by Alana Shilling-Janoff
MoMA P.S.1 | March 9 – August 31, 2014
Too often, activist art is charged with an urgency its very ephemerality bestows upon it, lingering only so long as its context permits, and doomed to an afterlife as dated social commentary. Not so for the works of Christoph Schlingensief (1960 – 2010), currently on view at MoMA P.S.1. Christoph Schlingensief, at turns alarming and alluring, constitutes the first major U.S. exhibition of works by the German-born artist. Although largely comprised of excerpts from Schlingensief’s films, Christoph also includes ephemera, footage of theatrical productions, and installations.
Not content to merely trope on the pure novelty of introducing an artist at once famous in Germany and relatively obscure in the United States, Christoph also proffers a solution to one of the problems of artistic expression rooted in social activism. Art doubling as social commentary can lose coherence over time as the force of relevance is blunted. Schlingensief’s work resists dissipation. Instead, as immediacy is lost, the works become glosses on what resists the limits of time or geography: self-interest, hypocrisy, violence, humanity. As the bid for timeliness disappears, the aesthetics of the sequences—the delicacy of close-ups and crossfades—become more poignant, invested with an unexpected, hypnotic grace.
This metamorphosis is especially surprising when applied to the œuvre of an artist whose career seemed dedicated to premeditated, outré “performances” that appear to be monuments to fleeting moments or actions calibrated to excite nothing more than pure provocation, as in the form of a public call to kill former Chancellor Helmut Kohl; the tossing of a suitcase containing 99 characteristically “German” items (including a used tampon) into the Hudson River; or a critique of the voyeurism of reality television launched through a doppelgänger of an American Idol competition featuring mentally disabled contestants. One would expect that Schlingensief’s abiding interest in contemporaneity would produce works that, in time, would evaporate—like those of so many other inheritors of the performance-based Joseph Beuys or Bas Jan Ader legacy—into the mere vapor of something that registers meaning only by becoming the cenotaph of meaning lost. Instead, Christoph is a Pedurantist triumph.
Yet, the aesthetic of Schlingensief’s work is as lean as famine. Works militantly eschew sentimentality, renouncing the indulgent filigrees of art—unflinching Bergman-style close-ups of drug addicts, merciless cuts between scenes of street violence and domestic conviviality are at once elegant and audacious. Schlingensief often crosses the Maginot Lines separating art from life in order to better expose social hypocrisies or political repression.
In the “Church of Fear—CoF” (2003), made after the U.S. declaration of war on Iraq, Schlingensief pretends to proselytize based on a principle of fear, complete with slogans, personal testimonies from “true believers” who vow to “own their fear,” and an information hotline. In aping the rhetoric of the modern Church Militant, Schlingensief’s fiction not only resembles reality but simultaneously lays bare the will-o’-the-wisps of spirituality that drive contemporary political action with more visceral force than logical appeals ever could. Indeed, Schlingensief’s work is most powerful when understood as a double exchange. It is more than a blind political action or a modish artistic one—he continually aligns art and fiction against reality and truth, thus binding art and life in a deliciously destabilizing chiasmus.
The most arresting piece in the exhibition is an installation titled “Animatograph” (2005 – 06). It is impossible to encompass in a sentence or even a paragraph the construction or power of this installation, which seems to embody the “timeless moment… / here and nowhere.” Upon entering the “Animatograph,” viewers are confronted with a heavy, simulated door, the mere semblance of an entrance. Posted along a wall swastikas share space with merry couples frolicking in the German countryside. Foreboding promises of the impending Rangnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, are painted in crimson. As the viewer follows the curve of the installation, the entrance to a slowly rotating stage appears. Beyond lies a world of synesthetic chaos and consternation. Aside from tricks of lighting and soundtracks, the installation brokers unsettling pairings, juxtaposing the innocent indifference of nature with references to the atrocities of World War II. Pornographic sketches featuring Hitler and Stalin play alongside projected footage from a rookery of seals. Dried cod festoon thresholds like flowers; a sinister chandelier flickers overhead. Even the split World War II bunker at the center of the installation is torn between the atrocities of war and the impersonal quietude of death. Its disorienting, hallucinatory power makes the modish “Infinity Rooms” of Doug Wheeler or Yayoi Kusama seem callow, fastuous, and solipsistic in comparison. Schlingensief’s installation offers a vision of humanity as if seen through a fevered dream, scattered across sounds and impressions, and descending into the terrifying incoherence of an eternal present.