Representation of Prestige or Gallery of Cardboard Characters
Matthias Bleyl

On Michalis Pichler’s Untitled (heads of state / perdu)


In contrast to the work of other outstanding appropriation artists, many of Michalis Pichler’s works clearly reference other artistic strategies like objets trouvés and non-sites. Composed of found everyday materials, i.e. objets trouvés, artworks such as collages or assemblages arose within the Dada movement in the second decade of the twentieth century, often with the intention to provoke. Trivial objects were thus transplanted into new contexts and achieved a lasting explosiveness in the creative work of Marcel Duchamp, who raised found materials—or as he called them, readymades—to artworks simply by declaring them as such. The concept non-site, coined by Robert Smithson, emerged in connection to the Earthworks of the late 1960s in the USA.[1] By this he meant a work whose materials were extracted from their original context, the site (i.e. a landscape or industrial factory), and presented in a new context in an arbitrary place (such as a gallery or museum) as an aesthetic and potentially critical arrangement that dialectically refers to the site.

Pichler has defined his objet perdu, which is based upon this, as such: “If one focuses not only on the found object, but on the context it leaves behind when disappeared, this focus constitutes the objet perdu.”[2] His use of this is exemplified by his new york garbage flag profile (Frankfurt a. M.: Revolver, 2005). During an extended stay in New York in 2002–03, he photographed found everyday situations containing carelessly discarded or purposefully thrown away objects, which carried a normal or derivative American flag printed on them[3] – predominantly newspapers and packaging materials of diverse origin on the streets or in trashcans. He captured these designer-made objects of quotidian existence and then photographed the location without the flag-emblazoned objects afterwards. The found situation contrasted with the modified one depending on the size and quantity of the discarded items. Naturally, one missing coffee cup amongst many in an overflowing trashcan is less noticeable than a solitary business card of a New York car service in the corner. In his book, Pichler carefully catalogued each found object (its location, date, size, material, labeling, etc.) and displayed both photos of the location, that is, with the respective object and without, as a kind of “before and after.” Additionally, the objects were exhibited in Germany as non-sites. The found objects were objets trouvés, that is, encountered quotidian objects, but it was the focus on the context in which they had previously been located that constituted their absence as objets perdus for Pichler. That which is absent hones our awareness for its context, just as the remaining context hones our awareness for what is absent.

Similar works that are primarily derived from a strategy of filtering, deleting or removing can be found early on in Pichler’s oeuvre and have since remained a constant. Emerging from the same context as the previous example was his 2003 work New York Times Flag Profile, where Pichler appropriated a single edition of the renowned newspaper issued on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. He forensically transferred the 144 depicted American flags, free of all context, from the original issue to a blank, one to one copy of the newspaper that he then released in an edition of one thousand copies. A year later on the second anniversary of 9-11, it was sold in selected newspaper stands in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Published under Pichler’s name in 2009 and, according to the cover, part of an alleged series called “greatest hits”, is the text work Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own), which, despite its small format, nevertheless comprises of 464 pages that from the cover can hardly be distinguished from a paperback by the publishing house Reclam. In fact, the book is derived from the respective Reclam Universal-Bibliothek edition of the identical Max Stirner title, which has been sold in this same format for more than forty years. First published under this pseudonym in 1844, it is the magnum opus of the author, Johann Kaspar Schmidt, who defended an extreme philosophy of individuality. Consistent with this position, Pichler filtered out all of the text’s first person pronouns; that is, he deleted the entire text except for the personal pronouns such that they are now more or less densely distributed over the corresponding but otherwise blank pages—thus manifestly illustrating the concerns of the then very controversial author.[4]

The sensitivity for contexts and present or missing objects can be traced to Pichler’s restoration and preservation activities during his architectural studies. Reflections on policy, as formulated by the Venice Charter in 1964, and conflicts of interest in dealing with ancient architectural materials in public contexts found their way into his diploma thesis[5], which was informed by his time assisting the stone completion at the Preservation site of the Acropolis Monuments Athens.

One striking work, on which this experience has had considerable influence, is Untitled (heads of state / perdu): 191 color panels of varied sizes with sober, empty figure outlines on a monochrome gray ground that always stays the same and usually occupies most of the space in the picture. Since these were not filled in with black but were left in this basic gray color, the figures that were in fact cut out don’t function like silhouettes but rather like blank spaces. The foundation for this work was a book published in 2004, reproducing official photos of every UN member nation’s head of state that the publisher had solicited from the respective governments.[6] Thus, the source material is a collection of representations that in one way or another express the prestige of the depicted and the state they embody, visible for the whole world. The intention of the otherwise uncommented book must have surely been to exhibit in a concentrated mass the randomness of such representative images that are normally only encountered alone as a form of self-exposure. The span of images ranges from passport photo-like details focusing on the face in front of a neutral background to knee-length portraits in opulent rooms often decorated with national emblems.

Such portrayals always reflect the self-image of the portrayed as well as the intended impact on the viewer, but Pichler has neatly removed what one normally focuses on, the figures, leaving only the fragments of the settings (fig. 1 and 2)—and it is here that the objet perdu’s dialectics of presence and absence take hold. If one normally sees the smiling, benevolent potentates in whose faces every wrinkle or even the degree of their opened eyes can be meaningful and the setting is only incidentally noticed—but no less effective!—here, only the setting and its relationship to the empty space of the anonymized figure remain. No more facial expressions, no significant clothes or decorations like medals, sashes, etc. just an empty or furnished background, provided that the remaining area of the picture is recognizable. Effectively, by removing the person, a kind of fragmented still life remains; whereby it is not their objects but rather the setting the person has been cut out of that may call to mind the genre of vanitas still life paintings evoking the transience of earthly existence. The effect is however more immediate. It is only by removing the person who now exists only as empty space that the national flag’s constellation of cut colors can be recognized and seen, or rather consciously perceived, something which would have been taken as self-evident or even hardly perceived. With heads of state / perdu Pichler succeeds in forcing our concentration on what would otherwise easily escape our attention. This is precisely the reason that he achieves an active, trenchant critique of representation with his interventions—unlike the original, which, by refraining from intervention, pursues a more passive, self-evident critique of the medium of representative photos.

A closer examination of the 191 pages reveals that almost half of the representatives chose a formula for their pictures that seems closely related to a normal passport photo, i.e. concentrating on the head, at most on the chest, and in front of a background as neutral as possible. By looking more closely—and a reduction of the main character to an outline demands this—structural changes occasionally become apparent, such as hardly incidental brightening, usually directed behind the head (e.g. Kuwait, Maledives, Suriname, Yemen) —there are no blackouts in sight. On the other end of the spectrum, totaling nearly a third of all the images, there are just as many portraits of persons standing or sitting, i.e. clearly enthroned (Italy, Azerbaijan, Oman), in half figures or knee-portraits. Emblems, especially national flags, that have been partially cut out or left totally visible can be seen in every sort of depiction and also constitute nearly a third of all the pictures. Especially popular with seated figures (e.g. Seychelles), but not limited to them, is a representation set in working contexts, like a library or an office, distinguished at times only by bookshelves, a desk, paperwork, a telephone, and, as an exception, a computer (Sierra Leone). Less common are figures that aren’t posing but are in action (North Korea, Liberia), although speakers at a podium (Phillipines, Timor Leste, Uruguay) or conference participants (Comoros) remain relatively close to the posed photos. In such situational photos, random other people who have not been manipulated can be seen (e.g. Liberia, San Marino). Depictions outdoors, such as under a bright blue sky (Panama) or in front of a more or less blurry landscape displaying the state’s characteristics or the person’s immediate vicinity (France, Monaco, Samoa), are very rare.

Every type of representation stands in an identifiable tradition of images that provides information about the image’s respective strategy. Half-length figures or knee-length portraits of seated, and, in particular, standing figures were already common in portraits of absolutist rulers. Their highest mark of distinction was certainly the full-length portrait, invariably looking downward. In the images of French kings, for instance, primarily head-and-shoulder portraits and the occasional profile picture can be found since the inception of the modern sense of realistic portraits, that is, since around the middle of the fourteenth century. Full-length portraits first emerged in France around 1600 with Henry IV[7] and achieved their almost classical expression of pomp under Louis XIV a century later, something which outlasted the revolution and Napoleon down to the last Bourbons, only to be revived under Napoleon III. Although none of the 191 heads of state makes use of this anachronistic formula, nevertheless some seated depictions come close to the enthroned princes of the baroque. A knee-length portrait of a standing person is infrequent in French absolutism and is, for that very reason, the preferred pose of French presidents of the state since the beginning of the Third Republic in 1871. Among these portraits, one can find pompous robes of office as well as, in recent decades, civilian clothing, portrayals outdoors and quite frequently in the study or library, whose distinguished bookshelves full of old folios are intended to immediately indicate an intellectual user. The early predecessor of this was Jacque-Louis David’s 1812 portrait of Napoleon in his study[8], which, although still a full-length portrait, shows him next to his desk pausing—and posing—between his functions as legislator and military leader, which was certainly in keeping with his self-conception. Posing at the desk for photos didn’t become popular with German politicians however until the second half of the twentieth century. Ever since the former President Theodor Heuss, who had literary ambitions, was photographed in his home study, renowned West-German politicians from every party have rarely refrained from having a carefully staged photo with a bookshelf and desk as proof of intense intellectual occupation and education, something which continues to this day. Even in the GDR such photos of the Chairmen of the State Council can be found. Thus, it is thoroughly consistent that the Élysée Palace library has been repeatedly chosen in France as the backdrop for statesmanlike self-portrayal since Charles de Gaulle, with wide repercussions. Nevertheless, such knee-length representational portraits are closely related to the pictorial tradition of aristocratic portraits from the eighteenth century.

The knee-length portrait was frequently used in the late period of absolutism, especially in smaller courts and in Frederick the Great’s enlightened Prussia. Although Frederick the Great had little inclination to sit for his portrait, particularly with the war he was waging as a backdrop, Johann Georg Ziesenis[9] allegedly met him long enough to capture his features in the early 1760s—whether the model was present or if it bears a resemblance cannot be determined with certainty. In any case, numerous knee-length portraits of the monarch depicted both indoors and out were based upon this, which corresponded to the conventions of the time and combined set pieces of aristocratic representational portraiture—such as columns, wafting curtains, truncated suites of rooms or intimations of landscapes (fig. 3). Back then, the abundant use of national emblems was still in the future. In their place were other attributes of the monarch’s personal insignia like medals, coats of arms, discarded crowns, scepters or staffs of command. In contrast, the subsequent national flags that emerged as the nations were being built after the bourgeois revolutions in America and France in the second half of the eighteenth century symbolized autonomy and the unity of the collective. Thus, when heads of state have their portraits taken with such emblems today it is primarily a corollary of the nineteenth century—and this is by no means limited to former colonies that only gained independence very late.

At around the same time as the late absolutist knee-length portrait, a form of portraiture began to establish itself that concentrated on the face and was painted from a very close perspective; something which can be ascertained with the same person, Frederick the Great. Anton Graff’s portrait of the Prussian king, still popular today, certainly didn’t come into being in the wake of a portrait sitting, yet it implies some familiarity with the facial features of the portrayed (fig. 4). Save for the obligatory Order of the Black Eagle, it eschews the usual attributes of princely image cultivation and concentrates entirely on the head. In doing so, the illuminated brow, the virtually inescapable gaze characterized by wide-open eyes and an interest in the person looking at him, as well as the brightening of the background that creates depth elevate the monarch to an open-minded enlightener who seems closer to the bourgeois thinkers of his time—whose portraits Graff also copiously painted[10]—than to the princes in the European concert of powers. Limited to a detail but with an enhanced expression, such portraits are typical products of the rationally-oriented Enlightenment. While a last remnant of this shimmers in the long standard three-quarter passport photos of the recent past, biometric photos today call for a symmetrical, full frontal view of a neutral face, and as such are more closely related to mug shots.

Unlike the paintings of late absolutism, Pichler’s manipulated photos of today’s leaders reduce the main figure to a mere silhouette, admittedly showing almost none of the qualities they are presumed or alleged to have and yet it is exactly this focus on the fragments of accessories and cut-persons that the empty spaces demand that provides a series of clues, in the sense of an objet perdu, about the transpersonal conception of self. Here, the prestige the heads of the state claim for their country and nation becomes separated from the individual. Due to the equalizing empty spaces, in the sense of a non-site, however, they themselves appear as cardboard characters that can be virtually disposed of at will. By no means does this solely allude to a target with a human outline. In today’s parlance, even representations of popular figures in advertisements or of campaigning political candidates are characterized as such, and state leaders often identify with both of these roles, depending on the implemented strategic focus. By appropriating such a revealing publication and manipulating it with simple means, Pichler has disclosed the complexity of such representations and provided a formidable contribution to the critique of representation.


Translated from the German by Shane Anderson



Fig. 1

President of the Republic of Indonesia: Megawati Soekarnoputri, 2001. Photo: National Information Agency, Republic of Indonesia.


Fig. 2

Michalis Pichler, Untitled (heads of state / perdu), plate 77.


Fig. 3

Johann Georg Ziesenis: Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, 1769. Oil on Canvas, Freies Deutsches Hochstift | Goethe-Museum mit Goethe-Haus, Frankfurt a. M. © bpk, Inv.-Nr. IV/1589 | bpk: 00005140, Photographer: Lutz Braun.


Fig. 4

Anton Graff: Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, 1781/1786. Oil on Canvas, 62 x 51 cm, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg (Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg). © bpk: 00000921, Photographer: Jörg P. Anders




[1] See Nancy Holt, ed., The Writings of Robert Smithson. Essays with Illustrations (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

[2] Michalis Pichler, “objet perdu”, online at, accessed August 26, 2014.

[3] He also wrote his theoretical thesis on this topic, “Die amerikanische Fahne und ihre Abbildungen in Kunst und Alltag” (“The American Flag and its Depiction in Art and Life,” diploma thesis, Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee, 2004).

[4] Like the layout and typography, the chapter titles and headers remain unchanged.

[5] Dealing with the Acropolis’s Propylaea in Athens Today, “Der Umgang mit den Propylaia der Akropolis in Athen heute” (diploma thesis, TU Berlin, 2000).

[6] Klaus Zwangsleitner, ed., Official Portraits. The Executive Heads of State of the 191 member states of the United Nations Organisation (London: Trolley, 2004).

[7] This applies only to French painting, wherein the best-known accomplishments of this genre can be found. Nevertheless, it begins earlier, particularly in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance. See Hubertus Froning, “Die Entstehung und Entwicklung des stehenden Ganzfigurenporträts in der Tafelmalerei. Eine formalgeschichtliche Untersuchung” (PhD diss., Universität Würzburg, 1973).

[8] Jacques-Louis David (17481825), Musée du Louvre 1989, Nr. 206.

[9] See Karin Schrader, Der Bildnismaler Johann Georg Ziesenis (17161776). Leben und Werk mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog (Münster: Lit Verlag, 1995).

[10] See Marc Fehlmann and Birgit Verwiebe, eds., Anton Graff. Gesichter einer Epoche, (Munich: Hirmer, 2013).