Parsifal – Schlingensief’s Figure of Redemption

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Parsifal – Christoph Schlingensief’s Figure of Redemption, as Prefigured by Richard Wagner and Joseph Beuys

Antje von Graevenitz, Vondelstr. 27, 1054 GJ Amsterdam,

Lecture held at the symposium “Beuys‘ Legacy – Unity in Diversity” on the 20th anniversary of his death at the Goethe Institut, Dublin, 23.1.2006, (organized by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes)

Christoph Schlingensief, now 44 years old, is currently – and not only in Germany – one of the most enthusiastic and probably also one of the most original heirs of Joseph Beuys’s social and political views. It even went as far as a malicious renaming of “Parsifal” in “Hasenfal”/ Harefal for his production of Wagner’s work in the German press (Bayerische Staatszeitung, number 28, July 9, 2004). This is in line with the usual journalistic strategy of degrading Schlingensief’s work as folly from the safe distance of the shoulder-shrugging petty bourgeoisie.

With Beuys things used to be rather similar. As you may remember, it was only because of his Guggenheim exhibition in 1979 that the German press began to see him as a great artist, although Der Spiegel on its cover gave him rather mockingly the title “The Greatest”. From such practices as this I would gladly distance myself, and occupy myself instead in a more impartial way with the theme of the inspiration and development of the Parsifal theme in Wagner, Beuys and Schlingensief. I will begin at the end: what did the performance artist, film- and theatre-director Schlingensief, who has also founded a political party, say about Beuys? Commenting on the foundation back in 1998 of his party called “Chance 2000”, he stated in an interview in 2003:

“When we were collecting signatures in Cologne in 1998, Beuys‘ student, Johannes Stüttgen, came up to us and said surprised, “’Vote for yourself?‘ That’s our slogan, the Beuys slogan.” At first I didn’t believe it and asked him about it in more closely. Stüttgen explained to us the situation at that time and it turned out that one can have the same feelings at different times. That sounds simple, but it is very interesting. Thus their statement was identical with ours, a timeless call. I therefore think that one can use it a second or a third time. That one can use things also on the basis of a total misunderstanding. That is something that politics does not permit at all. One can also take up things and understand them wrongly, namely, how one wants to understand them for oneself. (…) That one can use Beuys, is allowed to use him properly or even terribly, that is what I find so good about Beuys. (…).” Speaking with Alice Koegel, Schlingensief has said: “If I then engage more closely with his theory, then it can have the significance of a social sculpture. Through his theory, Beuys has set up a lot of projection surfaces, which I, too, do not want to exclude.” Concerning his interpretation of “Parsifal” he told Hans Ulrich Obrist:” With regard to my staging of Parsifal, I proposed that the gaze be directed from the universe towards Parsifal, “the poor fool”. One can treat the figures exclusively from the point of view of which earthly problems they have. There is also a universal, an astronomical viewpoint in which persons are understood as stars and investigated accordingly. Here, too, what interested me is the charge generated by a certain perspective, a certain viewing angle. I am interested in allowing the viewers to become part of the illusion in order at the same time to send them back to reality.”

For further notice, some of the reflections, Schlingensief remarked, should be looked at more closely. He mentioned “Vote for yourself”, “Social Sculpture”, the consideration of the universal and the desired participation of the onlooker. This is all what Beuys stood for – and so did Richard Wagner.

In his programmatic essay entitled “The future work of art” from 1850 about the meaning of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), to which Beuys and Schlingensief were also devoted, Wagner wrote that his goal was “happy people”, because “we will be one in the work of art”.

A work of art is, therefore, “a living religion” (“Kunstreligion”). In order to reach the spectator directly, one has to move from “the motionless into motion, from the monumental into the present”, then and only then, Wagner continued, “will the true sculpture be present”. Nota bene, Wagner was speaking of a process and of the effects of his art in the future, as well as of sculpture, true sculpture. Although these aims expressed by Wagner can also be recognized in his other works, in his Bühnenweihfestspiel (festive play to inaugurate a stage) “Parsifal”, from the earliest prose sketch (now lost) of 1857, through the various intermediate stages of the work and up to the first performance in Bayreuth in 1882, the threads of his early vision are woven into a very clear pattern.

It is all about the pattern of becoming a mature human being, in the style of the medieval epos after Chretien de Troyes (about 1180) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (of the early 13th century). This pattern also underlies alchemist strategies of the mixing and sublimating of various substances or the colours white, black and red in order to create perfect purity; as well as initiation rituals with their three stages of separation, transition and reintegration. The libretto of Parsifal can be read in different ways: at a basic level, Wagner’s text tells the story of the `simple fool‘ Parsifal who ran away from his mother and kills a swan in a forest. This is seen by a group of candidate-knights and their supervisor the guru Gurnemanz, who expresses outrage towards Parsifal for his wanton act. They take Parsifal to the temple of the Holy Grail, in order to teach him a lesson. Parsifal witnesses how the knights give homage to the Holy Grail, although the Grailkeeper, Amfortas, is barely able to perform the rituals, because he is constantly bleeding from a wound in his side. The wound is the reason for his father, King Titurel, not being able to die. He sees the wound of his son as unatoned. The reason is that Amfortas had previously been seduced by Kundry, and Arabian servant and witch. The connections are completely incomprehensible for Parsifal, and he feels no compassion with either Amfortas, Titurel, or the knights. They throw him out of the temple’s gate.

In a second part of the story Parsifal has to undergo a series of tests, in order for him to learn the meaning of compassion. He must resist the seductive Flowergirls, he must pity his mother Herzeleide, who he had left and who died in the most dreadful pain, and finally he must recognize Kundry’s cunning art of seduction in her kiss, which she gives him after having told him the story of his mother, and by recognizing her seduction, he must understand why Amfortas carries his ever bleeding wound, and feel compassionate about it. Only through all this is Parsifal able to recover the spear that has caused Amfortas’s wound. Of course this spear refers to Longinus’s lance at Golgotha, as well as to Amfortas’s sexual organs. Parsifal fights and wins the spear back from the magician Klingsor.

In a third part of the story, after having experienced several symbolic deaths, Parsifal returns as a black knight on Good Friday outside of the Grail Temple. He is received by Gurnemanz and Kundry, and is anointed as Saviour of the languishing Amfortas and his knights, a duty which Parsifal now undergoes willingly. But the solution is not to become Saviour, but “Salvation to the Saviour”- a kind of self-salvation that makes it possible to save others from harm. (You may remember Schlingensief’s expression “Vote for yourself”. But this only as an aside).

Perhaps the theme of compassion or self-denial, which ultimately leads to salvation, is part of a Christian European tradition, as opposed to the “Arabian” themes – the characters of Kundry and Klingsor, and of course Wagner’s chromatic composition that also reminds us of Arabian culture – but we are surely dealing here with a universal theme with a universal claim.

Although his wish to design a production of Parsifal was never realised, Joseph Beuys indeed developed a plan to do so. He always played with the idea to once design a production of Wagner’s opera. In 1982 he told me that his idea was to just place the staff in various directions in a completely empty room. The singers and musicians were to be situated in the auditorium. The staff would gather the directional forces that came from the East, went towards the West and would then radiate back to the earth. The staff’s position could be therefore with it ferrule down. Parsifal’s spear (also called lance) could be interpreted as shared metaphor (Beuys‘ Eurasia Staff) for both productions. This idea could not be realised. Nevertheless, we can trace this shared emblem now.

In the libretto of “Parsifal”, winning the spear from the hands of Klingsor is of the utmost importance. Klingsor uses every magic trick. He wants to prevent this, because he is clinging to his power, and does not want the knights of the Holy Grail – and the entire world – ever to experience again the mercy of the Grail. For Wagner, Parsifal wanders through space and his life-span without any clear sense of direction. Until, finally, the staff points him in the right direction. The club that Hercules, who in the ancient myth also carried it with him during his search for the right path, has now turned into a more far-reaching sign.

In more than one way, there are similarities between Beuys’s artistic vision and his work. “Parsifal”, so he stated in 1982 ”also, is the new man. So in the wanderer there is also a new man, who always goes against himself, and who will never reach the end of his development. That is in fact the real Grail.” The motif of a Grail often appears in Beuys’s drawings, for instance in his drawing “Drake’s country still alive”. Even on one of the blackboards in the ensemble THE HEARTH (Feuerstätte) 1968-1974 and Hearth II of 1978-1979, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel, there is a drawing of a double chalice of a Grail executed in chalk. As with The Hearth, our memory of a salvatory sign is invoked here. Furthermore, in the fictionalised conversation with Hagen Lieberknecht of 1972, Beuys made several drawings of the Grail (sign), which are not published.

In his performance Eurasia Staff he developed a character who brings renewal from East to West (from the Man of the East to the Man of the West), because he brings with him a different kind of thinking and imagination. How this is achieved is what Beuys performs: his thinking is stated in images. He acts as wanderer (as a “moved mover”, as he stated) within a set of, among other things, four heated corners (L-beams that are covered in felt), indicating the four cardinal points of space. He took his copper Eurasia Staff from a linen cloth. Copper is a conductor. In the sign language in alchemy it stands for the woman and for Venus, the goddess of beauty, who here could be acting as a keeper of art’s goals. This copper staff, in the form of a letter J (as in Joseph/of Arimatia/Beuys) is pointed by the artist in the directions of each of the corners of the marked space. In between, he held his hand to his forehead, assuming a pose of meditation. Beuys believes that this creative form of thinking, which is more appreciated in the east than in the analytical and logical west, is lacking in the western man. His act could therefore turn him into a complete person. Beuys‘ performance then contains a path towards salvation, albeit without the dramatic stages of initiation, the stages that Parsifal has to undergo. Nevertheless, both Wagner and Beuys share their thinking in the objects‘ and themes‘ clear relatedness and in motifs for transformations. All these must be decoded by the audience in order to – and this is the aim of both artists – break away from the traditional ways of thinking, be sensitive, and finally become a creator oneself. The staff will lead viewers on this spiritual journey into the future.

When we take the various stages of this journey as an abstract diagram, we would recognize this current place as an imagined place and not as an actually existing one. A forest is not something that we can see through, we have however to walk through it to know it. It resembles a place without a view, a sort of labyrinth. The castle of the Grail is closed within itself, and it contains a legacy, something holy, that has to be upheld. It must be known for it to be kept. a wound is an outward hole that makes inner closure impossible. The gaze can enter at that point. The field of flowers is a place in which everything is equally beautiful and we are bewitched and unable to look at something in particular in this multitude of beauty. The mountain where Parsifal meets Kundry is too rough and narrow for the spiritual gaze; Klingsor’s tower is in the end the place for Parsifal to grow above himself and gain a view for himself. Good Friday’s meadow, finally, is the place where the metamorphosis of ice to flowers, death to life, can take place. The precondition, then, to direct the view towards the closing of the Grail’s Castle and also close the hole, the wound, and reveal the most holy object, the Grail itself.

Beuys chose the apparently icy stretches of Siberia, Eurasia, as the universal place of a spiritual journey and metamorphosis; as a place for the Eurasia Staff to point in all directions, an undefined global place, therefore, for the imagination.

Schlingensief also takes Parsifal’s location as a place of imagination, not as an actual space in a play, but as something that can be looked at. In this he follows the tradition of Robert Wilson’s Theatre of Images, the so-called Meta-production-theatre, which was proposed earlier – in 1969 – by Beuys in his contribution for to experimental theatre in Frankfurt, entitled Titus/Iphigenie. They are places of imgination, of concepts and ideas, the same terms that Wagner already used. Parsifal himself expresses in surprise: “I hardly walk, but I think I am already far away”, to which Gurnemanz offers the solution: “You see, my son, here time has turned into space” (end of the First Act of the libretto). On Schlingensief’s revolving stage in Bayreuth, there appear unclear constructions that more or less to open towards the front op the proscenium, which look as if taken from the Russian theatre of the early 20th century and from the Vienna theatre exhibition of Frederick Kiesler of 1924; those of Schlingensief appear, however, to be on the verge of collapsing. The world of Klingsor (Second Act) consists of a fence made of wire-mesh, as if this was a military compound. Otherwise the stage is full of rather fragile constructions: of cardboard, tents, and containers. The place looks vulnerable and slum-like, such as can be seen in many parts of the world. This is a universal space. There is no unity in the use of a medium in this space. As the Parsifal production for Bayreuth of Emil Praetorius in the thirties already displayed, Schlingensief decided to use many diverse theatrical means. Video projections of microbes, cells and suffering seals are shown, as well as Voodoo-rituals and rituals of washing of the feet – this Bayreuth production indeed shows the global possibilities of analogous expression.

Schlingensief’s production focuses on the opposition of north and south and is concentrated upon suffering as such. In this Schlingensief differs from Wagner, whose theme is the virtue of Christianity against – in his view – the heathen and unclear belief of the Arab world, and he also differs from Beuys whose world-view was more neutral, looking for a harmony between the opposing ways of thinking in east and west. Firstly, Schlingensief interprets human suffering in a direct way in one respect, such as when he brought two people with Down’s syndrome on stage. This can be viewed as referring to Beuys, more specifically the artwork “Show me your wound”, and when he said that a `thalidomide‘ child could be the greatest artist. (“Infiltration Homogenous for Grand Piano, the Greatest Contemporary Composer is the Thalidomide Child”, 1966). The imagination of the persons who suffer from Down’s syndrome in particular is part of the global world, the world of Parsifal, who will become “knowing through compassion”. These are also the people with whom Schlingensief occupies himself intensively in his social work. He once stated – changing again the title of a work of art by Beuys – “Show me your wound” – into “Show your fear”.

In another aspect, Schlingensief brings further analogous forms of suffering on stage. His knights have coloured skin, and are witnesses from parts of the world where people suffer in economic or political ways and who must be rescued from these conditions. The knight-candidates are either white or coloured. Some of the flower-girls are wearing skirts of straw, some others costumes from all over the world; they all speak of their suffering and want to be consoled. Kundry, however, is white and her hair is red, although the medieval story states that she is from Arabic lands. Schlingensief decided to stage her as a character from a folk-tale of the red-headed witch. Klingsor, the magician in Schlingensief’s interpretation, is a black man, however. As told in the medieval stories, he would have been an apprentice with the Muslims, and arrived back as a Hungarian king at the Grail’s castle. From the fountain of life that appears on the edge of stage at the end of the Schlingensief’s production, there rises up a big and naked, black mother earth, who can be interpreted as offering to the grail an expectancy of love and care. This world of the black is no longer a counter-world but one to which we all belong, inside the grail, as well as outside it. The blacks here are victim and culprit at the same time, no longer either good or bad, but only qualified in connection to and within the context of their function at certain points in the story. It is no coincidence then that the words “Gral – Kral” are written on one of the fountains, where the earth-mother is lying. Africa for Schlingensief is a continent that, together with the old Europe, can create a new Utopia. For this reason also, Schlingensief made a film in Namibia, in which music from Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs (Der Ring des Nibelungen) played an important role for its motifs and references.

Schlingensief’s vision of Africa as a place from which an impulse for the creation of Utopia is emerging, after the rather utopia-tired postmodern era, is directly related with an opinion that was expressed by the view of a sociologist, Claus Leggewie (like Schlingensief also from Berlin). Leggewie defines in a book Renaissance of Utopia. Figure of the future in the 21st century, Africa as a `hybrid society, that creates diverging experiences of time and which connects a sense of locality throughout the world”. Africa is a continent of hope, not a lost one, according to Leggewie, because there is an expectation of a kind of Marshall-plan for African union. Finally, he states that “a revitalisation of local knowledge and the adoption of foreign goods and culture of a world without borders go hand in hand; global systems of reference are incorporated in local practices. (…) The real place of Africa is the interdependent world’s society, and its utopian energies are the familiar ones: autonomy and a global citizenship.”

A utopia such as this is very close to Wagner’s dream. We can see this most clearly in his programme notes for the overture of his opera “Parsifal” at a private performance for King Ludwig II on the 12th of November 1880 in Munich, where he states that the basic principles of the work are “Love – faith – hope.” Parsifal offers the spectators the idea of renunciation as a token of hope.

On how this principle of hope could be achieved, Beuys did say something in the conversation that I had with him about Parsifal: “I believe that for a renunciation in particular one needs the utmost activity. In the spiritual sphere. But people have to renounce especially their foolish habits. It can be interpreted in a political way, what they do and make, and want to consume, all this formulating of goals, these have to be renounced, of course, in order to gain some sort of quality of life. Then the quality lies in the act of renouncing, not in the taking. This is indeed the destruction of an inner life, destruction of consciousness, the future, beauty, an art, that is indeed all destruction. So, therefore, the principle of having has to go. And when you put the highest ideas in between, then that would be a renouncing. But that is something very precious, the gold lies there. In renunciation lies gold. Indeed in a spiritual sense. Man’s holiness lies there. I would say, this idea is important.”

For Schlingensief this would mean that the global world of the brothers in faith has to be united in the Grail Castle, not only that of the man of the east with the man of the west, as Beuys proposed. Parsifal meets in the Grail Castle, according to Schlingensief’s wishes, priests of all world religion and not the knights of Kings Arthur’s court. A Tibetan, a Red Indian, a Buddhist, a Mullah und several African Shamans are on stage, as well as a Catholic priest. At one moment in the performance they, one after another, put their hand in a bowl of red paint and press it on the spotless fool Parsifal. During this very touching and euphoric gesture of blessing, the choir sings the nearly endless melody of the Eucharist. Blessed in this way, Parsifal could become one of them, if only he could answer the question: “Do you know what you have seen?” Because he cannot, he is expelled from their circle. In an alchemist way – a discipline with which Wagner and Beuys were both familiar – this means that the whiteness of purity will come to life through the red of blood. According to the alchemist process of the emerging of the soul, this will only occur when a symbolic experience of a number of tests has been passed, a processes of sublimation outside the circle of the priests. Schlingensief’s Parsifal will continue to wear his white shirt with its red hand prints on it.

In this connection, the already quoted “hare” bares a particular meaning. He not only appears as a prop of the Grail, but also in a double video-projection in a blood-red field and as carcass. Schlingensief unearthed an African myth in which the hare represents `foolishness‘. This was well chosen, since, according an alchemist tradition, the hare stands for man, who has to find his way in a nomad-like way as wanderer in a criss-cross pattern – out of feelings of fear – and who also builds his lair as allegoric character, representing creative man. A grail’s castle is not as such represented in the alchemist tradition, but a temple for the soul is, one that the Rosecrucians want to build. But why – in relation to Schlingensief – should it not be the man’s Grail – or even the Kraal castle?

The hare has become somewhat of a celebrity through Beuys’s art. In his performance Siberian Symphony I, Motion from 1963 and the art work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965, the dead hare should be brought back to life. As people who are informed about the secret and black art of alchemy, we know of course that the creative being that resids inside every onlooker had to be revived also. Schlingensief’s hare is in the beginning of the opera performance quite lively, but somewhat later we see it in a video projection as decaying corpse. Parsifal walks through a dark tunnel toward an illuminated opening: end of the performance! It is now the audience’s task to revive the dead hare and turn the putrefaction/decaying into rubination/reddening. By the same token, the aim of Schlingensief’s production is to create a “social sculpture” – in Beuys’s terms – within the audience.

The Russian art theorist Boris Groys stated quite rightly, that “Schlingensief was globalising Parsifal”. I would add to this that this globalisation is not only meant as an enlargement of the world through the African continent, but also a general parable of salvation. This, in its turn, is what the French poet Raymond Roussel meant when he stated in his book Impression of Africa in 1910, that there was an unknown continent in our spiritual lives and, whatever it may be, that its discovery would be beneficial. In the end, it is not Schlingensief’s aim to reach a Christian salvation, but – similar to that of Beuys – “… when our strength dwindles”, Schlingensief stated: “I will look for other batteries for bliss and joy. A melancholy remains. I have found in the inevitability of the end a new source of energy. In Wagner’s operas it is this that touches me deeply. He connects an experience of awakening with an image of death, death and salvation. Ten seconds after I have been awakened, I already notice that all this is terrible, but from this yearning duality I gain the strength to work and live better.”


Der Spiegel, C 7007 CX, 33. Jg. Nr. 45, 5.11.1979

Christoph Schlingensief. Church of Fear. Museum Ludwig. Köln 2005 p. 17

Ibid. p. 37

Ibid. p. 18

Richard Wagner. Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen. Volksausgabe in 16 Bden. 6. Aufl. Leipzig (1911) Vol. 3 p. 50

Ibid. Vol 3, p.50, 62, 140

Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Antje von Graevenitz: “Im Wanderer steckt stets ein neuer Mensch.”in: Storch, Wolfgang (ed.): Der Raum Bayreuth – ein Auftrag aus der Zukunft. Frankfurt a.M. 2002 p. 199-208


Graevenitz, Antje von: Der “Eurasienstab” von Joseph Beuys./ Le “Eurasienstab” de Joseph Beuys/ De “Eurasienstab”van Joseph Beuys. In: Dekker, Anny de (ed.): Joseph Beuys. Eurasienstab. Antwerpen 1987 p. 57-62, 63-68, 69-74

Compare Schlingensief’s work for the Biennale in Venice, 2003 (Arsenale) : “Church of Fear.

Meyer, Rudolf: Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit. Die Gralsgeschichte. Frankfurt a.M. 1983 p. 125, 171/172

Leggewie, Claus: Afrika. Vom Nicht-Ort der Welt zum Kontinent der Zukunft. In: Maresch, Rudolf u. Florian Rötzer (ed.):Renaissance der Utopie. Zukunftsfiguren des 21. Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt a.M. 2004 p. 47-64

Ibid. p. 49

Ibid. p. 64

Compare: Wagner, Richard: Parsifal. Texte, Materialien, Kommentare. Attila Csampai and Dietmar Holland. Hamburg 1984

Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Antje von Graevenitz ibid. 2002

Michelspacher, Stefan: Cabala. 1616 Nr. 21. in: Klossowski de Rola, Stanislaus (ed.): The Golden Game. Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century. London 1988 p. 56

In January 2005, Schlingensief had his premiere of his action ´ Area 7` in the Burgtheater in Vienna, where also motifs of Beuys and Wagner were included, according to Martin Lhotzky: Parsifal on Prater/Tour. Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 18, 21. Januar 2006 p. 37

Der erweiterte Wir-Begriff. Ein Gespräch von Carl Hegemann mit Boris Groys am Tag nach der Bayreuther `Parsifal`/Premiere. In: Nordebayerischer Kurier. Im Internet v. 10.8.2005

Die Welt, 15.8.2004