Margit Zuckriegl
Between Hope and Passion

Buildings between night and day, on the threshold of dawn or in the evening light, at the meeting point between barren steppe and romantic mountains – the hideaways of Helmut Grill’s Refuge-Series are ambivalent places endowed with secrecy and magic. These are images with a fundamental sense of insecurity – yet they speak of honoured promises on the one hand and threatening nightmares on the other. They flit between Hope and Passion; in a time marked by economic crisis and hope-filled political platitudes and in which human responsibility has been thrown overboard, traditional values can be snuffed out like a candle.

The Refuge – the place where one can feel safe – can also describe the hut at the foot of the mountains or the shelter near the peak. But the locations in Grill’s built universe are another sort of place; they merely play with the meaning that they carry as if it were a badly stuck label or a smudged piece of graffiti and any connotations only seem to mislead: that which the viewer believes that he sees is not the content of the photographic image. The photographic artist Helmut Grill uses the security of perception in order to reveal the abyss above which such perception teeters. He uses an apparently easily legible visual language in order to trap the viewer: the real image is not that which one sees but rather that which lies between the image and the act of seeing. Helmut Grill works with a wide canvas on which longing and fear, experiences and visions can prosper – a very personal canvas for the stock of images which each of us carries around with us and which each of us can access in our own personal way.

Here we also find an image of perfect nature or the notion of a secure home, the desire for a sense of romance, an uplifting sensation and a safe refuge. In other words – an idyll! This is the place which was
identified as long ago as the 18th century as lying at the end of one’s journey through the rigours of daily life, the vanishing point defined by longing and introspection.

The “idylls” of Helmut Grill contain all the necessary characteristics: a romantic location set in unspoilt nature, a lonely place well away from the hectic of the daily round, magical light in a twilight garden – all the features which give a sense of cosiness to the stressed 21st century citizen; gently illuminated windows, warmly glowing lanterns, old-fashioned brick walls and a house type reminiscent of childhood days spent playing with model railways. But this curiously composed idyll is fundamentally compromised by the signs on the buildings: are these seedy hotels, suburban brothels or badly camouflaged meeting places for spies? We are reminded of the buildings left standing at the end of a disaster movie – soulless and unoccupied. They are mostly hotels or cafés, that is to say – places of temporary occupation. No one lives here, no guest is invited inside, and here a neon sign casts its punchy name onto the surroundings: American Dream, Hotel Passion, Café Heaven. The name threatens: as in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” something dubious hovers behind the façade of the dark motel, as in Ang Lee’s “Icestorm” something inexplicable is happening in the host’s house on the stormy night.

Helmut Grill’s Refuges seek to decode the manifold messages which we receive from the media, the easy promises and deep insecurities as well as the disappointments despite which – or perhaps because of which – we are constantly seeking refuge in the utopian symbols of the idyllic. More than this, they are an ironic comment on the simple desire to combine risky adventure with romantic kitsch or seedy eroticism with the soppy romance of mainstream cinema – to combine things previously regarded as utterly incompatible into a cynically stylistic utopia, exemplified by the way in which the Islamic architecture of Café Europa holds up a delicious mirror to the “don’t mess with us” mentality of the minaret controversy. And they articulate the desire to play with irritating contrasts and surprising effects.

Grill’s photographs undergo complex combination and digital manipulation, master prints are graphically and artistically reworked, re-saved and printed; like the connotations inherent in their content, these prints themselves occupy a hybrid and precarious in-between state; always ready to change and never safely classified. In addition to this, Helmut Grill builds models based on these photographs: the transformation of the concept of the flat image into a three-dimensional, sculptural object widens his creative options; real materials such as wood, metal, plaster and neon tubes contribute to the sense of reality: their very banality enhancing the magical and unreal impression of the object as a whole. At the heart of Grill’s work is a virtual repository of elements collected from the internet, films, earlier photographs, his own paintings and the infinite image library of artistic history. He often decorates his complexly encoded scenarios with quotations from the art world or the bustling world of the art auction: the world’s most expensive picture in a dingy front garden? Jeff Koons’ rabbit as sole inhabitant of an enchanted idyll? The jolly colourful graffitis of Keith Haring adorning a house in which, “anything could have happened” or, as Helmut Grill says “in which anything can disappear as if it has been sucked in, in the same way as much is not to be said or seen. Even the writings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus were made to disappear by the prudish mores of the Catholic Church, yet in my Hotel Kepos the epicurean garden is given new life” – but this is a garden house whose shutters are closed and which stands isolated on a windy hilltop, a place indeed between here and there, night and day, Hope and Passion.