Falling and Pleasing: Between Heaven and Earth

by Beatrice von Bismarck © 2015

They emerge out of the darkness to the viewers: manifold ornaments in all colors, rhythms, and shapes, often including ethereal beings, angels, Mary or Christ figures, and saints. They seem to be assembled of countless dot-like color particles. The black gives them hold, allowing the paper not only to take up the motifs familiar from stained glass windows, but also their diaphanous effects. Punched out pieces of the window picture take the place of the shimmering, unfocused stained glass, pieces cut using the hole puncher. The holes are what reveal the sacral depiction, permitting adoration. As if they opened the space before the image towards its depths, they enable “revelation,” the Offenbarung that gives the series its title. And as if this celestial perspective required the earthly fall from grace as its constitutive counterpart, the punched out confetti-like dots lie on the floor—multicolored, melancholic, unavoidable collateral victims in the service of religious enlightenment.
What Miguel Rothschild surveys in his work is nothing less than the space between heaven and earth. Here, in the realm between the sacred and the profane, the divine and the earthly, is where he places his visual language, a visual language that lends pictorial form to metaphors and knows how to translate the literal into plays on words. Rothschild develops his engagement with the power of images. He is less interested in visual politics than in the implications and entanglements in which pictures can capture us. The power with which pictures can approach the eye of their counterpart, before the viewer can actively capture them, describes one important axis of this mutual dependency. It plays with subject and object, with viewing on the one hand and entering the gaze on the other; it allows the active and the passive components of the gaze relationship to ensnare one another. Who looks at the sky, sees stars; what can be done with a sky that can see its own stars; how does the sky direct its gaze if it is able to see stars? Do the stars appear to the sky as a delirious dream caused by a blow and if so, where were the stars beforehand? Are they only revealing themselves now? Are the nails that mark the stars there to force them to stay? Or do they serve to make the sky remain sleepless, as in Insomnia, never allowing the stars to be lost from its gaze and thus preventing their disappearance?
Rothschild’s works open into the space, regardless of their medium. Not just nails, but also holes, thread, hair, straw, or bandages, double panes of glass and wooden frames link the surfaces of his image objects with the areas in front of and behind them. They stretch down to the feet of the viewer, suggest backrooms of the visual space, a light source on the rear of what is shown. They insist that they never appear as a surface alone, but only manifest in combinations which then assemble a spatial framework. They are metaphors with the help of which the superficial is inseparably linked to the unfathomable, cryptic, or remote: the holes burnt into the surface of the image in Looking for Persephone allow us to think of melting snow, which announces the change of the seasons and Persephone’s return from Hades to the earth’s surface. The browned perforation recalls the violence of her abduction and suggests not only a gaze from our world down to the world below, but also provides the channels through which the goddess of fertility, damned to move between the two realms every six months, undertakes her journeys. Underworld and winter, picture background and spatial extension of the white pictorial surface intersect.
As in this work, in Rothschild’s art the real world always stands alongside its other. Longings, utopias, magic, and belief—with which humanity creates a reality that in potentialis possesses better qualities than the given—saturate his image creations in various ways. They summon sites of longing and desire, sometimes more profane, sometimes more sacred, giving hope room to develop. That these sites are themselves always already social constructions, discursive formations that place their bets on the prospects of the enraptured, is something that Rothschild’s works never allow us to forget. For they stage not depictions of locations or re-creations of stories handed down by the canonic narratives of the Christian religion, the ancient belief in gods, or modern projections onto nature, but rather present their “made-ness” in the image. The series on Revelations takes up the aesthetic means with which the cathedral builders once tried to transform the presence of the divine into the colorful glow of light-filled glass windows to enable the sacred space to make divine revelation imaginable, plausible, or even concrete. With the materialized beams of light that fall through Rothschild’s depictions of windows and fall from them as confetti, he transforms the abstract illuminating power into the concrete components of architectural objectives. What comes to the foreground here, as it were, is not so much revelation itself, but the way in which it is shown, the techniques used, and the purpose to which this took place—Christian teaching and the confirmation of belief. While the religious figures and events represented attest to divine contact, the windows on which they appear are, in contrast, the media through which this contact can take place. This last quality of aesthetic translation, the fabrication of transcendental moments of experimentation, is Rothschild’s focus. How to illustrate a revelation that by definition excludes permanent visual representation; how to capture a mystery in the image whose very nature refuses cognition; how to conjure up an Arcadia when it never existed and draws its evocative power from this very non-existence; how can a utopia, whose impossibility of realization is essential, be implemented in material, artistic objects? These issues are reflected in Rothschild’s work, not to offer solutions, but to express the very desire for such solutions, the desire for an overcoming of the earthly, of fate and death and the tie to matter—but also the unrealizability of such longings, for transience, decay, and this-worldly contingency are always inscribed in the work. For example, Et in arcadia ego shows less an ideal state of nature than its passing, while paradise remains a simple marketing promise and the ecclesiastical mystery loses all character of promise in the dots of confetti. And so the Fates fly across the electric lines, hanging in the open, that link the houses in Buenos Aires, wiring the Argentinean residential area and, corresponding to their quality as goddesses of fate, entangling the worldly cityscape in an order of tragic inescapability.
Rothschild leaves no doubt that we are the ones that attribute to these notions their extraordinary power. He stages these processes of attributing a supramundane quality. Here what is represented remains manmade, and so it can always lose its special status. The transformation of history into myths and legends, the conversion of artworks into icons, the exaltation of human beings into heroes and stars is not necessarily permanent, but can always be lessened or even rejected. Prestige, fame, reputation, glory, and nimbus are fleeting. Glamour and glory, feelings of victory and crowning moments pass, what remains are the remnants of memory in the colorful mounds of confetti. Fama—both rumor and fame at the same time—leaves those she assails with only golden crumbles. The glamour of Hollywood is reduced to the decaying scaffolding of cinema architecture. Former glory and current disillusion lie close to one another in the way in which Rothschild treats all that is attributed the status of the extraordinary.
In this way, he has his figures fall one by one—divinities, icons, and legends of art history. They fall and have to become earthly, human, burdened with the material inconveniences of life. As if they suffered under the pain taken too literally to which they owe their fame and notoriety, threads of tears cascade to the floor from reproductions of portraits of praying Marys and martyred martyrs. Saint Sebastian is not just provisionally patched up by Band-Aids, they actually constitute his very being as a figure, in all their poor materiality. As in Hitchcock’s The Birds, representations of the Holy Spirit hover in the skies, not in comforting, but threatening guise. Edvard Munch’s Scream swings from the ground to the ceiling, the accordion-like multiple reproduction of the motif of the silent mouth translating sound to body. These subjects have all fallen from the Olympus of art history to the depths of a literal, material everyday life. Suffering, pain, and threat become palpable. As if the symbolic aspect of these images could be grasped in concrete terms. It is this literalness with which Rothschild disturbs the all too familiar and secure. This includes what is recognized by art history, or more precisely, those aspects that for art history legitimize the extraordinary importance placed on an artwork. To this extent, the dotted application of paint with which pointillism dissected color perception and for which this artistic movement is attributed historical importance becomes Rothschild’s focus. The elevated dots of paint of Paul Signac are replaced by dot-like gaps, punched holes that form a new color formation on the floor. Or he inverts the art-historical meaning of Yves Klein’s legendary Leap into the Void by taking it literally and allowing Klein, cut out as a paper figure, to actually fall hundreds of times over, again and again. Falling, it seems, is the unavoidable consequence for icons of art history subjected to Rothschild’s appropriations. Falling becomes a form of movement to parody the basic elements of the aesthetic canon in the Western world.
But part of Rothschild’s interpretation is that the fallen are declared the actual attraction. Instead of associating the rise with glory and the decline with loss, he reverses the valences. The striking, attractive, and opulent is based on exactly those elements that he lets fall. The dots of confetti possess the color and splendor that the images otherwise lack; the trash of consumer society, the empty plastic bottles assemble to form brilliant architecture; and only the fallen Yves Klein condenses in its multiplication to become an artwork. Falling tears, spurts of blood, and beams of light have a more intense presence than the painted elements of the image that Rothschild allows them to emerge from in his adaptation. In addition the artist honors not just the fall, he also offers the fallen the chance to rise again, a chance that they are usually refused. Analogous to the passages of the mythical Persephone between Hades and the world, Rothschild maintains the axis between heaven and earth. “Revival,” resurrection, and the return to fame is possible.
With this network of movements of rising and falling, Rothschild finally describes the dynamics with which symbolic values are created but can also be destroyed. Reputation, fame, and importance over the years are the gains that are at stake to arrive in the higher spheres—of society, of historiography and myth, or of art. Attention and recognition are currencies that are used to reach this goal, they blaze the path from the everyday to the special, open access to the Olympus of the stars, icons, heroes, saints, and gods. When Rothschild captures this process of valuation and devaluation in an image he makes the collective structure of status attributions his subject, in particular emphasizing that work on image and publicity has gained enormously in social importance since the media, technological, and psychosocial developments of the 1960s. It has become a requirement of both private and professional life. Art in particular serves as a field of experimentation for the techniques used here and represents at the same time its most striking forms. As in no other social realm, here the symbolic values are decisive: economic success depends on reputation, while recognition is not necessarily reflected financially.
Rothschild stretches the metaphor of “falling” to this dimension of the sociology of art. To attract attention, to please, and to be caught in the gaze describe relationships of attention between art and its recipients. The metaphor becomes concrete when he allows, like snares for attention, material linkages to grow, leap, or fly from the works to the viewer. This falling out of the picture or even the frame, like his threads or paper dots, is analogous to the expectation directed at art according to which originality is only manifest when a familiar image is disturbed or a traditional frame is exploded. Falling here is once again linked to ascent, implying pleasure, and thus only pleasing in passing. In this way, Rothschild locates himself in the logic that constitutes value in the field of art. Snared in a literal and metaphorical way in the expectations that the iconic models, the divinities of art and society, and as his own exposure entail for him. This parodic play with the profane taken to the limits of kitsch and cliché represents a liberation from its bonds. By way of appropriation there takes place an analysis of structures in which the artist himself is involved, as well as a reinterpretation: the gallows humor of the artist who knows his own ensnarement in the visual regime of art and makes it his subject. In the group of works Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth), he modifies a quotation of Beuys and shows his wound, not as a reference to disability, but to that which is not always without wounds but dynamic captivation of artistic existence under the gaze of the viewer: between heaven and earth.