Roger Eberhard, Escapism

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Éditions Images Vevey (here). Softcover, 32 x 23 cm, 168 pages. Includes poems by Simone Lappert (in English/German), an essay by Stefano Stoll (in English/German), and a detailed index of coffee creamer lids. Design by Gilliane Cachin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A special edition of Escapism is also available (here), which features a gold cover and an original lid next to the artist’s signature.

Comments/Context: For many artists and photographers, one of the most constraining byproducts of the pandemic was the general prohibition on travel. As we all remember, the strict lockdowns and quarantines kept people close to home, and all but eliminated international journeys. People had to make do with what was nearby, and leave their wanderlust for another day.

For the Swiss photographer Roger Eberhard, whose most recent project Human Territoriality documented shifting and contested border regions around the world (as seen in his 2020 photobook, reviewed here), a pandemic-era commission to produce work for the Images Vevey 2022 Biennial forced him to get creative. With travel out of the question, he found his artistic subject in an unlikely location – delivered with his coffee.

In Switzerland, when you order a coffee, the cream comes in a little plastic pot with a peel-off foil lid, and since the late 1960s, these lids have featured photographs of various kinds – Swiss landscapes, foreign destinations, architectural wonders, animals, holidays, flowers, and countless other hobbies and activities. Over the years, thousands of these photographic lids have circulated around the country, and the lids themselves have become collectables, with the rarest and most desired being traded by meticulous collectors. Escapism takes as its subject the images on these lids, and their ability to vicariously transport Swiss coffee drinkers to stereotypical far off locales.

None of the photographers who made these images have been credited, and in many ways, the pictures resemble what we now call stock photography – they are generic in a useful or archetypal way, beautiful and straightforward in an anonymous manner that makes them representative of things we all recognize. From all the available options on the lids, Eberhard has limited his choices to landscapes and other images of places to visit (including a few views up into the stars of the cosmos), leaning into the idea of daydreaming of traveling while sipping a coffee. These selections also offer a subtle climate change angle, as these classic wonders (and the “escapes” and bucket list dreams they represent) are all increasingly threatened by global warming.

Eberhard’s approach to appropriation begins with a high-resolution photograph of each lid. From there, he enlarges and crops the resulting images down, creating fragments that reveal the dots of the CMYK printing process. As the dots are magnified further and further, they become increasingly loose, impressionistic, and pleasingly unrecognizable, with the underlying forms dissolving into abstract flows of layered color. Escapism is made up of images at varying degrees of enlargement, which have then been reshuffled to amplify their exuberant color stories and further confuse their precise identification.

Eberhard isn’t the first artist or photographer to be seduced by the underlying dots of commercial printing processes. These ideas were embraced and explored by various Pop artists (most notably Roy Lichtenstein), and more recently photographers interested in the reuse of archival materials like magazines and newspapers (like Anne Collier and her isolations of comic book women) have extended these tactile investigations. Of these contemporary practitioners, Eberhard has pushed furthest in allowing his image amplifications to devolve toward complete abstraction. His color studies are bold, brash, and consistently exuberant, the dots becoming their own kind of expressive brushwork.

A leisurely flip through Escapism does indeed feel like a romantic whirlwind trip around the world, at least the cleaned up and prettified version we are accustomed to being shown in this kind of imagery. We see the wonders of the northern lights, volcanoes erupting, vibrant coral reefs, huge waves, sand dunes, icebergs, and deep green forests, and without a moment to catch our breath, we’re off to Mount Fuji, the Grand Canyon, the Matterhorn, Dutch windmills, and palm tree sunsets, among other famously picturesque locales. Eberhard then proceeds to break these images down, iteratively turning cactus forests, waterfalls, geysers, and lightning strikes into separated layers of colored dots, which march ever inward until we lose track of the subject entirely. To my eye, the farther in we go, the more interesting Eberhard’s images become – it is when we lose track of the context that the waves of color become thickly and engrossingly textural. It is in these moments that our collective dreams of travel become fleeting impressions and ambiguous stolen glimpses, and where our own individual aspirations and imaginings can then enter the pictures and make them our own.

In the end, the title of Eberhard’s photobook implies a literal sense of evading reality, and if we are all drinking coffee in cafes, looking at creamer lids, and dreaming about perfectly majestic landscapes while outside the actual world burns, perhaps he is right. His appropriated and enlarged landscapes turn real places into lovely aesthetic approximations, but if the planet’s ecosystem is damaged beyond repair, all we will have left to fill our heads will be these kinds of almost memories.

Collector’s POV: Roger Eberhard is represented by Robert Morat Galerie in Berlin (here), where a show of this body of work was on view between September 8 and October 21, 2023 (here). The work was also briefly on view this past October at Mai 36 Galerie in Zurich (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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