The Christoph Schlingensief retrospective at MoMA PS1, titled simply Christoph Schlingensief, seeks to capture the career of an artist whose practice is particularly ill-suited to an exhibition. Schlingensief worked in the media of film, participatory performance, political platforms, TV, theater, video art, opera, and experiential sculpture; he continually sought to blur the line between artist and audience. Presenting his work in a white-cube exhibition space, therefore, requires a delicate curatorial balance — grouping his pieces into thematic scaffolding while simultaneously allowing the flexibility that his practice, most of it interactive, had with the audience in its original presentation. Curators Klaus Biesenbach, Anna-Catharina Gebbers, and Susanne Pfeffer have divided his work into broadly thematic groups: political performance, TV shows, theatre, multimedia, opera, and film. The exhibition offers a genre-based understanding of Schlingensief’s practice.
The introductory wall text cites Joseph Beuys as an influence. And indeed, the indubitably charismatic Schlingensief seems in many ways to have been the inheritor of what Beuys embodied — an alternative German consciousness, led by an individual who sought to erase boundaries between artist, art, and audience. But while Beuys often self-presented as a shaman and centered his practice in mythology, Schlingensief’s presentation was vastly more proletarian and his work often grounded in contemporary political causes.
The first room of the exhibition presents Schlingensief’s participatory, political performance work, all of which was located outside the traditional theater space. A sampling of this work: For the 1997 documenta X, Schlingensief staged “My Felt, My Fat, My Hare” (an explicit reference to elements of Beuys’ oeuvre). Schlingensief and his group used sandbags to enclose themselves in an open exhibition space; audience members could join in the mundane, daily rituals of the performers, remove the sandbags that delineated the “stage,” or remain passive viewers.
In “Passion Impossible: 7 Day Emergency Call for Germany” (1997), Schlingensief created a false police force, one that monitored not only law and order but citizens’ happiness as well, drawing particular attention to the plight of the homeless and other ostracized groups. During the 1998 German parliamentary elections, Schlingensief birthed “Chance 2000,” a political party that urged its members to become candidates themselves. “Chance 2000″also staged various actions, including encouraging the six million unemployed German citizens to swim in the lake outside Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s summer residence, thereby raising the water level of the lake to the degree necessary to flood Kohl’s house. (Only a few hundred people showed up; the Chancellor’s house remained dry.) The presentation of these performances relies heavily on excerpted video footage in addition to photos and ephemera. Video obviously allows for little audience participation, but the curators have done an exceptional job excerpting footage that potently conveys the mood of each piece.
The two adjacent rooms focus on Schlingensief’s foray into television work and theatre. In “Talk 2000” (1997) Schlingensief hosted an eight-episode talk show; themes included “Morality in Germany” and “Forever Young.” Schlingensief, ever captivating, was also blunt with his guests, probing their opinions and pushing the limits of proper host behavior. Sometimes, he simply took a nap. “U3000” (2000), an eight-episode MTV series filmed in Berlin’s subways, was madcap and slapstick. With its constantly-shifting center of visual focus, unbalanced (often literally, as the subway lurched) participants, and non sequitur dialogue, “U3000” parodied a fast-moving, shock-focused TV culture. “Freakstars 3000” (2002) marked a return to more politically-themed work within this genre. The six-part series followed mentally-handicapped contestants as they auditioned for a spot in a band, creating absurdist, often humorous situations that illuminated perceptions of the disabled.
Schlingensief’s interest in societal outsiders constantly evoked the specter of National Socialism. “Freakstars 3000” focused on individuals antithetical to the ideal of Aryan strength and competence. “Passion Impossible: 7 Day Emergency Call for Germany” sought to tear away the façade of the competent German state by focusing on the homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts. The curators do not present an explicit link between Schlingensief’s political interests and German history, instead leaving the audience to discover the few pieces in which Schlingensief dealt overtly with National Socialism. In “100 Years of CDU — Game Without Limits” (1993), Schlingensief sought to create a theater experience that would echo the anarchy of Germany directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Themes within the performance — the painting of Jewish stars on businesses, neo-Nazis — also reference earlier history. The “Animatograph” (2005), a camouflaged, rotating carousel, perverts the Wagnerian ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk (ideal synthesis of all art forms), involving viewers in a depraved sculptural parody of the culture of National Socialism. In “Animatograph,” Hitler-Stalin and food-based pornography are reminiscent of Paul McCarthy’s videos.
The exhibition devotes two spaces exclusively to Schlingensief’s film work: the entry hallway is lined with posters of his films; an interior room recreates Schlingensief’s “Club 69,” a theatre in his apartment where he screened his own films and those of filmmakers he admired. The weakest element of Christoph Schlingensief is the conceptual and spatial cloistering of the film program (the theater for screenings is across the hall from the rest of the exhibition). Perhaps this is due to the reliance on footage of performances throughout most of the exhibition — feature-length films aren’t an easy fit with the excerpted nature of the rest of the videos.
Christoph Schlingensief presents two unifying concepts within the artist’s oeuvre: a wrestling with the culture and politics of the nation-state of Germany, and the possibility of an artistic audience to actually re-create this cultural nation-state through participatory action. Schlingensief’s work often creates a feedback loop between the audience, performers, and the form of the work itself. In “Stairlift to Heaven” (2008) the participant rides a stairlift to a little screen, which is covered in a piece of felt. Lifting the felt, one sees a short video of two dwarf women lovingly caressing each other’s faces and sucking on each other’s fingers. A video projection frames the sitter in a halo of light — one finds oneself the center of focus in the room, and implicated in the presentation of the piece itself.
In his theatre and opera productions, Schlingensief sought to erase boundaries between performer and stage, at times including the audience in the performance, which they, in turn, could then shape. Within Schlingensief ‘s primarily German context, this interconnectedness offers the possibility of redemption of German culture and of political change through art. The exhibition does an excellent job of presenting an artist with a specifically German cultural context to an American audience; framing Schlingensief’s practice as grounded in participatory performance with a political stance is more accessible than framing his work as engaging philosophical questions of the Gesamtkunstwerk within German cultural history, although that would have been an equally valid approach.
Christoph Schlingensief continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens) through August 31.