Alex Wissel is a Düsseldorf-based artist whose deadpan video installations, drawings, and performances address biography and history in an attempt to deconstruct master metanarratives through reenactment. For the past year, he has been cowriting, with director Jan Bonny, and acting in Rheingold, 2016–, a series currently under development for television, which follows the downfall of Helge Achenbach, one of Germany’s most notorious and criminal art consultants. Additionally, he has been developing a body of drawings in conjunction with the series. Here, he discusses the television series, which will be screened at the Kölnischer Kunstverein during Art Cologne in April 2017.
RHEINGOLD IS A SERIES that director Jan Bonny and I have been writing together about a former German art consultant named Helge Achenbach who is now in jail for fraud. He systematically betrayed his clients (for example, the Albrechts, one of the richest families in Germany, who own the supermarket chain Aldi) over several years with a very simple trick: He forged invoices by photocopying them with little euro signs over the dollar signs, and because of the exchange rate he made nearly $20 million over a few years. After he was arrested, he testified in court that they weren’t invoices at all––they were collages.
Using this as a starting point, we want to explore how the achievements of left-wing politics in Germany have been abolished to create the basis for neoliberalism—particularly how the baby boomer generation has misinterpreted ideas around 1968, like Beuys’s concept of social sculpture and his notorious declaration that “everybody is an artist”—and we’re looking closely at the creation of an ideology centered in self-expression, ideas of freedom, and the free market, and in which art is the highest value or in which self-expression is a value in itself. Rheingold should read as a comedy or satire about the past fifteen years, particularly the Social Democratic Party and its shift from a working-class movement to one that has increasingly lost its agenda and its voters to the right wing. There’s an example of this in almost every Western country. Rheingold is a little like a prequel to the success of populism now.
Achenbach in many ways embodies this generation. He started out as a social worker, taking care of people in prisons, and then somehow became art-infected after coming across Beuys, who was a bit of a father figure for him. Achenbach opened a gallery and began inventing ideas around art consulting in Europe, proffering art as an inspirational method in the workplace that can encourage employees to be more creative and effective. He became extremely successful, building up several private and corporate collections, and selling his ideas to corporations, such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, and the German national soccer team, for which he equipped a training camp called Campo Bahia for the 2014 World Cup in Brasil with artworks by German and Brazilian artists. After Germany won the World Cup he went straight to jail.
I met him recently on my way to the bakery. He has now reached the status of a Freigaenger, which means that he is allowed to do social work during the daytime and only has to return to jail at night. He came up to me and said, “You’re one of the guys making a movie about me. I watched trailers on the Internet and I like that episode with me at the copy machine!” Jan and I met him one more time. He also started painting in prison now, and we’re thinking to involve him as an artist in the series. Maybe we can use some paintings as interiors for some scenes.
Jan and I both want to develop Rheingold as a proper TV series so that it will be broadcast to a wider audience. The aim is more or less to portray some ideas around a specific art discourse that are not usually addressed in German television. A lot of artists and well-known actors have already worked on it, such as Studio for Propositional Cinema, Bibiana Beglau, and Joachim Król and Mathias Brandt, who both play Achenbach in different scenes.
In German, the word Geschichte means “history” as well as “story.” I’m interested in how history can be written and rewritten, and how an alternative history can come about through using the technique of collage. For instance, if you put two pictures together, a third picture comes across; that’s how meaning is created. For me, the most interesting thing in this process is how one can produce an alternative art history. I see it a bit like activism. It’s maybe a bit old-fashioned to say, but every artist creates him- or herself by declaring themselves to be one, like Achenbach did in court. The tagline I wrote for a former project reads, “Everyone invents a story for themselves that they later call life.” In politics and in history, it’s the same.