“Think the Opposite”. Remarks on Helmut Grill’s “Temples”

By Peter Lodermeyer


“Reality is irrelevant”. This sentence on Helmut Grill’s homepage, placed immediately next to his name, is a clear statement, hard and precise, like the blow of a hammer. Any person who works with digital photography, and what is more, assembles or composes his pictures from a myriad of individual motifs, found pieces of the most varying origins (Helmut Grill calls himself a “composer”), is not concerned with depicting reality. The Internet, as the contemporary, inexhaustible archive for digital images, poses an ideal treasure trove for Grill’s compositions. Grill’s artistic concept of the montage of digitally manipulated units is in a certain respect a reversal of classical photography. Roland Barthes’ famous dictum which states that the noema or the “essence” of photography is “it has been” is inextricably linked with the magic of classical photography, where the light reflected by the motifs leaves real traces behind on the film’s silver coating. In this sense, digital photography is photography now by name only. It is more its technically perfect simulation that refers to calculated digital units instead. Digital photos may be construed pixel for pixel, and thus, their impression of reality completely simulated. 

In this respect, digital photography is an ideal technology for the advertising industry. This is where Helmut Grill learned his trade. Starting from the digital manipulation of photos in the service of a deceptive business called advertising, at some point he created a deceptively real, dizzying medium of art. The photographic effect of reality is exactly how Helmut Grill’s digital montages work. Ultimately, this effect is based upon an acquired cultural technique, practiced since childhood, of being able to read or decode photographs and immediately be able to look at them with respect to their motifs, while the materiality of the photographs themselves is blended out, or at least repressed. Even if you notice very quickly that “something is not right” with Grill’s pictures, even if you are aware that the overall composition cannot be a depiction of reality, nevertheless as a viewer of the pictures you search out ever-smaller units that you can credit with being reality, ones you can supposedly trust. While you appropriate the pictures by gazing at them, trying to find out how the individual components relate to one another and where the breaks are or the connecting lines run between the individual fragments of a purported reality, perhaps you become aware that they create truths of an entirely different kind: Truths that tell us more, and different, things about our society, about our use of cultural signs, than a mere reproduction of nature could ever do. 


Helmut Grill works in series. In 2007, he began working on “The Refuge”, a succession of very odd houses, cafés, bars, hotels, brothels, and buildings with obscure purposes, behind whose facades mysterious and creepy things seem to happen, i.e. psychologically unfathomable black boxes of sorts. The landscape spaces in which these buildings were located soon became picture themes of their own. The backdrop spaces of the “Sceneries”, created from 2011 to 2014, sometimes spread out like panoramas, playing on the expectations, idealizations, and fantasy images of an untouched nature, which are then disappointed because they have been imbued or contaminated with numerous signs from everyday culture, the advertising and consumer worlds. With his new “Temples” series he started in 2015, the artist is now concentrating on interior spaces for the first time – namely, interior spaces that have been charged with the largest possible amount of content: abandoned, secularized church interiors (or pseudo-church spaces put together from individual elements in what is sometimes a bizarre mix of styles), which have been emptied of any religious symbolism – or so it would seem at first glance. Nearly all of these rooms display more or less strong evidence of decay: The plaster crumbles from the walls and ceiling, dirt lies on the floor and church pews, plants grow in the window niches, a glass ceiling shot through with cracks threatens to cave in. Although no one is visible in these rooms, nevertheless there are enough signs to indicate their presence, as if they had just left the room shortly and might return again at any moment. Burning candles, objects placed in the rooms, even on the profaned altars, cause us to think of strange, rather unholy rituals: Mickey Mouse figurines and Barbie dolls, time and again high heels, sex shop objects, works of art in miniature, and added to this, forgotten or misused bishop’s crosiers. The longer and more closely we look at these pictures, the more details and signs emerge. Walls, floors and rugs often bear the logos of fashion firms, and are covered with graffiti, stickers, and slogans. Linguistic signs, short texts, mostly catchy, simple ones like the sayings on motto-T-shirts, or quotes from song texts and band names (“fuck ART, let’s dance”), have been inscribed in places on the walls, sometimes as if with invisible ink. Mostly, we only notice them after we have looked at the picture several times. The most prominent cultural signs that have been shifted to the forefront of the “Temples” pictures, however, are the art works, paintings or objects by well-known artists, which have taken the place of the altarpieces that have disappeared. 


All of the works in the “Temples” series are set up according to the same pattern. The gaze always directly faces a front wall of the church interiors, this mostly being the wall on the same side as the altar. The symmetrical structure of the picture and the strong pull of the viewing axes towards a central perspective yield a clear focus on the art works placed in the middle (one exception is “Us is the Future”, where a whimsical bone candelabra hangs above the altar, the kind that actually exists in the Czech “Bone Church” in Kutná Hora). The artworks are, for the most part, paintings from Classical Modernism, or contemporary pieces: For example, these are paintings by artists such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, Jean Dubuffet, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basqiuat, but there are also objects of art such as a work from Damien Hirst’s “Pharmacy” series or one of Anish Kapoor’s typical colored concave mirrors. It is interesting that there is only one painting in the “Temples” that has an iconic, “artistic-religious status”, namely the “Mona Lisa” located in the center of the picture “Inhale Love”. Facing her – so to speak, representative for the viewer – is the rear-view figure of Mickey Mouse standing on an upholstered stool, a clear indication that the “Mona Lisa” has long since become a pop culture icon. Above her, in the flattened dome of the apse niche, a Chanel logo is flaunted, drawn as if with wet paint. There are surveillance cameras, Charlie-Chaplin heads, Jeff Koons’s sculpture “Balloon Flower”, shrunken to a miniature format, a distorted mini-Hitler grown broad – the multitude and heterogeneity of signs in this picture are confusing and do not allow us to just put everything into a plausible relationship. With this example of “Inhale Love” it becomes clear that Helmut Grill’s works do not function like iconographic rebuses. Even when we have found and identified all of the motifs and symbols hidden in the pictures, this in no way means that, in doing so, their significance is revealed to us automatically. The inconsistence, the confusion, the disparate character are all a vital part of their artistic strategy. The pictures do not come out like a mathematic equation, but rather pose ever-new questions because of the incompatibility of the individual elements. Helmut Grill said everything that needs to be said about this in an artist interview: “The thing all of the works have in common is that I ask questions rather than give answers. And I believe that is reached best when the picture has an inherent mystery and not everything is explained, and instead the viewer is challenged to think about what is actually to be seen there.” 


OK then, let us think about it. Would it not be easiest if we interpreted the “Temples” as being powerful images for the Christian faith’s dwindling ability to provide a binding meaning of life in our contemporary, post-industrial, post-modern, late capitalistic, enlightened and mature western societies? Above all in Europe, countless church buildings are being secularized, closed, and auctioned off in the Internet, converted into bars, bookstores, and discotheques. Alone in the Netherlands, the top of the list concerning this development, more than 100 churches are stripped of their religious function each year. And the fact that works of art are placed in the centers of the respective “Temples” – is this not an unmistakable indication that art has assumed a pseudo-religious position in our day and age? The vacuum that religion’s loss of meaning has left behind is being replaced with surrogates: The most important denomination is money, which repeatedly occurs in the “Temples” in the form of coins, bills, or dollar signs. Immediately related to this is consumerism as a capitalistic substitute for religion (this is indicated in the logos of luxury articles such as Louis Vuitton or Yves Saint Laurent, which show up in nearly every “Temple”), and last but not least the absolute placement of the ego. “ICH ICH ICH (I, I, I)” is written at the right on the wall of a hall church, at a place where in a circle all of the world’s religions and political worldviews have been listed. The eponymous “I am VIP” is proclaimed in glowing red letters on the front wall. Moreover, as if the message were not already more than clear, inscriptions on the front wall and altar screen underline this with the obsessional self-referential repetition: “me me me me me… it’s all about me”.


In addition to art, consumerism, money, and the ego there is: sex. In the “Temples” we find numerous allusions to this theme – high heels, condoms, sex toys, handcuffs covered with pink fur. It is most obvious in “Kneel here”, which shows a very run-down church interior, upon whose choir screens scribbled with graffiti in English and Khmer a few of the famous erotic sculptures from the Hindu Kandariya Mahadeva Temples have been placed. This amalgamation of sexuality and religion has been blasphemously translated into a Christian context with two statues, a perverse mixture between Madonna and sex doll. The entire building has been completely covered with pornographic wall drawings, and colorful condoms lie scattered across the floor. “Porn” written in neon and the sign for “sexit” entice the visitor to enter a scarcely enticing room in the back lit in red. The pornographic cult room is inextricably influenced by the bleakness of the dilapidated architecture. At any rate, this does not look like any cheerful, libertine place, celebrating its freedom from Christian sexual pessimism. The most magnificent detail in the room is still its “altarpiece”, Egon Schiele’s gold-framed “Embrace” from 1917, turned to an upright format.


A person who looks carefully at the “Temples” will realize that in no way has the religious symbolism been completely obliterated from these church interiors, contrary to what it seemed like at first glance. In “More, more, and more”, behind a portrait of the Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang, we glimpse part of a Byzantine mosaic that appears very faintly in the apse. We do not know whether it is in the process of disappearing or whether this is a phantom reappearance. Above the “altarpiece” we recognize the Christus Pantokrator and the abbreviation of the Greek name for Christ JC XC. In connection with the sad countenance of the Chinese painter, it suddenly becomes clear that his portrait form, the frontal view to the face, not only takes on a western, but above all a specifically Christian, image scheme. In Christian art, for a long time the frontal depiction had been reserved for Christ alone, a formula of “faciality”, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari trenchantly describe it in their book “Mille Plateaux”: “The face is Christ, the face is the typical European…” 

A further sign of religious symbolism seems to be the small white clouds that float as interior clouds in six of the thirteen “Temples”, similar to those found in photographs by Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde. The cloud is an ancient form of Divine appearance. Particularly in the Old Testament there are many places in the text that tell of how God appears, and at the same time conceals himself, in the form of a cloud. A random example is what happens in the dedication of the temple King Solomon had built: “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD” (I Kings 8: 10-11). By contrast, the clouds in the “Temples” are small, floating up close to the ceiling. Do these indicate the final leftover remains of Divine presence in the godforsaken Houses of God? Violating any kind of logic for lighting, they are lit from above, as if by supernatural light – with one exception: On one of the pictures, a yellowish light emanates from a shaft in the church floor, illuminating the cloud from below. The title of the picture provides a key:  “De Sade sends a light from down there”. What kind of a light is it that the “divine Marquis” emits in this case? The light of enlightenment? A reflection of the hellfire down there? In the background we recognize text fragments from de Sade’s infamous book “The 120 Days of Sodom” and on the round pillars there is a remarkable memento mori: the famous rat motif by English street artist Banksy, with one significant change, however. Instead of the words “you lie”, the rat holds up a sign bearing the words “you die”. 

A church interior, dedicated to the Marquis de Sade, arch-atheist and blasphemer – is this the ultimate reassessment of Christian values? But how does the “altarpiece”, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” from 1908/09, fit into this, its intimate, loving enmeshing of man and woman standing diametrically opposed to de Sade’s concept of sexuality characterized by drive and power? In the wall parts of the nave, above the arcade arches and written in mirror image capital letters (to the left in English and to the right in German) are the words “Think the opposite”, a literal and typographical allusion to the book “Whatever you think, think the opposite” by the American advertising guru Paul Arden. It is absolutely imperative that we take this advice to heart when looking at Helmut Grill’s “Temples”. What we see in these complex and contradictory works inevitably depends upon our own religious or philosophical point of view. When gazing at these alienations of Christian cult rooms, it is not irrelevant whether we mourn Christianity’s indisputable loss of significance in our societies as a great misfortune, register this soberly and from a distance, or whether we emphatically welcome this. Like every relevant and successful work of art, the “Temples” allow for new, unfamiliar ways of viewing. When looking at these certainly provocative pictures, it is a fascinating experience to reflect upon our own point of view and then – even if only for a moment – think the opposite.