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Christoph Schlingensief at Burgtheater Wien

Since his production of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2004, Christoph Schlingensief has become for some the enfant terrible of the theater world, for others a contemporary descendant of Joseph Beuys. Schlingensief takes Beuys’s ideas of an expanded art and turns it into expanded theater – something he has done even more successfully now, at the Burgtheater Wien in his installation Area7, than in his Parsifal. Based on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Schlingensief’s production, which combines theater, opera, film, visual arts, and “happenings,” selects but one theme from this setting of the crucifixion story, the question of redemption, to stage a journey of irredeemability.”

As in all Schlingensief’s works, whether TV talk shows, theater pieces, or films, Area7 evinces a deep antipathy to narrative, going so far as to destroy the normal course of a theater visit. Once arriving on a set evening, visitors must structure their own time, without seating, intermission, or most other conventions of the theater. The stage and a portion of the auditorium and the orchestra level are changed into a giant installation guests may walk through, albeit only in small groups. Cobbled together in a self consciously sloppy way from lathes, boards, bed sheets, steel, mirrors, and sand, stuffed to bursting with monitors and stage props, the structure has visitors stumbling from one room to the next, pressing against beds, baby carriages, shelves full of rabbits, and a giant mask (said to be Beuys’s death mask). In its open mouth runs a video of the decaying rabbit already used to great effect in Parsifal. This is “the birth chamber, where the myth and legend begin,” according to Schlingensief.

On the rotating stage is an installation called “The Animatograph,” including such things as an “Ur-Clo” (Ancient Toilet), “Kreuzweg” (Stations of the Cross), “Myonenregen” (Muon Rain), and, in the midst of everything, a boar from Namibia, where Schlingensief was stationed recently with his team and where he made a film, part of which now graces the Vienna installation. And the title, too, refers to that country: Area 7 is a township near Lüderitz, a city founded when Namibia was a German colony. It’s impossible to summarize Schlingensief’s explanations for the individual stations – too many images and words collide in his highly willful approach to meaning and logic. He has created a parallel universe out of replacement parts, ones thoroughly familiar to us, including myths and models like Schrödinger’s car, transformed here into a rabbit, and artistic icons including not just Beuys but Dieter Roth and Andy Warhol, nor to mention Leni Riefenstahl, Hermann Nitsch, and even Jonathan Meese. A loose framework is only provided by the presence of the above-mentioned “animatograph” – a word coined at the end of the nineteenth century for an apparatus to project moving images on to a stage. Schlingensief of course takes the motion several steps further; in his animatograph everything is in motion, not just the images, but also the installation, which is constantly being transformed from evening to evening. Nothing here is final, neither the plot nor the stage sets, nor even the play’s execution at a given site. The stage might be the entire world.

Sabine R. Vogel. Translated from German by Sara Digger.