decay, to the “Walls”. What he worked with, however, was not simply famous walls, such as the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Constantinople or Hadrian’s Wall, but he selected instead the most famous remnants of a temple wall: The Wailing Wall.

The Western enclosing wall is the last remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem the most important Jewish sanctuary that was destroyed by Roman troops during the conquest of city in 70 AD.  Despite being not religiously relevant at first, the wall today is a symbol of the eternal covenant of God and his people for many Jews. The wall, built out of large stone blocks, is not only an important place of prayer and a central place of pilgrimage for Jews, but it is also a magnet for tourists from all over the world, and thus part of international, cultural consumerism of places that one has to see for oneself.

Grill presents the wall not only in its urbanistic context or in a reconstruction together with the original temple, but also as an exemplary, sacred wall, which, in that sense, can be employed everywhere. For thousands of years, the universal remedy for any form of conflict seems to have been the wall, and in the 21st century, too, it is omnipresent in the media, be it in the form of a border fence or of a “special construction measure”. The artist uses a similar strategy as he did with the walls of his sacred spaces for the former enclosing wall of the temple. He applies the Facebook and Coca Cola brand names, or he attaches billboards with contents ranging from the size of a racist’s brain to the invitation to enjoy life as there is, most likely, no God. Like any other urban wall, the “sacred wall” is covered with graffiti that express the diversity of opinions and positions. You will find images of Mickey Mouse wearing a gas mask, but also seemingly bloody handprints. Again, the different slogans are significant, which Grill depicts as sprayed letterings, and in places as semi-transparent as watermarks. The adapted quote by author John Green, “People are made to be loved and things are made to be used. The conclusion in this world is that people are used and things are loved”, once more picks up the underlying theme of his temples series, which is also at the core of the “walls”, as will be shown later on. But he also quotes song titles, such as Björk’s “There’s more to life than this” as well as the legendary graffiti from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Make tea not love”. The reference to the bible passage 1 Samuel 8 also reflects the deeply human desire for a king, a leader to rule and set direction. It is really a buzz of voices that manifest on the antique stone blocks, neither lamenting nor accusing, neither ailing nor off-putting, but rather reflecting a plurality of critical opinions.

What is crucial for the significance of Grill’s series of works is the areas on either side of the wall, the space that it defines and limits. Vilém Flusser writes that the word “wall” (germ. Mauer) derives from the Latin munire, which means “to protect oneself”. The outer wall protects from nature and potential invaders, whereas the inner wall addresses “the inmates of the house, to be liable for their safety”. But where is outside and inside in Grill’s work? As an observer, one looks at the wall and is clearly on the inside the barrier, but who is excluded? Oneself or those on the other side? And what is waiting on the other side, anyway?

At first glance, it seems as if the wall were separating the more or less wild nature of the foreground from the familiar civilisation of the background. One seems to recognise that the cupola of the Dome of the rock, Neuschwanstein Castle, or an antique Stupa. But in truth, it is the Disneyland castle and thus the plainly paradigmatic world of illusions and monumentalised artificiality. Walter Benjamin referred to “phantasmagoria of capitalist culture” in this context. In his unfinished Arcades Project, he wrote about the World Expos of the 19th and 20th century in terms of rapidly establishing capitalism (Disneyland did not yet exist 80 years ago), and about the voyeuristic curiosity necessary for a propensity to buy. The dream realities emerging from this “open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry makes this easier by elevating the person to the level of the commodity. He surrenders to its manipulations while enjoying his alienation from himself and others.” The desire and dream worlds he calls “mythological topographies” are not only illusory spaces, but at their core, they are spaces of consumerism and such spaces of consent. Capitalism as an economic and social order with a global claim to power turns the whole world into a Disneyland, thanks to the support from the entertainment industry. The constant amusement and permanent distraction by the media make it impossible for the individual human being to become aware of his/her own alienation, and the alienation from fellow human beings and their surroundings; the essential question of one’s true destiny moves into the background.

The “scared wall” that Grill has put at the core of his photo tableau, does not separate the natural world from the artificial word, not untouched nature from manipulated nature. The seemingly rampant jungle with its exotic plants and paradisiac flowers is made of plastic, and the shallow waters babbling in the foreground are fed from pipes. Martin Heidegger wrote that a border is not the place “where something ends, but, as the Ancient Greeks have realised, a border is where one’s essence begins.” Hence, Grill does not show us the wall as an insurmountable obstacle that limits and restricts our field of vision, but, quite the contrary, as a tool with which to recognise the true essence of our surroundings. The meaning of the wall as an element of separation is thus levelled and devalued, because on either side of this border, we find the same fabricated artificiality. The last work from 2019 (“This world is killing me slowly”) also shows the breakthrough through the wall, and the realisation that the construction of reality is identical on both sides.

Sacred mountains

The virtually logical next step for Grill, after his works on different manifestations of the sacred in the “temples” and “walls” series, is the escape into nature. Mountains are significant places in many cultures when it comes to the symbolisation of religious beliefs and cosmogonies. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, there is the image of the original mount, which rose out of the chaotic floods at the beginning of time. Noah’s ark is said to have stranded on Mount Ararat after the Deluge. Mountains are generally considered abodes to the gods or as places of epiphany or revelation of the Divine. The twelve gods of Greek mythology lived on Mount Olympus; Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Light, had his residence on the Machapuchare in Nepal; Earth mother Pachamama lived on Mount Tunari in Bolivia; and on Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When thinking of hermits, who would often set up their hermitages on high plateaus to pray to and search for God, it becomes clear that the mountain is a place of dialogue with the transcendent. Numerous mountains have also been personified as gods, such as the Arunachala in India, or Mount Kailash in Tibet, Annapurna in Nepal, or the Ampato in Peru, and many others.

The shape of the mountain makes it an excellent place in nature, with which we connect our ideas of durability, stability, and of the sublime. The term of the sublime has been established as a fixed term during the second half of the 18th century, by Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757). However, the connection between the beautiful and the horror, that fundamental experience of something terrible, as a long-standing tradition. Be it John Dennis’ “delightful horror”, or Moses Mendelssohn’s “sweet shudder” – the sublime emits an aesthetic of horror. “When encountering certain natural phenomena – namely those which seem big or mighty beyond all measure – the imagination as a sensual and finite power is no longer able to process the sensations assailing it.” The observer is thrown back on themselves through this overwhelming event, and the Too-Much descending upon them leads to a reflection on one’s own individual. It is the interplay of ultimate perfection and total chaos that has been attributed to the mountains for centuries, with a vocabulary also used for the description of the numinous. The rising mountain signals a vertical alignment, connecting a below with an above, thus evoking a relationship between heaven and earth Especially so-called “sacred mountains” are therefore often equipped with symbolic markings. Summit symbols have a centuries-old tradition in the form of crosses, Madonnas, prayer flags or ovoos. While crosses were originally mostly used as boundary demarcations, they were especially loaded with religious symbolism during the Thirty Years’ War. Most summit crosses were erected during the emergence of alpinism and the land surveying of the mountains in the 19th century and after World War II, to commemorate fallen soldiers or out of gratitude for returning home safely. The mountain summits that Grill stages, often with very dramatic lighting, are not only characterised by the summit crosses, but by the logos of large international corporations like McDonald’s, Apple, Mercedes, Roles, Chanel, Google, or Red Bull, that are shining bright from the mountain tops.

Does the McDonald’s or the Mercedes label on a mountain summit mean the final transfiguration of those brands, basically their apotheosis to the top of a sacred mountain? Or is that merely a new advertising strategy that was only a matter of time to make a brand more visible and enhance it even further? The term peak, the summit, has been frequently used since the 1950s in the diction of capitalism, whenever a peak output was reached or exceeded. Is Grill insinuating that the vertex of capitalist production and lifestyle the way they operate today has been reached, that historical capitalism in the Anthropocene epoch has reached its bio-physical and system-specific limits? The aeroplane towing the banner, flying into the picture from the right side in each work, has the answer: I declare you holy. It’s about the ultimate canonisation of capitalist flagships on the highest summits in the world. The aeroplane delivering the heavenly message functions as a kind of deux ex machina or a machina ex caelo.

Similar to his temples and walls series, for this work, too, Grill works with texts that fly into the pictures as comments or are inscribed into the mountain range like graffiti. “Stop trying, start loving” (mountain no. three, 2018) it says, for instance, or “If not now, when then?” (mountain no. one, 2018). It is a call for change, flaunting on the mountain range in huge letters, appealing to us to reflect on our position and our lifestyle. Despite all the obvious construction and artificiality of his image compositions, his realism and attention to detail also hold a claim that those depictions, though exaggerated, may be possible in reality. Regarding the texts inscribed in the rock, the legitimate question arises who, even hypothetically, may be able to write texts that size and in such heights onto a wall of rock. There was the legendary work of Scottish concept artists Ian Hamilton Finlay, who had the signature “F. Hodler” installed on a rock on the Swiss Furka Pass in 1982, but the dimensions of it do not compare. The answer to our question is found in the 5th century AD in the east of China. In the province of Shandong, Buddhist monks, believing in an imminent apocalypse, engraved their holy texts into the mountains. In the year 574, in the north of China, a certain emperor Wu from the northern Zhou dynasty, had all Buddhist writings and monasteries destroyed in attempt to radically wipe out their religion. The prophecy said that once the scriptures start disappearing, the end will be near. In light of this situation, the Buddhist monks decided to stop writing down their holy texts with ink on paper, but instead to chisel them in stone. The Diamond Sutra on Mount Tai, for instance, covers an area of 2000 m2 and the letter size is 50 cm. The sense of threat and the look into the face of the imminent end apparently make it necessary to engrave important messages into the mountain.

Even though the mountain no longer is a sacred place in Western societies, it is still a place of importance and significance. The debate on summit crosses, that are a Christian symbol in nature, and thus in a public space to some, makes this very apparent. The mystification of high mountain regions has also led to a very questionable idea of homeland. This has led to a sad high point in nationalist ideologies of rootedness, which are still felt today.

Grill’s works of mountains can be compared to the mythological Mount Meru, from Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, which identifies with numerous real mountains, but does not actually exist in reality. They are fictional mountains that incorporate parts of different real mountain ranges, but that do not exist as such. Their appearance, however, is still mythologically charged, and they do radiate that impression of the sublime.

As in the previous series, Grill aims to differentiate between real space, constructed space, and symbolic space. He evidently wants to create awareness of the daily manipulations we face in our everyday life, and he uses those same means to do so. It’s about raising awareness, as that is the touch point to our consciousness. If art can succeed in generating awareness and initiating a reflection about presented contents or processed topics, and, in the best case, if it can lead to reflection about the conditions of the attention economy and the influential power of different media, then art will become a player in the game about the construction of reality.

Roman Grabner, 2019