King of schlock and shock, the late Christoph Schlingensief is widely considered one of the most eminent artists to emerge out of Germany in the last fifty years. Beginning as a filmmaker, he later incorporated theater, sculpture, installation, performance, and even literature into his practice before his untimely death at the age of fifty. Appropriating pop culture iconography for social activism, his democratic version of the post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) sought to integrate the public and often himself into the work. Using multiple media channels, he caricatured, or rather, revealed the distortion of contemporary mythology as an incubus for social ills and political machinations. Organizing Schlingensief’s first posthumous retrospective, Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) took on the challenge of how we might best present and understand the artist’s incomplete oeuvre.
Though Schlingensief participated in plenty of exhibitions, most notably 1997's documenta X and the 2011 Venice Biennale, this is the first major gathering of his works. His focus on performance, extreme topicality, and emphasis on the interdependency of environment, space, and media make it difficult to effectively communicate the timbre of his works. Demonstrating these challenges most bluntly are three opera films from Schlingensief’s Cross-Mutilation exhibition at Zurich's Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst (2007), which have been transported to the KW basement. The viewer squeezes into the narrow entryway only to be bottlenecked there by pieces that both literally and metaphorically deny easy access, mocking the complacent notion of art's transferability. The conceit of the basement as a grotto, dusty archive, parents' cellar (where the artist exhibited avant-garde films early in his career), or perhaps, most fittingly, catacombs, only further emphasizes time's transformation upon these images and their altered reception, filtered through the artist's death. Persistent viewers are rewarded by a surprisingly beautiful experience. The elegant marriage between the monochromatic decay projected in and by the images and the weathered basement walls obscures the boundaries between the physical space and the artwork. On the other hand, the ubiquity of monitors plugged into walls and visitors plugged into headphones provides a more discomfiting visualization of the media-culture's parasitic omnipresence, anathema to Schlingensief.
Christoph Schlingensief, Church of Fear - Poles of the Stylites, 2003, multimedia installation, 1m x 1m x 400cm, installation view of the first international pole-sitting contest of the 50th Biennale di Venezia, June 11-17, 20013 (reconstruction); Courtesy of Deichtorhallen Hamburg/Flackenberg Collection; Photo: Uwe Walter.
There is a certain narrative flow to the installation, inscribing a poetic catharsis onto the visitor's experience. As you enter and ascend to the exhibition’s higher levels, you travel backwards through Schlingensief’s life, from the infamous Please Love Austria (2000) to the Germany Trilogy series (1988-1992). The works are confrontational, featuring both the grotesque and the mundane. Yet, when the heavy-handed materiality of television screens and set excerpts gives way to beautifully haptic disembodied projections at the exhibition's apex, it is difficult not to think of the enlightenment and revelation present in all of Schlingensief's work, no matter how kitsch, satirical, or incendiary. Indeed, with the cunning combination of the show's centerpieces, Church of Fear's - Poles of the Stylites (2003) and Animatograph Edition Parsipark (2005), grounding the show's aesthetic, the retrospective throws the viewer into a mythological journey towards psychological transformation, individual empowerment, and social action, beginning with a Dante-an forest, a Steppenwolf's Magic Theater.
Unfortunately, seemingly arbitrary technical and aesthetic choices insinuate themselves into the exhibition. There are multiple stations for viewing his television lampoons, such as U3000 (2000) and Freakstars 3000 (2000), that seem a bit redundant. On the other hand, his operatic works suffer from rhetorical build-up and deflated presentation. Before the end of his life, Schlingensief, who often incorporated degrees of staged grandiosity in his works (e.g. Action 18 , Mea Culpa: A Readymade Opera , The African Twintowers: Stairlift to Heaven ), had become increasingly involved in opera as a stage director, participating in the Bayreuth Festival, Berlin Staatsoper, Volksbühne, and other institutions such as the Regietheater. Indeed, he referred to his achievements in staging Wagner’s Parsifal (2004-) as the culmination of his artistic development: “I have the feeling that everything was aimed toward Parsifal.” Unfortunately, the location (a nook on the first floor), quality of the films (a montage of performances resulting from the absence of stage recordings), and medium (two small televisions) fail to stand up to the artist's commitment. In the same vein, Manaus (The Flying Dutchman) (2007) and the Opera Village Project (2008-) are also given dry treatment. But perhaps that's the point – Schlinsengief's work was always present, grappling with the pressing moment; his was a living art, all the more ripe for mummification.
Christoph Schlingensief, Deutschlandtrilogie (Germany Trilogy), 1988-1992, installation view; Photo: Uwe Walter.
Nevertheless, KW has obviously succeeded in amassing quantity. The volume and range is enormous, taking up four floors, with two installations outside the building and film screenings in a cinema in the side-atelier. In the end it is perhaps the occasional mayhem of the curation, the impossibility of tidying the work, that proves the most apt homage to Schlingensief's urgent will to live art and artfully live.
(Image on top: Christoph Schlingensief, The African Twintowers - Stairlift to Heaven, 2007, installation view, dimensions variable; Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; Photo: Uwe Walter)