Performance Anxiety

Claire Bishop on Jonathan Meese


Left: Jonathan Meese performs at the Tate Modern. Right: Jonathan Meese. (Photo: Sheila Burnett)

How do you organize an academic conference on Martin Kippenberger, that most rock ’n’ roll of artists? Well, you don’t. Tate Modern anticipated this problem, and last Saturday presented three informal lectures on the late German rollercoaster. Sadly, all of them fell a little flat. The highlight came in the form of Kippenberger himself, when Daniel Baumann (Museum of Fine Arts, Bern) showed us Christoph Doering’s 3302 (1979) an artist’s film of a taxi ride around Kippenberger’s Berlin milieu: After repeatedly accelerating toward the Berlin Wall, the taxi careens through the city at night, carrying various passengers who get increasingly out of hand (wanking, vomiting, and tit-flashing). Baumann also made us endure an unlistenable song by Kippenberger’s band Luxus, and gave an exhaustive page-by-page rundown of the magazine Sehr Gut Very Good. (Thank God there was only ever one issue.) The already-small audience dwindled further during the break. The plenary discussion perked things up briefly, but the only complex argument to emerge concerned Kippenberger’s ambivalent relationship to the heroic role of the artist: both desiring this position and despising it, and thematizing this ambivalence in the work.

However unresolved, this discussion of artistic personae nicely framed Jonathan Meese’s performance, Noel Coward is Back: Dr. Humpty Dumpty vs. Fra No-Finger, presented the same night in conjunction with the Kippenberger show. The latter’s self-destructiveness certainly has parallels with Meese’s brand of Teutonic abjection. Arriving at 10 PM to a heaving throng on the Turbine Hall bridge, I found that Meese’s epic neo-expressionist self-abasement had begun ahead of schedule. The artist (made up like a geisha, but sporting his usual uniform of layered Adidas tops) was standing in a vast wrestling ring adorned with skeletons, photographs of himself, bells, plastic mannequins, and random piles of detritus. Massive painted screens flanked the wrestling ring, which stood before a video projection that relayed the live action, intercut with clips of Visconti’s The Damned, Meese in his studio, Noel Coward singing, and dozens of other films. Meese swigged a bottle of whiskey and stumbled around, apparently drunk and jetlagged from a trip to Tokyo. Wearing an impressive variety of headgear—from a safari-style helmet to crusader chainmail—he wailed and crooned a stock of phrases repetitively into the microphone around his neck: “Ree-chard Vag-ner” and “A-dolf Heet-ler” (accompanied by salutes and wanking gestures); “If you want to be huuu-man . . . you must watch 120 Days of Sodom by Pa-so-li-ni . . .” He threw around the furniture and skeletons like a spoiled child and clung to the ropes of the wrestling ring, apparently in psychotic meltdown.

Left and Right: Jonathan Meese.

It was quite an onslaught. The girl next to me left in tears; my friends bolted to the bar. I stuck it out for an hour, submitting to the hypnotic effect of Meese’s psychotherapeutic self-humiliation and recurring musical loops (ominous chords, Irish jigs, Coward’s campy English ditties) and trying to make sense of the mélange. When the video and sound track stopped, Meese soldiered on unplugged until forcibly removed from atop his bronze cactus sculpture. The event polarized the audience: Some found it fabulously energizing (“London hasn’t seen anything like this before”), but, frankly, they were in the minority; most were bored and insulted (“I feel like I’ve been used like a nappy”).

It’s true that the viewer seems to perform an absorptive role for Meese’s metaphorical feces. On the one hand, his mise-en-scène was visually compelling, belonging to a tradition of abject, chaotic performance-installations from Hermann Nitsch to Paul McCarthy to John Bock. On the other, the work does depend on a psychological performance of excruciating interiority: Meese’s adoption of an antiheroic persona is uncritically anchored in the Expressionist tradition. Against Kippenberger’s performative exploration of artistic personae (a performativity that leaves an empty center, à la Warhol), Meese’s cathartic performance keeps all notions of subjective coherence intact. While purporting to be about Germany’s repressed history, Jonathan Meese’s work seems more about Jonathan Meese. At a dinner for the artist a week previously, he had half-joked that the Tate performance “will be my grave.” I wouldn’t go this far, but I do now know that unravelling his references is no guarantee of conceptual gratification. This is not to deny the potency of Meese’s all-consuming subjective blitzkrieg, just to acknowledge it simply as that.