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Hagen Vogel: “‘Facepalm Picard’, in my eyes, represents the whole of meme culture”

The artist making oil paintings out of your favourite memes

Hagen Vogel is creating high-art versions of ‘Facepalm Picard’ and Berghain bouncers after being kicked out of art school

Kicked out of art school in 2014 after his portrait of Adolf Hitler was seized by public prosecutors, Hagen Vogel is well aware that familiar images can be given new and dangerous power by rendering them in oils and placing them in a frame. His debut exhibition, Age of Fan Art, exercises this power. Vogel places memes, fan art and other arcana of the digital era in a high-art context, and forces the viewer to scrutinise Lara Croft or ‘Facepalm Picard’ as though seeing them for the first time.

An image of fearsome Berghain bouncer Sven Marquadt imposed onto Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog suggests that coolness and style are the new frontiers faced by today’s pioneers. The protagonists of iconic video games Far Cry and The Last of Us are elegantly captured in tempura and oil resin, centuries-old techniques preserving the glossy sheen of VR environments.

And all of these images are counterpointed by an enormous sculpture of a Lidl bag, which attendees are encouraged to play with and drag around the exhibition space. All of the artworks in Age of Fan Art scrutinise the worlds we create around ourselves: if computer games are unreal escapism, Vogel suggests, so is the lurid branding of late capitalism.

The exhibition was shown in a private viewing at Berlin’s futuristic Humboldt Box. The penthouse Sky Lounge overlooks the Altes Museum, a 150-year-old edifice which houses fine art from classical antiquity. I spoke with Hagen at the exhibition, and afterwards by email, to find out what he thinks of the very different age his art is attempting to chronicle.

What do you gain by presenting these works in a physical, IRL gallery, rather than online?

Hagen Vogel: The digital world is impermanent. I can see the photos that I had on my first hard drive in 2004 disintegrating before my eyes. On Facebook and Instagram, vast amounts of posts and photos are forgotten, and video games are constantly replaced by replaced by sequels or new titles. The internet is like dense undergrowth, where it is difficult to concentrate on the significant and remarkable.

And so I present the digital phenomena of our lifestyles, shaped by social media, and give significant virtual characters a safe and (hopefully) infinitely enduring place in the real world. I am preserving these designs and motifs so our descendants can have a clear, aesthetic sense of empathy with our experiences at the inception of the digital age. Our digital lives should be considered as part of our cultural heritage.

Why don’t people take the internet more seriously as an aesthetic space?

Hagen Vogel: I imagine people think art should be more unreal or illusory than the internet. But although we use the internet every day, we should consider it with an artistic eye. Self-reflection and unbiased contemplation are important.

Are video games just another form of visual art, or do they fill a new artistic space?

Hagen Vogel: Virtual characters evolve by evolutionary design, and perhaps people will one day obsess over their existence just as they now contemplate the origin of natural life. It is therefore important to consider these cultural assets now, in their time of origin. I see my art as interpreting the defining phenomena of our species at this moment in time.

What about fan art and memes?

Hagen Vogel: Memes function similarly to emoji, and are often given as a comment or response. ‘Facepalm Picard’, in my eyes, represents the whole of meme culture, and is simultaneously the perfect response to memes. So my Picard painting answers this question by itself.

By including paintings of Pope Benedict XVI and Sven Marquadt, you seem to suggest they are human memes. Why are they in this exhibition of ‘fan art’?

Hagen Vogel: Sven Marquardt Above the Fog is a symbol of lifestyle, culture and Berlin - the world in which I live. He is an artist, icon and bouncer, and I find that romantic. Pope Benedict XVI embodies the Church, which has strongly influenced the lifestyle of European history. I want to anchor my work deep in the roots of history, so it stands up to scrutiny in the distant future.

According to the exhibition notes, the Pope painting was created shortly after you were thrown out of university for painting a picture of Hitler.

Hagen Vogel: A few enraged university employees told my professor that they had heard that I planned to paint a portrait of Hitler. Naturally, my professor didn’t like that, and he threw me out. But I couldn’t learn what I needed to at university anyway. By kicking me out they moved me to focus exclusively on my painting. My planned Hitler portrait went ahead, and it was immediately followed by the Pope.

The Lidl sculpture is at the physical centre of the exhibition. Is corporate branding another meme, replicating endlessly around us?

Hagen Vogel: If it was up to me, the flag of Berlin would be a Lidl bag. During the exhibition opening, I spoke to a scruffy-looking old man who was attempting to disguise himself as an employee of the gallery by wearing a doctored name-tag. As far as I could make out from his somewhat unstable and alcoholic contribution to our discussion, he had come especially for my Lidl bag, and wanted to fill it to the brim with returnable bottles. [In Germany, homeless and vulnerable people commonly collect empty bottles to sell back to supermarkets for the deposit money.] This was the best part of the evening: to witness the dawning of my idea.

What do you think the internet will look like in a century’s time?

Hagen Vogel: The internet may become totally invisible because it is absolutely everywhere, and so we will once more feel as though we are offline. Or it may evolve into its own huge, dark blue planet, charged by the lightening produced by massive data-stream tornadoes on Earth, so the sky darkens and you need a Pope painting to protect yourself from the hazardous radiation.