Lars Eidinger | GOOD GOSH
From Starbuck Cups to Religious Contemplation (and back). Lars Eidinger's Pointed Images.
Klaus Speidel on GOOD GOSH by Lars Eidinger
Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise [...] which will make it less acute. Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too intense is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically. (R. Barthes)
We can use Lichtenberg’s writings as the most amazing divining rod; wherever he makes a joke, a problem is hidden. (J. W. Goethe)
Lars Eidinger creates pointed images. Like an aphorism or a joke, almost every one of his photographs makes a point. To what extent this becomes a punctum, a point that affects or indeed “pierces” us, as Roland Barthes has put it in his photo theory Camera Lucida, has, naturally enough, just as much to do with us, with how much we open up and let ourselves be touched by the images. In analogy with aphorisms, the danger with these succinct images is that we do not take them seriously enough and are happy with just discovering their point. But to shrug them off (or revel in them) as simply ironic, means however to deprive them of their explosiveness and fails to give them the appreciation they deserve. Contrary to “system-conforming” irony, Eidinger demands a new earnestness. This, however, does not mean that his images are not funny, for — as G.K. Chesterton noted as early as 1906 — we are deceiving ourselves when we think that “funny is the opposite of serious.” He explains:
Whether a man choses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he choses to tell the truth in French or in German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question whether he preaches it in prose or verse.
Applied to Eidinger, this means that the grotesque surface of an image, like two stacked Starbucks cups holding a holy picture, may hide a serious reality. Like Lichtenberg’s aphorisms, Eidinger’s images are a divining rod: where he makes a joke, a problem is hidden. Superficially, the Starbucks cup picture speaks about poverty, where the holy picture, talisman and prayer, invokes Christian charity to be expressed in the form of a coin. But more deeply, it’s about graphically strong icons which appropriate a sacral pictorial language. “Honestly coined and cast”, the green Starbucks siren here outshines the holy picture, a poor image from the predigital era, a copy of a copy of a copy. Yet, we’d be making a mistake if we were to believe that Starbucks is just about coffee and profits. Like every other billion-dollar enterprise, Starbucks has a sense of its calling: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit”, is Starbucks’ Corporate Mission (“mission” from missio [16th century]: to send out the Holy Spirit). All this – and much more – lies hidden in a small little picture.
It is only in the photograph that the facts can be read, that meaning becomes manifest, as Eidinger does not hide his thoughts behind the kind of artificial noise that often makes political art seem so unpolitical. Like Eidinger’s Brecht quotes in Everyman, his pictures are political without being prosaic. At the same time, not all of them are equally direct and understandable. Here too, Nietzsche’s warning needs to be heeded:
An aphorism honestly coined and cast has not been deciphered simply because it has been read through; rather its interpretation must now begin, and for this an art of interpretation is needed.
The punctum – which Barthes claims a photographer could never create intentionally, for it always lies in the eye of the beholder – here precedes the photograph. Eidinger captures the coincidences which affect him and claims though doing so that they’re not merely coincidental, but reveal something. He thus transforms a state of affairs into a sign or an index; for instance, the symptom of a society that deceives itself, placing beggar statues at the place of those in need. The set of facts and circumstances preceding the pictures never has the meaning that they acquire once they become a photograph – and herein lies their allure. In many cases, the facts are meaningless, if not utterly dull: tourists have their picture taken in a church; a homeless man lies in front of a mattress store; a businessman stares through a lattice fence onto a building site; a confessional converted into a shop peddles religious items; beach ball rackets, scrubbers and crucifixes lie in a banana crate...
But what is GOOD GOSH as a corpus of pictures all about ? The themes broached are where belief in capitalism has gone; religiosity and bigotry; the contrast between values and reality and the tension between the poverty of the ones and the wealth of the others.
When a situation gets to him, Eidinger does not always keep his distance and some photographs look as if he’s looted the scene from the protagonists. And yet he does not lack of tact and only his photos of displays of disrespect are disrespectful. Even though they are all part of a thematic complex, it would be a mistake to measure them all by the same yardstick. The motifs vary and are dealt with differently. Two work groups stand out in regards to form and content: the photographs of sacral art and shots of believers praying or in dialogue with religious art (which apparently can also take place in a museum – provided one doesn’t stare in the other direction and turn one’s back on Veronese). Eidinger may see himself as an atheist, but he certainly doesn’t poke fun at religion and there is no antireligious militancy. But the “wonder beyond belief” (Navid Kermani) of those of a different faith or no faith at all is also not expressed in his photographs. Unlike his other works, the images of religious contemplation exude awe, perhaps even longing.
Lastly, like an aphorism in a collection, every photograph in an exhibition is surrounded by others, entering diverse relationships and opening up further interpretative possibilities. As a counterpart to the scenes of intimate encounter, we should look at pictures of religious works that have either been demoted or go unnoticed: images of Christ in plastic wrap, in a crate, or even an angel figure, hidden by rubbish and reaching for the bin – these form a third work group. These groups act as important antipoles: while the demoted artworks call into question any effusive idealisation of the religious encounters, the scenes of the encounters make it seem conceivable that the banana crate is not the final stage on the way to definitive destruction, but a temporary deactivation of the religious symbol: could a cheap Jesus figure not rise up at the very next moment and start to speak to someone? Presumably, it is not by accident that it is the aesthetically strongest artworks which move us most, whether a melancholic Mary Magdalen in Mexico or a shining Starbucks siren in Salzburg. Like Andy Warhol forty years ago, Lars Eidinger is working through these questions, but quasi in passing.
Klaus Speidel, 2022
Klaus Speidel, PhD, works as an art critic and curator. He also teaches at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and the Paris College of Art.
14.07. – 26.08.2022