God, his spirit, man – and his child, the worm - Lucas Gehrmann about "Schassvampir"
"Now there was a word spoken to me in private, and my ears by stealth as it were received the veins of its whisper. In the horror of a vision by night, when deep sleep is wont to hold men, fear seized upon me, and trembling, and all my bones were affrighted: And when a spirit passed before me, the hair of my flesh stood up. There stood one whose countenance I knew not, an image before my eyes, and I heard the voice as it were of a gentle wind […].1 Some two and a half thousand years after Job’s memories were cast in writing (and he was writing about a statement made by Eliphaz the Temanite), Ronald Kodritsch the artist frequently attempts to nail the image of a spirit – who knows, perhaps this one, even? – through the means of painting in a series of portraits depicting an apparition with a long beard, clearly passing on to his viewers the confessional message: "I’m getting old" despite the fact that business is booming in the field of "anti-ageing" remedies. When the same bible quotation continues with the words: "[…] Shall man be justified in comparison of God, or shall a man be more pure than his maker?" we begin to realise the kind of person who might have been behind Job’s vision of spirits. We don’t know if Kodritsch is actually revealing this particular "spirit" to us, but we can’t completely discard the possibility in view of the writings of Hegel, and of Nietzsche in particular: "Where is God gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! […] Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?"2
Today, while on a tram hurtling through Vienna I found myself reading a free high-circulation rag (I’m always a little ashamed to admit this. But I justify my perusing of pages devoted to ephemeral celebrities with a need to fill the gaps in my education with regard to popular culture). In any case, I came across a photo of Osama bin Laden. There and then I thought the chap could easily stand in as a model for Ronald’s portraits of spirits. Osama’s beard always looks as if it’s been pasted on, just like the beards you see on Kodritsch’s apparitions – the only obvious difference being that bin Laden appears to be shuffling along as well as you please on this mortal coil, even though we never get to see a recent photo of him. But to believe the report posted in the paper, the US Army had already gotten so close to him in Afghanistan that he would have been dead easy to pick up (or pick off). Apparently, however, and at the last minute, the US authorities refused to arrest him.
One puzzle after the other piles up in this media and politics dominated world from one day to the next. Well, that’s not bad at all, we might add, because Kodritsch ultimately draws his inspiration for new visual works from such reports. So it really doesn’t matter whether his figures are actually from the axis of good or from the axis of evil, whether they originate from the Street of Victors3 or the Alley of Losers – whatever, they always relate to the reality of everyday life and local occurrences in the artist’s paintings. He seems to delight in making us aware of them. Life has all the dimensions of the grotesque, that’s true, but also all the elements of a tragic comedy. It is even "surreal". And where his work lacks references it’s always easy to provide one. The reason why this works so well is because Kodritsch tends to leave enough room for us to fire up our associative neural synapses (consider: you only have to compare his most recent pictures with those of the previous years). He achieves this on the one hand by not being garrulous – all he delivers are a few clues for a possible "tale" and sometimes the name of a picture, itself more often than not cryptic rather than explanatory – and on the other through his open, usually less than elaborate style of painting. By "elaborate" what I mean is elaboration that goes right down to the last detail (and possibly with corrections) in the form of over-painting, glazes and coats, etc. – in other words, a form of elaboration that is laboriously brought to "perfection." In general, Kodritsch does this (and can when he wants to) sporadically: take, for example, the illusionism of the painted spheres in his Akt mit zwei Rum-Kokoskugeln von Casali – Nude with two rum & coconut spheres from Casali (2009, see p. XY). Yet his paintings can also be described as "elaborate" in the sense that they are a "perfectly" placed dollop of well shaken paint on the canvas. True, such dollops are somewhat thin and, as a result, more translucent than pasty in application, but there is always some sort of interplay with the background. Sometimes the latter remains bare, and yet it never appears to be some "empty space" or other. And repeatedly, there’s always a bit of white shining in the otherwise dark humour of his images – in fact, the backgrounds almost seem to shine in the Casalikugelbild – Casali Sphere Picture, for instance, (which flickers through the film like the reflecting light of a projector) as well as quite a few others of his "spirit" portraits and also in the Schass-Vampir (Shite Vampire) images (the last time I went to visit his atelier what spontaneously came into my mind were those egg tempera plates from the late Middle Ages in Bohemia on which the garments of the saints are not modelled by external light sources, but by a light that comes from within the figures, one which lends them an almost magical transcendence. By describing his paintings as "sloppy realism" (unlike my habit of associating his work with the meticulous decorations of tempera that the old masters were so good at), Kodritsch appears to be confessing to the fact that his images emerge in an open and unfinished process. "I have no problem finding the point where I stop. I probably even stop a bit earlier than others. That’s why my paintings often appear a bit rough and ready around the edges: they look a bit incomplete. Certain parts of them you can then think through to the end. The pictures have that feeling of extreme vulnerability when you look at the interaction between what I’ve painted and areas I’ve left completely bare on the canvas," he says in an interview with Claus Philipp.4 And it is precisely this sense of vulnerability which more than anything else enables us to relate to Kodritsch’s paintings. Despite their provocative nature and the darkly satirical way they force us to confront ourselves and the way we see ourselves, they open up opportunities for critical self-reflection in our social world: by not being densely painted into some atropophaic symbol and acting as a perforated or thin-walled membrane (ten years or so ago we would have used the term: interface) we regard our mirror image in an extensively refracted way to the extent that we can just about recognise ourselves (as "comic" dramatic advisors in a tragic? play) without ever feeling completely exposed. Or, as Andrea Schurian once put it: "What matters in Kodritsch’s work, in his films, paintings and drawings, is what you might call the ‘the principle‘: the principle of art. The principle of society. The principle of film. The principle of critique. And the principle of the comic. He creates moving images in both senses of the word. When an episode in Leben mit Kunst – Life with Art – shows a cleaning lady wiping the floor in a museum and suddenly a picture mischievously winks at her from the wall, this tiny detail is ultimately documenting his love of comics (apart from the fact that that the texts and actions of his cast definitely have a comic-like quality about them)."5 While I agree with the first statement, I have difficulties with the second (unless "comic" is intended as a kind of subjunctive of "tragic", then that’s OK). On the roof of a Viennese building at the corner of Mariahilfer Strasse and Getreidemarkt there stands a man dressed in a pin striped suit, wearing sunglasses and clutching an attaché case. He looks as if he’s ready to jump off the building but whether he will is (presumably?) a matter of conjecture. After all, he’s saying to himself: "18 months ago Bernanke, who heads up the Central Bank, made out that losses from the sub-prime mortgage crisis would amount to around USD 50m and that everything was under control. And the man’s not stupid, is he? In the past 30 years the amount of debt in the financial system has literally exploded. The problem is that for the bulk of self-created debt it’s become virtually impossible to understand the complexities. It’s the wide boys doing their creative accounting, you see. When economic historians sit down to write an account of our age they’ll start by looking at the mess and saying: ‘How on earth did they manage to foul up that badly?’" The reproduction of a really existing (as they said back in the bad old days of the GDR) babbling banker (name and address supplied...) which Kodritsch has placed on a roof apparently has genuine secrets in his attaché case. Against this background, let’s go back one final time to Job, who has Bildad utter the words: "Behold even the moon doth not shine, and the stars are not pure in his sight. How much less man that is rottenness and the son of man who is a worm?!"6
1 The Book of Job, Chapter 4, Verses 12-16, first speech of Eliphaz, source: http://www.theworkofgod.org/bible/OldTestm/Job.HTM#Chapter 4
2 Friedrich W. Nietzsche from: "Der tolle Mensch" (The Madman), aphorism 125 in: Nietzsche, "Die fröhliche Wissenschaft" (The Gay Science / The Joyful Wisdom), Volume 3, Chemnitz 1882, quoted here in the 1911 translation, source:
3 One section of Vienna’s Mariahilfer Strasse has been "plastered over" with the bronze cast handprints and footprints of Austrian sports celebrities, with the supertitle: "Straße der Sieger" (Street of Victors) set over their signatures. This has been recently complemented by a far more meaningful piece in Vienna’s Second District, where in front of many buildings simple brass plaques planted in the ground list the names and dates of former residents who were deported and murdered by the Nazis. A little side note to think about: while the star-shaped victor plaques on the major shopping street maintain their highly polished appearance as if by magic, despite being walked over every day by countless consumers, the nameplates of the "losers" (of their lives, their dignity and their property…) – obviously this is not the supertitle – have to be cleaned every now and then by hand (by kneeing on the ground)…
4 "Ansichten eines schlampigen Realisten. Ein Gespräch mit Ronald Kodritsch." (Views of a sloppy realist. A conversation with Ronald Kodritsch). By Claus Philipp, in: www.127.0.0.1/kodritsch/text05.htm
5 Andrea Schurian: "Guter Ton" (Good Manners) in: www.127.0.0.1/kodritsch/text04.htm
6 The Book of Job, Chapter 25, Verses 5-6, third speech of Bildad, source: http://www.theworkofgod.org/bible/OldTestm/Job.HTM#Chapter 25