The title of Luís Lázaro Matos’s show, ‘Tomber dans le lac’ (literally, ‘To Fall into the Lake’), refers to Ludwig II of Bavaria’s mysterious 1886 death in the waters of Lake Würm (now Starnburger See). During his reign, the eccentric king was determined to establish Bavaria’s national greatness through cultural projects. For all his grandiosity – he created a grotto lit by coloured electric lights in which, from a scallop-shaped barge, he could listen to Wagner – Ludwig was largely powerless as a monarch. When his spending became unconscionable, he was declared insane by his ministers. His corpse was found just three days later. No coincidence, then, that in colloquial French, ‘tomber dans le lac’ also means ‘to fail’.
The cold realpolitik undergirding Ludwig’s fairy-tale world was alluded to by the work at the show’s entrance, a pastel diptych (2015), replicating in one panel Ludwig’s 1865 coronation portrait by Ferdinand von Piloty and, in the other, its mirror image. The artist renders the whole thing in cool Prussian blue – a shade that evokes the waters of the titular lake but which also refers obliquely to Prussia, the state that, bent on a path to German unification, bought Bavaria’s acquiescence with the funds of Ludwig’s projects. We might make our self-images, the work suggests, even extravagantly so, but we do so not in palettes of our own choosing.
In the above portrait, one of Ludwig’s hands is replaced by an eel. The links between this creature and the king are never made explicit but it seems not irrelevant to me that the eel’s sexual habits were, until the discovery of breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea in the early 20th century, subject of fantastic speculation. The composite eel-king forms the exhibition’s recurring motif. A wide acrylic painting depicts a dead eel floating upside down in a lake, his mouth in a rictus grin under the moonlight. Besides this, a video shows an eel-shaped puppet, a simple cardboard cut-out, manipulated by a conspicuously human operator. In an extraordinary poem-cum-oration, the puppet narrates a story which echoes and merges with Ludwig’s own: eschewing reproduction (‘What did you want of me? A married fish? Laying out eggs in pairs?’), withdrawing from a sea of troubles (‘I remember watching shamefully quiet from the windows of my tower’) into a self-indulgent realm of alluring, if shallow, pictorial control (‘The cave of privilege offered me great comfort with its aesthetics’).
The image of the sealed aesthetic retreat is explored further in a series of works on paper (2018) hung in the upstairs gallery against walls muralled with underwater scenes of coral, squid, reeds, German slang words for gay men and crude, Trump-aping exhortations to ‘Make Bavaria Great Again’. In these works, architectural elevations of Neuschwanstein – the model for the Disney castle – are overdrawn in crosshatched blue marker with giant male figures, innocent ogres who take the castle’s foundations for their seats and stools. The intersection of body and building might be read as sublimation: the desire for physical contact driving such grand, lonely projects. But, to me, the idea presented is rather the opposite: as an extension of the self, such theatrical constructions offer an experience of the untouched, a setting for an indefinite extension of a pose, perfectly controlled and choreographed, like an Instagram moment fixed for eternity. A chance to remain, as the eel-king in the video says, forever ‘the most perfect moray behind a liquid screen’. ‘Everyone knows’, Jacques Lacan mentions in his 1964 seminar, ‘that reality consists in not letting oneself be touched.’ Like Lacan, Matos’s imaging of Ludwig’s legacy leaves bracingly open-ended the question of whether that untouched state is one to be tragically desired or sadly endured.
Luís Lázaro Matos: ‘Tomber dans le lac’ was on view at Madragoa, Lisbon, from 16 May until 25 August 2018.
Main image: Luís Lázaro Matos, Tomber Dans Le Lac, 2015, pastel on paper in artist frame, 2.2 × 1.6 m, each. Courtesy: the artist and Madragoa, Lisbon
First published in Issue 197