“The Age of Ambiguity” by Dana Altman

“Difficulties and disagreements […] are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer” 1

Helmut Grill’s new body of work employs the same principles he has developed earlier, among them the issue of the couple, but brings them to a different level of understanding by examining them from an entirely new and different perspective. The artwork stems mainly from a shift of focus on one of the ancient topics of human knowledge: the permanent duality and struggle of the feminine and masculine principles, manifested in the structure of each individual image, as well as in the macro-structure of the whole series. Besides the obvious illustration of it by compositional means (there is always a feminine character in the foreground, and in most instances the background consists of war scenes), there is also the more subversive, underlying aspect of the whole 2004 series, significantly entitled Astarte. Astarte is a Phoenician name for Ishtar, the ambivalent Babylonian goddess: as Star of the Sunrise, she is bellicose; as a Star of the Sunset, she is a voluptuous lover. Astarte’s name was first recorded about 1478 BC, but her cult was firmly established by then and it spread from Phoenicia into Greece, Rome, and as far as the British Isles. The principle represented by her was later divided in two, embodied by Ares (the god of war) and Aphrodite (the goddess of love), and their struggle narrated in Homer’s Iliad. Since one fundamental principle was divided in two, they became antagonistic, but in the same time shared a strange complementarity. Contemporary culture has somehow managed to fuse them again back together, but this time their fusion is re-examined with a critical eye.

All the images from Helmut Grill’s new series of digital collages are built according to the same principle: scantily clad women in sexually explicit positions are facing the audience, on backgrounds of scary violence, or sad war devastation. The foreground is what the internet sells most: virtual sex. The principle of internet sex is that of offering instant gratification, but in the process it also replaces the ancient fertility principle with something that is easily available, one click away. And that is also very elusive, because what it actually offers is just another mediated image, pixels on a computer screen, with no physicality, in spite of all the means employed to convince the viewer of the contrary. The background is what makes news these days: war, a manifestation of male sexuality and aggressiveness. Violence has been a best seller since the gladiators were fighting in the Colliseum, but internet and computer games have refined the techniques, and the user is able not only to watch, but also to act, develop a strategy, partner up, kill and be killed in a virtual universe, granting the perfect outlet for bottled aggression. Both sexuality and violence are primal instincts, which appeal to the most urgent and ancient needs of humanity, without the censorship of the cultural and social code. And they are what sells best, sometimes in an explosive combination. The way they are discussed here strips them of their fundamental values and shows them into a new perspective, that of shallow gestures, empty rituals that have replaced the meaningful ones by plain lip service on our rapid path towards an orthopraxic society. Both war and sexuality are not basic principles any more, but another outcome of a dysfunctional society, which replaces a set of values with a set of meaningless but comforting robotic activities, and offer a superficial outlet, satisfactory enough because it does not pursue a deeper meaning.

Grill has been interested in the issue of mediation and ambiguous perception of reality in previous bodies of work, including his web-based installation which raises issues of presence, absence and interaction, but this time mediation is seen from a new angle. It is a given that contemporary perception of history is altered by the filter of subjective experience; this is a larger cultural phenomenon with notable implications. For instance, it almost seems that the Gulf war could be understood better by playing video games than by watching the actual newscasts, because we saw little footage of the actual troops crossing the border and a lot of digital maps, arrows and bomb icons, having as a result a statement such as Baudrillard’s: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place2. Nowadays, the public seems to live most events by mediation: Bosnia, 9/11, and more recently Iraq, come across to millions of people worldwide by means of the broadcast image, talk shows or shocking online images which exist beyond geography and time and could have been taken anywhere, had it not been for a few negligible specifics. It is typical for humanity to take refuge in living by mediation, purging far-away disasters with the aid of a remote control. This time though, Grill’s discourse does not address the abstract issue of mediation and its consequences on shaping human perception, but focuses concretely on the current war situation, from the perspective of the two fundamental principles, male and female, and the way the public reacts to them.

What the artist tells us it that mediation does not soften reality. Instead, it somehow invades it pervasively, like a parasite, and it ends up replacing it, because its role is to make the bitter facts easier to digest: the glossy images look fun, heroic or anything else but tragic. And it also ultimately questions its validity. Reality is not about options, it just is, offering itself impartially to our judgment in its position of referent. But the system surrounding us offers preset options, and we react in a Pavlovian manner, volunteering immediately the requested reaction. Reality is often shaped into something familiar, because we do not want to deal with the real problem, but with a flattened image of it, carefully made up so its edge is gone, and what is left is a fuzzy, non-threatening familiar content. But then, how can one decide what is real and what not, since the real no longer serves as referent? It is true that an image is more powerful than a thousand words, but how can the image be trusted in the century of digital manipulation and fake news? Umberto Eco3 confirms from the point of view of the researcher that a photograph can lie to us, because the same chemical processes can produce an image of something that does not exist, and the doctored images in the media are an obvious proof of this statement. We live in an age of ambiguity, of half truths and altered imagery, where the quest for authenticity and identity has lead to a generalized crisis. Such a process is epitomizing the time bubble we live in, which is the parallel space generated by snippets of media images. It also marks the shift from real to hyper-real, which occurs when representation is replaced by the permanent simulation of a non-referential world, as Baudrillard stated 4.

We live in a world in permanent evolution and change due to the technological level, where artwork is often shaped with the permanent obsession of originality. The gender separation in text, visual arts or music does not exist so blatantly any more, because everything is transmitted through the same digital code. In fact, the separation between objective reality and its icons has become fuzzy. In such a context, it is not accidental that the images Grill uses are picked up from the TV or from the internet. All online images raise the issue of authenticity, first and foremost. If internet sex is indeed virtual, that is non-existent, why would the war be real? Or, on the contrary, if the war is real, then why would these women not be actually available? It is almost a contradiction in terms, but its reality cannot be doubted. The images are selected because they have been already circulating out there, because they are already part of the big reality-altering media industry and because of their déjà-vu impression. Placing them into a new semiotic system has changed their meaning completely, though. Their authenticity remains uncertain until we figure out the dimension of their referent. The separated images are intentionally not a creation of the artist: the creation comes from the entirely new and disturbing relationship between the parts. Grill’s digital collages create a new, but in the same time familiar pattern of reality, shaped from fragments deeply buried in our subconscious and always ready to resurface in a different sequence to create the hyper-reality, which is ethereal but in the same time stems like the original child of the times we live in.
The writing superimposed on all the characters comes across initially like a tattoo or maybe body painting, employed in old cults, but in fact it brings possible thoughts of the character to the surface. In the same time, the writing is not really readable, which plugs into the ambiguity over-present in Grill’s work. The viewer is reminded of the stigmata and is forced to find his or her own meaning, find the code which enables the reading. The aesthetic object becomes thus more complex, due to the added narrative dimension. But then, what meaning is the text really conveying to us? Since it is not readable, or, in semiotic terms, it is not decodable, because its signs are not directly associated to a known and accepted meaning, it only tells us that there could be a sense to all this, but it is hidden and needs to be decrypted, but one must first find the code. And until that happens, it could mean anything, maybe a new genetic code, or an alphanumeric translation of the message. Maybe it is a broken law, like in Franz Kafka’s Penal Colony, where the commandment is inscribed on the victim’s body by a complex machine, in an obsessive-compulsive ritual, until upon death the victim understands the meaning. Or maybe it refers to the papyri, ancient symbols of Astarte. It also reminds of Keith Haring’s first famous painting (London, 1982) of a primitive alphabet on the body of Grace Jones, documented in the superb photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. The ubiquitous text is not a meta-text though, and it does not serve to explain something about the image; on the contrary, it is intimately incorporated into the visual nexus of the artwork and it only adds to its complexity, asking additional questions, and it is another dimension of the visual object, the temporal one. Without it, its meaning would not be complete. Any image becomes thus an open text, offering itself to a variety of interpretations depending on the viewer’s capacity. The image of the woman in Grill’s artwork connotes thus the opera aperta5 of Umberto Eco, and each character becomes an apparently readable, but in fact eternally unreadable book, which can be subjected to myriads of possible interpretations, depending on the competence of its reader.
Today’s life is a recyclable continuum, a perpetuum mobile, tiresome in its monotone rhythm. We live in a frenzy of last moment information, 5-minute celebrity, live war and life spent online, shared by millions of users. Individual dramas have become simple digits moving on a computer screen. Short-term memory, minimal concentration and ready-made perceptions are the daily fare and sell well. We are left with reminders of a past which does not really matter because the only existing thing is the monotonously pixilated present. We become like Ulrich, Musil’s Man without Qualities, who feels that we know too much and no longer hear our inner voices: all the certainties have been wiped out without anyone noticing and replaced by a disturbing diversity of choice, with no single point one could focus on. Helmut Grill’s new series of work does not grant a possible solution, but prompts us first and foremost to define out the questions we should ask ourselves.

1. George Edward Moore, Principia Etica Cambridge University Press, UK, 2000 [1903]
2. Baudrillard, Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 1995, translated by Paul Patton, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
3 Eco, Umberto, La struttura assente, Milano: Bompiani, 1968
4. Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988.
5. Eco, Umberto, Opera aperta, Milano: Bompiani, 1972

© 2004 Dana Altman

Dana Altman is an independent theoretician and writer. She worked in research and teaching, studied linguistics and text theory at Exeter College, Oxford, UK and holds a doctorate in linguistics. Since 1997, she lives and works in New York, where she is assistant director of Westwood Gallery in SoHo, New York. She is co-editor of Artphoto [www.artphoto.ro], a contemporary art magazine dedicated to cutting edge photography and video art and author of a volume on poetry. She is currently working on a book of art readings. Lives and works in New York.