On March 7, 1997, German artist Martin Kippenberger died of liver cancer at the age of 43. His death marked the end of an extraordinary and prolific career that included painting, installations, music, books and ephemera, and even a brief foray into acting.
But at the heart of it was Kippenberger himself. His drunken antics and grand gestures — mooning and heckling crowds; naming a gas station in Brazil after a Nazi official; opening a museum and a fake subway station on a Greek island — amounted to a life that New York Times art critic Roberta Smith once called “an extended, alcohol-fueled performance piece.”
At the same time, he centered attention on himself with several artworks that featured his image — or that of the character “Kippenberger” — including exhibition posters, paintings, and postcards. What is often lost in posthumous accounts of Kippenberger’s life and persona is the intelligence and multilayered critique in his work: of himself; identity politics; and the ideological constructs of late capitalist subjectivity.
In her 2001 performance piece “Art Must Hang,” artist Andrea Fraser both commemorated and critiqued the “performance piece” that was Martin Kippenberger, reenacting word-for-word a drunken speech Kippenberger gave in 1995. Fraser’s performance is predicated on the slippage between art and life— or lives — of both artists. That slippage is also a reminder of how deftly Kippenberger played Kippenberger
Art critic Diedrich Diederichsen has described the artist as a “Selbstdarsteller,” literally, a self-performer. Kippenberger emerged at a moment in the mid-1970s when the concepts of subjectivity and identity in art were undergoing critical interrogation. For Kippenberger, however, the ideological construct of the “self” was less a point of interrogation than a point of departure. Throughout the 1970s, he produced several self-promotional posters, as well as a series of tourist-style photographs, in which he “performed” his own identity, constructing “Kippenberger” as, to use a phrase from Roland Barthes, an “artificial myth.”
In his essay “Myth Today” (1957), Barthes proposes that, “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth.” In works such as the series of “tourist” postcards; a sheet of stamps, “Twenty-One Years Among You, Kippenberger 1953-1974” (1974); and a poster, “A Quarter Century of Kippenberger as One of You, Among You, With You” (1978), Kippenberger performs an identity founded in myth (i.e., the myth of the artist, or the myth of the transcendent subject).
For the postcard series, Kippenberger poses as the consummate tourist in tourist havens around the United States. The postcards show him mugging for the camera with a Disney actor in a Goofy costume; donning a cowboy outfit; mimicking his “escape” from a prison cell through its bent bars; and poised on a hill top with a suitcase.
The series demonstrates the fluidity of Kippenberger’s self-performance. The images parody the trope of the tourist by theatricalizing the artist’s absorption into the role, while simultaneously performing the role of Martin Kippenberger. By posing as a “servant of tourism,” in Kippenberger’s words (Knechte des Tourismus in German), he positions himself as a trope, “the tourist.”
Kippenberger’s self-performance conflates the persona with the person. This doubling, of himself as himself, is multiplied by the reproductive capacity of his media. The myth of a transcendent (white male) artist is undone by his deliberate and hyperbolic visibility as a performer; by replicating his representation, he not only objectifies himself, but also objectifies the transcendent subject as another replicable sign to be passively consumed in the system of commodity exchange.
“Twenty-One Years Among You, Kippenberger 1953-1974” and “A Quarter Century of Kippenberger as One of You, Among You, With You,” which promote his 21st and 25th birthdays, respectively, further conflate the performed persona and the actual person.
The image on the poster for “A Quarter Century” pairs Kippenberger with an elderly man in a restaurant. While the artist sits, his companion stands, wrapping one arm around Kippenberger’s shoulder and shaking his hand with the other arm. The German text, “1/4 Jhdt. Kippenberger als einer von Euch, unter Euch, mit Euch,” is printed on the bottom corner, and descriptive adjectives encircle Kippenberger’s smiling face. “Twenty-One Years Among You,” by contrast, is a set of forty-eight stamps printed in pink and white, all but one, a blank, bearing a portrait photo of Kippenberger at a different age.
In all these works, Kippenberger the artist replicates Kippenberger the subject in a process that loosely parallels Andy Warhol’s self-portraits. The artwork has no essential, shrouded meaning; all that it means is inscribed on the surface. Yet where Warhol attempted to empty the sign of meaning, producing pure surface, Kippenberger attempts the opposite. He exaggerates his visibility, but presents it as an overdetermined subjectivity, again, what Barthes identifies as “mythifying” the myth.
Kippenberger thus forms his narrative through what Craig Owens identifies as the rhetoric of the pose, or the “Medusa Effect.” Owens writes, “[T]o strike a pose is to present oneself to the gaze of the other as if one were already frozen, immobilized – that is, already a picture.”
Kippenberger performs himself through the pose — in Owens’s words, as “already a picture.” The narrative performed in the images (the poster, the stamps) reproduces Kippenberger as “Kippenberger.” The system of subjectivity perpetually defers subjectivity itself.
In “Twenty-One Years Among You,” Kippenberger is identified as “among you,” while in “A Quarter Century,” he is “one of you, among you, with you.” In both works, the title harnesses the image to two identities, “Kippenberger” and an unspecified “you,” which is dispersed among all that is not Kippenberger: the old man in “Quarter Century”; the artist’s peers; and his viewers. In this way, the “you” is addressed to an anonymous, unfixed, and replicable body.
The relationship between Kippenberger and the audience (“you”) thus forms an invisible ideological network premised on a utopian — and inevitably impossible — system of collectivity and inclusiveness. Yet as the artist plays the one as the many, the egalitarianism of the title is betrayed by the repetition of Kippenberger’s image: the “one” is Kippenberger, but the many, paradoxically, is an absence to be filled in by the one’s presence.
The result is that Kippenberger is not made one of the people; the people are made into “Kippenberger.” Kippenberger is therefore constructed in rhetoric, but the construction is his own, and the rhetoric is deliberately deployed — marked as fake, as parody.
Kippenberger’s German heritage is an ineluctable presence in works like “A Quarter Century” — the proclamation “one of you, among you” can be perceived as a parody of Nazi propaganda (“Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer”), but it can also be read as an adoption of its strategies, a charge his critics leveled against him. (And that continued to dog him, encouraged by such projects as his 1986 “Martin Bormann Gas Station,” named after the Nazi official.) Kippenberger responded sardonically, with the 1984 abstract painting “Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz erkennen” (“To the Best of My Ability, I Can See No Swastika”).
The irony of identifying Kippenberger with nationalism or Nazi propaganda is that, as his works undermine the myth of the artist as a sovereign subject, they also illuminate the performative nature of identity. At their best, his works project the instability of the “self” onto the viewer by asserting the subject “Kippenberger,” but failing to finalize what Kippenberger stands for, who he is.
Twenty years after his death, Kippenberger’s art continues his self-performance, questioning preconceptions of the artist and opening into new selves.