Creating Diabolical Goodness on Earth
or The Heavenly Work of Miguel Rothschild
Curses – Violence – Silence . . .
by Dr. Maria Cecilia Barbetta
Oh, for the heavenly childhood of days gone by! The Pink Panther and Donald Duck were the goodies – and the characters punished by Superman the baddies; Batman always arrived in time to foil the plans of his arch enemy, the Joker; Popeye, fortified with his secret weapon, spinach, regularly whacked his antagonist, Brutus, over the head; and Tom chased Jerry day in day out … Things were clear in this universe; there was order, there were rules – and that was good.
In the recent works of Miguel Rothschild this ideal world has become unhinged. Here we witness the paradise of childhood, together with its system of values, crumbling away before our very eyes. One image depicts our much loved comic heroes and antiheroes being punched from the left and the right, from above and below by scores of unidentified fists (Great Misfortune, 2003/4); in another image we are confronted by the whole spectrum of cartoon characters frantically cursing all and sundry (Damn!, 2003/4). Thatís right, the ones supposed to be setting an example are ranting and raving instead. Rothschildís series attests to a sense of absolute disorientation – those who should know better know absolutely nothing at all. In a further image, the villains, the heroes and antiheroes, the goodies and baddies from the world of cartoons fire questions at each other. Although they literally clog the air with question marks – big ones and little ones, fat ones and skinny ones – not a single answer appears (Great Doubts, 2003/4). Where the viewer and art lover might initially respond with astonishment, he or she, too, is soon left gagging.
Curses – Violence – Silence … These key words encapsulate the content of the aforementioned compositions. The second of the three motifs is afforded more space in Rothschildís work, since, in contrast to the first and third topoi (each the subject of one image, 40 x 50 cm and 90 x 150 cm respectively), the topos of violence is represented in two separate images (each 150 x 100 cm). Here the biography of the artist offers a degree of insight, for „the Miguel Rothschild story begins with a beating.“ 1 Strong, masculine hands hold the new-born child upside down, smacking the bottom of the artist-to-be. And thus Rothschildís history appears to be at one with the history of humanity which inevitably begins „with the ordinary misfortune“ of being expelled from the paradise of the womb into the cold, hard world outside.2 Yet, right from the opening credits of his film of seventy-three flip-books, the author makes it clear that he neither is, nor is he destined to become, an ordinary human being.
The protagonist of Killer Tears (1999), Miguel Rothschild, is a neo-fantastic antihero.3 Unable to cry from birth, he suffers his way through life, never once shedding a tear, until one day, unexpectedly, „the pressure of years of pent-up tears can be contained no longer.“ 4 Tears finally pour forth from Rothschildís eyes, tears with fantastic powers of two distinct kinds. On the one hand, they are deadly weapons (in the course of the film a number of passers-by are killed, including the detective hot on the murdererís trail), and on the other hand, they enable the previously unsuccessful, largely unknown artist and antihero to create wonderful works of art. For when Miguel sits down at his easel, his tears pierce holes into the poorly painted canvases, suddenly transforming him into a world-famous master, into „the founder and leading figure of sad art […], which we have since come to regard as one of the most significant movements of art in the late 20th century.“5
It is not only the human body and the artistís thin canvases that prove vulnerable in Rothschildís post-modern film. Indeed there is one phenomenon which, more than any other, becomes riddled with holes, namely the reality (Rothschild = Rothschild) of fiction. Although the plot is rooted in tragedy, it is hilariously comical; the story is a persiflage of the myth of the murderous artistic genius.6
On the Artistic Vein of a Noble Artist and Other Metamorphoses
„FAUST. Ah, with such gentlemen as you
The name often conveys the essence too,
Clearly enough; we say Lord of the Flies,
Destroyer, Liar – each most fittingly applies.
Well then, who are you?“
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust: A Tragedy
In Killer Tears Rothschild not only stages himself by deconstructing his own identity. He also seems, albeit not without a degree of irony, to adhere to the formula of nomen est omen. He turns his pleasant-sounding, highly connotative surname into a veritable trade mark in a work entitled Rothschild Ultra-Sensitive (1996) – the name of a premium (how could it be otherwise?) variety of condoms. In another instance his noble (noble?) ancestry provides a pretext for painting a triad of red portraits with his precious (precious?) blood: one of Faust, another of the young Gretchen and one of Mephistopheles, behind which the artistís own facial features are discernible.7 By producing such diabolically good works, Miguel Rothschild endeavours to deliver proof of [his] Artistic Vein (1995).8
He makes a second pact with the devil in a photographic novel, which takes up motifs from the genre of the Gothic novel and ironises them at the same time. In Rothschild Demands His Inheritance (1992) the artist performs a dual role, playing both a diabolical figure and Miguel, the mediocre artist from Buenos Aires, who one day travels to Europe in the hope of changing the course of his otherwise meagre destiny. He wants to let the whole world know that he has blue blood coursing through his veins, and to achieve fame and fortune at last.
Paradise on Earth or The Wretched, Infernal Search
„And then [the Lord] granted it. And then Michael the angel came […]“
Jacobus de Voragine: The Golden Legend
Sometimes he is on the same side and other times he battles against him. Either way, Argentinean-born Miguel Rothschild has always had something to do with the devil. And even though he occasionally alludes to and juggles with his German-Jewish background in his work,9 a considerable portion of his oeuvre nevertheless reveals a profound preoccupation with Christian mythology. In The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, one of the most popular and widely read anthologies of Christian hagiography in the Middle Ages, there is a passage about Michael, the archangel, which Miguel (Spanish for Michael), the artist, seems to have taken to heart: „He [the archangel] was prince of the synagogue of the Jews, but now he is established of our Lord, prince of the church of Jesu Christ.“ 10 Nomen est omen – well, that was clear from the start!
In Christian mythology the archangel Michael is the figure who „[fights] with the dragon and his angels, and casting them out of heaven, [has] a great victory.“11 Entrusted to watch over the soul of the „blessed virgin Mary“,12 he is stationed at the gates of heaven to receive the souls of the saints. Michael is even empowered to admit Adam, the father of humanity, despite his earlier expulsion from the Garden of Eden.13 And it is due to this fact, and indeed to a great deal more, that Christian mythology ordained Michael as the leader of the „holy and honoured angels“ and the „guardian of paradise“ for all eternity.14
Whereas the heavenly Michael has successfully reigned throughout the ages, leading the just and the righteous to the place they belong, the earthly Miguel wanders about on his perennial search, drawing ever closer to despair – it is as if the devil had a finger in every pie. And in his roaming, Miguel takes care to document his peregrinations on film, as we see in his large-format photograph of a lamppost bearing the street sign, Paradiesstrafle (1998) or Paradise Street. Directly behind the lamp, a desolate meadow stretches off into the distance; in the background we see bushes, withered trees and a few houses. Another photo, also taken from a street curb, features a similarly promising sign: El paraÌso, 4 (kilometres) (1999). Miguel walked these four kilometres and has walked many more in pursuit of artistic gratification. Much can be read in his work, such as the painstaking documentation of this – of his – infernal search for paradise on earth. He filled an area of 10 x 2.5 m with a work in progress compilation of around 250 small-format photographs picturing „heavenly“ shops (1998-2004) – Hundeparadies, Blumenparadies, Spielparadies … (Dog Paradise, Floral Paradise, Play Paradise …). A further work, entitled ParaÌso, featured a collection of products based on a similar concept (1998-2004): Die Paradiesischen (the finest of fine chocolates by Leysieffer) alongside Paradies (the pillow for a good nightís sleep) alongside Paradise (exotic shower gel and deodorant spray) alongside Paradiescreme by Dr. Oetker in lemon, strawberry, chocolate or crËme caramel flavour alongside …
In Killer Tears the fictitious Miguel Rothschildís fantastic constitution paves the way for him to become an insatiable artist and serial killer. And even in the real world, the authentic Miguel Rothschild maintains a strange attachment to serial modes of work. His works in progress operate like anamorphoses. On the one hand, they immediately betray their incompleteness and, in their elements of tristesse and kitsch, testify to a sense of hopelessness and human – all too human – mediocrity. On the other hand, through his tireless searching and assiduous compiling, Rothschild plants a seed of hope within his audience that the many pars might one day bear fruit, finally invoking the toto.15
The artist shows himself to be truly obsessed with the Garden of Eden, this site of pleasure and bliss. He searches unremittingly for it among us, fervently lamenting the loss of paradise. In The Expulsion from Paradise (1997) he shows how his fellow suffering artists (Pol de Limbourg, Giovanni di Paolo, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Holbein et al) have expressed this divine punishment in their painting over the decades and throughout the different epochs of art history. In a further work he documents the way Saint Sebastian, „the exemplary sufferer“ (Susan Sontag) or the stylised embodiment of the tormented artist, is represented in his martyrdom, his body punctured by arrows (Saint Sebastian, 1996).16 For this series, as for The Expulsion from Paradise, Rothschild employed a copy print process to transfer the tableaux of the famous masters onto backgrounds he had especially prepared for the purpose. In order to precipitate a happy (sic!) ending to the process of preparing the latter, Rothschild schooled himself in the art of patience. Days turned into months as he painstakingly and carefully mounted one Band-Aid after another, side by side, row upon row.17
Lusts of the Flesh and Band-Aids
„By weeping, I want to impress someone, to bring pressure to bear upon someone (ëLook what you have done to meí). It can be – as is commonly the case – the other whom one thus constrains to assume his commiseration or his insensibility quite openly […] By my tears, I tell a story, I produce a myth of grief […]“
Roland Barthes: A Loverís Discourse
„[…] The archangel Michael appeared to him and said: ëWaste no toil or tears trying to obtain oil from the tree of mercy […]“
Jacobus de Voragine: The Golden Legend
The Lachrymal System (1996) is portrayed by Miguel Rothschild with scientific exactitude. The diagram was sourced by the artist in a medical treatise, as with his depictions of human nerve tracts in The Nervous Systems (1996), the oral cavity in Munch Revival (1996) and the brain in Lateral Exposure of the Brain (1996). In these representations the skin is never fully removed, but merely opened and folded back, such that the human interior – the muscle tissue or the arterial system – becomes visible. Yet these works are not about the appearance of the internal and external organs of the body. Neither are they concerned with the physical pain of the dissected person, but rather with the human soul, with the suffering that Rothschild once again seeks to heal through the innocent, or perhaps even resigned gesture of adhesive bandages. The backgrounds of the images, comprised of row upon row of Band-Aids, symbolise – as we saw in both The Expulsion from Paradise and Saint Sebastian – the „existential exposure as the condition of human existence.“18
Where medicine has the capacity to deliver a detached scientific representation of the function of the lachrymal or central nervous systems, Rothschild uses these representations to create a gripping mise-en-scËne of flowing tears, agonising screams and strained nerves, or, in other words, a barely controllable corporeal drama.
Vulnerability and defencelessness are feelings to which human beings only give way when they are in love. Roland Barthes defines love as being „similar to a state of skinlessness“.19 In the fragment entitled „Flayed“ he writes of „the particular sensibility of the amorous subject, which renders him vulnerable, defenceless to the slightest injuries.“20 In some of his works, Miguel Rothschild takes this notion very literally. He built an armchair, for example, which promises its audience an all-over epidermal sensation. Its entire surface is composed of latex mouths, each moulded from the shape of kissing lips (The Untreatability of Love II, 1995). Rothschild also designed and constructed a single bed where the mattress, blanket and pillow were similarly made up of latex mouths (The Untreatability of Love III, 1996). In order to realise both of these unconventional ideas, the artist cast hundreds of moulds from his own mouth. With these inventions he created a paradoxical love nest that he generally exhibits in sparse, otherwise empty spaces.
Also included in the array of odd furniture are four pillows (Four Nights, 1996): one is covered with Band-Aids, the second is composed of latex ears (moulded from the artistís own ears), the third features a colour print of a masculine chest (the artistís own), and the fourth is covered (as with other works in the series) in latex mouths and kisses.
Here the object of affection – oneself (the artist himself) or someone else – encounters a devotion that is absolute. The desire of entering into familial bliss nevertheless remains a double-edged undertaking. In fact, the only piece in this surrealistic series that unmistakably refers to a relationship between two people as such is a double bed, which, rosy pink in colour, appears seductively inviting from a distance. On closer inspection, however, the bed turns out to be exclusively composed of wounds bedecked with Band-Aids (The Untreatability) of Love I, 1994).
Family Balance or The Unbearable Lightness of Happiness
„As much as human beings are inclined to lose their lust for life at the first appearance of pain, it can return just as quickly when the pain subsides. Pain is reminiscent of the fervour of existence, it is a ëmemento morií tracing back to the essence.“21 And thus an amorous defeat can frequently be followed by a new infatuation, where all of a sudden you are half crazy with love again. Indeed the person affected becomes a virtual witness to the ensuing loss of balance and reason. A series of works and performances by the artist does justice to this theme:
The Extraction of the Stone of Folly (1996) is the title of a work by Miguel Rothschild, which references Hieronymus Bosch. On the lid of a little red jewellery box is a print of the painterís motif of the same name. On the inside there is a bubble tube from a spirit level (which has been extracted from the crazy head).
Levelled Spirits (1996) is a work comprising two hats, each with a bubble tube from a spirit level sewn onto it. They recall the performance We Could Be Synchronised in which Rothschild and a female partner stood back to back for four hours, their objective being the preservation of balance.
The Perfect Harmony of the S. Family (1997) consists of two large chairs of equal size placed alongside two smaller ones. Each chair was constructed entirely from spirit levels, all in perfect equilibrium.
The fact that the work is really concerned with familial happiness and togetherness, however, is first revealed by Rothschild in his most recent film (in a multi-faceted, more detailed mode), which was conceived as an installation of sculptural objects. Entitled The Mustermann Family (2000-2003), both the work and its name satirise the notion of the „model family“. Here, once again, Miguel Rothschild metamorphoses into Miguel Rothschild. From this perspective, the Trauma of an Unattached Artist – which is the projectís subtitle – is narrated as a mixture of melodrama, B-movie, cartoon and comedy. As with Killer Tears, the synopses on the covers of the sixty-seven flip-books offer an insight into the story. The film starts rolling the moment the viewer starts flipping.
Erika, Miguelís ex, has found true happiness since she left him. Happiness, in this world, goes hand in hand with Egon Mustermann, the model husband, and manifests itself in the form of a model home, replete with two model children. Yet Miguel, or „Mr Sadness“, has no time for models and pseudo-perfection.22 Erikaís idyll, in his opinion, has to be phoney – „[s]he must have been drugged to be playing along with a farce like this.“23 He – „[s]ome say Miguel was a martyr …“ – resolves to „sacrifice his life for her, to rescue her from the house and the constraints she must be suffering.“24 Yet again, Miguel sets out to change the world on both a micro and macro level: „Listen! Iím not a wimp! I have a critical mind. Iím an artist, and it is the duty of the artist to critique society …“25 Not only does he have to fight Mr Mustermann. Indeed the entire „Little House on the Prairie“ world stages a fantastic revolt against him – Miguel has to go into battle against Mr Proper and Polyboy, two housewife idols of television advertising. He is pursued by a carnivorous IKEA table, and even the marzipan god figurine, which has been keeping watch over the cake baked by Erika with „Paradise Baking Powder by Cameo“, suddenly springs to life and searches for a way out of the chaos.26 In the end, Erika drowns Miguel in the bathtub (while she is hunched over the edge of the bath, her heartbreakingly bitter tears spill forth, flooding the tub and drowning Miguel)27 and subsequently throws herself out the window. It doesnít look like thereíll be any happy reunion for these two before the sweet hereafter!
Of course the road leading there is long, and must also be traversed by the viewers as they progress through the installation. Some of the flip-books are attached to a board which runs along the wall, linking the various sections of the installation. However, most are placed on a table top featuring a floor plan of the ideal home. Each room is treated individually; the flip-books are placed in the rooms where the respective action takes place. In addition, the faÁade, the sections and structures of the entire apartment block are depicted on the walls of the exhibition space. Inspired by the aesthetics of architectural model building, these objects initially come across as conceptual, as exceedingly cool and detached.
Suspense arises with the events that transpire inside the apartment. Only after the viewer has made her/his way through the installation, first passing by a photograph of the Mustermannís doorbell, does a gulf open up between illusion and reality. Here the viewer becomes witness to a hard-core love drama complete with marital disputes, near glass-shattering screams, floods of tears, a murder, and the heroineís subsequent plunge from the second-storey window into the void below.
Just as darkness was separated from light at creation and heaven was separated from earth, so humanity continues to strive to distinguish between good and evil, to differentiate between desire and pain, friend and foe, pleasant and unpleasant. Miguel Rothschild plays with these oppositions in each of his works, all the while – as elaborated here in detail – dispensing with simplistic, clear-cut visions. In assessing his artistic practice, we cannot but deem him „a negating spirit“, one who naturally, like all others of his ilk – how could it be otherwise? – is bound to encounter „sympathy“ (Mircea Eliade) in heaven:
THE LORD. […]
Among the spirits who negate,
The ironic scold offends me least of all.
Man is too apt to sink into mere satisfaction,
A total standstill is his constant wish:
Therefore your company, busily devilish
Serves well to stimulate him into action. – 28
Dr. Maria Cecilia Barbetta was born in 1972 and studied German in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Awarded a DAAD doctoral scholarship, she completed her Ph.D. in 2000 in the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Free University Berlin, with a thesis entitled Poetik des Neo-Phantastischen: Patrick Süßkinds Roman „Das Parfum“ (Königshausen and Neumann). She currently lectures at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and is employed as an academic intern in the art exhibitions department of the Museumspädagogischer Dienst Berlin.