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Artforum, Feb. 2005
Daniel Birnbaum on Christoph Schlingensief

If anyone has pushed the limits of what is acceptably "art" - artistic provocation might be considered a rather meaningless aspiration in today's european culture - Schlingensief has.

"TO LET ONESELF BE EATEN is one method. The other is to rot away and thereby give birth to new worms. For the moment 1 tend toward the first method," an exalted Christoph Schlingensief, German theater's most eminent provocateur, told me last July, just a few weeks before the premiere of his production of Parsifal. 1 was inclined to agree. From a metaphysical point of view he had the biggestjob in the business: The opera festival that opens every summer in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth was originally financed in 1876 by oddball King Ludwig II and given the philosophical blessing of none other than Friedrich Nietzsche. Since then, Richard Wagner's operas have been staged annually by directors, conductors, and singers who qualify as the international elite. Certainly, last summer's production seemed no exception when it came to the music: Parsifal would be conducted by Pierre Boulez. But how would the enfant terrible Schlingensief - well-known in the German-speaking world for films and videos such as 100 Years of Adolf Hitler: The Last Hours in the Führer's Bunker(1989) and The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), not to mention Kill Helmut Kohl! (1997) and other controversial performances casting homeless, unemployed, and disabled peopleever figure into this context?

"No matter what 1 realize in Bayreuth," Schlingensief surmised of his dilemma, "people will say, 'Thatwas a provocation!'" The Bayreuther Festspiele is still a family business managed by Wagner's great-grandchild Wolfgang - who famously appeared as a young boy in a photograph with Hitler, walking through the town with older members of the Nazifriendly Wagner family. So Bayreuth's invitation to Schlingensief was not exactly predictable (even if the artist now says he had expected it to happen sooner or later). After all, in 2002 he did dump fish and garbage on the doorstep of WEB/TEC, a company owned by Jürgen Möllemann, a German politician with alleged anti-Semitic tendencies. If anyone has pushed the limits of what is acceptably "art" - artistic provocation might be considered a rather meaningless aspiration in today's European culture - Schlingensief has. His performances have regularly triggered moral indignation, even police intervention. In Bayreuth, however, he was after something quite different: "1 don't want to end up as sömeone who sits in a bar, seventy years old, saying, '1 was the one who screamed 'Kill Helmut Kohl!'" Discussing the limitations of provocation in art, he suddenly sounded like a true believer in the transformative power of poetry. In Bayreuth, he claimed, he would send the audience home with something quite different: "Wagner said he had made the orchestra disappear, and that he also wanted the stage to become invisible. If you close your eyes images appear inside you. What's important are not the objects that are visible on stage but the transformation that might happen to each and every one." And so he surprised the audience with a visually opulent if perplexing production that included a rotting Beuysean hare, voodoo rituals, and imagery from Africa and Asia but avoided any direct political confrontation. A sign of a mature artist or a missed opportunity to create serious turmoil?

Some thought that perhaps Schlingensief would take a short break after Bayreuth, but is that to be expected from someone omnipresent in German media who, while faced with the most prestigious task in the European opera world, found time to organize a parallel project - an amateur car race in honor of Wagner, with loudspeakers atop each vehicle blaring orchestral fragments? Of course not: Schlingensief, it seems, is the kind of person who nevertakes a sabbatical. Instead, he immediately collaborated with Zimbabwean director Hosea Dzingirai on a massive theater project for Berlin's Volksbühne. Originally intended as a kind of populist Wagnerian production - a Parsifal für das Volk, much like the rally - the play must have passed through many stages before reaching its ultimate shape (or lack thereof). Kunst und Gemüse, A. Hipler, Theater ALS Krankheit (Art and Vegetables, A. Hipler, Theater as Illness) was a rather perplexing mishmash of fragments from Arnold Schoenberg's opera From Today Until Tomorrow, video transmissions and live performances featuring several of Schlingensief's favorite actors, and textual allusions both to historical Bayreuth and today's Wagner family. The project also incorporated references to Martin Kippenberger's paintings and Paul McCarthy's massive Flick Collection installations an display at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal neural illness that has recently become familiar to people in the art world due to Jörg Immendorff's partial paralysis from the disease and the extensive media coverage it has received (especially after last year's scandal when he was caught in a Düsseldorf hotel room with cocaine and nine prostitutes). At the beginning and the end of the play, we heard Immendorf's voice recite a text that began: "Theater ALS Krankheit. Alle sagen ihr den Kampf an" (Theater as illness. Everyone's trying to fight it). Another person suffering from severe ALS, writer Angela Jansen, was present at every performance. Jansen is completely paralyzed but, while lying in a bed set among the theater seats, she communicated with the audience by operating the keyboard of a Computer with her eyes: "I'm fine. It's just that I'm unable to move," her artificial voice told us. And at the end during the applause, she added, with a banality almost shocking in its contrast with the rest of the production: "Thanks. You were great."

More action, much of which 1 wasn't able to decode, was presented on a revolving stage, and so there was no way anyone could make complete sense of the barrage of moving imagery, music, noise, and recurring textual fragments. Then again, sense is not Schlingensief's ambition. Rather, it seems he is suggesting that higher forms of lucidity are to be found in delirium than in normal coherent discourse. And at his best, Schlingensief succeeds in creating moments of informational excess and grotesque density that may together provide a more relevant response to the current political climate and cultural condition than, say, any well-argued critical article. For instance, there have been dozens of well-argued articles about the scandal surrounding Friedrich Christian Flick - an heir of a German family whose wealth flourished under Nazism and who refuses to make any reparation to the slave laborers who built his grandfather's wealth. Flick recently loaned a mammoth collection of works to the Hamburger Bahnhof, effectively turning the publicly funded institution into a private showroom and, in my estimation, reducing the role of curator to someone who formulates insignificant wall labels. Against a backdrop of leading Berlin politicians welcoming Flick as a savior of the museum world, one might react by writing yet another article or sponsoring yet another panel discussion, but 1 have complete sympathy for the value of Schlingensief's dada retort. His somewhat childish approach (Kunst und Gemüse had the working title Die Fick Collection [The Fuck Collection]) and simplistic idea of incarcerating art (he presented the title of a well-known Kippenberger work, 8 Bilder zum nachtdenken, ob es so weitergeht [8 Images for Considering Whether lt Can Go On Like This], as text on a wall behind barbed wire) will hardly make the difference Schlingensief hopes for, but he does create his own media attention and thus engages the collection on its own public terms. (One interesting additional detail is that Schlingensief is represented by the same Zurich gallery that functioned as one of Flick's main advisers in amassing his collection, Hauser & Wirth, so no doubt the artist recognizes his own complicit role.)

Yet despite having a gallery, Schlingensief's relationship to the art world has so far been limited, if intense. Performing his Kill Helmut Kohl! during Documenta 10 in 1997, he was removed by police and allegedly had to be bailed out by curator Catherine David. At the Venice Bienniale in 2003, he presented the first version of his Church of Fear, a project involving amateur actors spending days sitting on wooden totem poles. Walking through the Giardini on a hot June day with Schlingensief as he tried to find the right place for the performance, 1 got to know him personally, and 1 realized his perverse talent for being right at the center of media attention. Michel Friedman, a polemical talk-show host and vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (and someone with whom Schlingensief had collaborated on work previously), had just been caught with Eastern European prostitutes and, you guessed it, cocaine, in what was the scandal of the summer. Trying to get away from the German press, he took refuge in Venice, where thousands spotted him walking around in a tuxedo. One of Friedman's many heated public feuds was with Jürgen Möllemann - the very same Möllemann whom Schlingensief, who is friendly with Friedman, had attacked in the outrageous garbage-dumping performance. The'front page of a leading German newspaper, which 1 handed over to the artist that day, announced two things: Möllemann's suicide and Schlingensief's invitation to Bayreuth. lt was the kind of dense constellation of art, politics, and grotesque tragedy that Schlingensief stages in his productions. More and more they seem to be part of his own frantic life.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, cofounder of its new institute for art criticism, and is head of its Portikus gallery.

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