PRINT September 1982

Wagner’s Head

FOR A MOMENT, IT appeared that an enormous, 65-foot-long facsimile of Richard Wagner’s death mask, which had provided the craggy landscape for Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s film Parsifal, 1982, might be trucked into Kassel and installed on the grounds of Documenta. For a moment, Syberberg enthusiastically investigated the possibility of shipping it. In the end, the tentative offer from Documenta 7 was withdrawn and the head remained on a backlot in Munich. It is, perhaps, foolish to speculate on the implications of something that was only, for a moment, a possibility, but I think not. Nor is it possible to ignore the role assigned to Caspar David Friedrich (a precursor of Wagner in his loathing of the French, his intractable nationalism, and his wild Northern Romanticism), whose Sea of Ice, 1823–24, is reproduced in the catalogue adjacent to Rudi Fuchs’ introductory preface, as the illustration for a metaphor of Fuchs’ own devising wherein “The river [the practice of art/ culture as we know it] is gradually freezing over; it is time for a new departure” (navigated, one assumes, by Fuchs).

In “The Case of Wagner,” a witty, acidic purge of his onetime idol, Friedrich Nietzsche states: “Wagner is the modern artist par excellence, the Cagliostro of modernity. In his art all that the modern world requires most urgently is mixed in the most seductive manner: the three great stimulantia of the exhausted—the brutal, the artificial, and the innocent (idiotic).” So too, in the Gesamtkunstwerk of Documenta, were Wagner’s stimulantia enshrined. The brutal was exalted by Hermann Nitsch, the artificial by Syberberg, the innocent by Joseph Beuys. Not inconsequentially, each of these artists is also pursuing his vision of Gesamtkunstwerk, his Grail.

Through the intervention of Nitsch, Documenta 7 went careening back to the origin of it all. Nitsch’s art epitomizes the primal hysteria of bloodied hands beating away the terrifying, silent onrush of thought. When, in the early ’60s, Nitsch climbed up on his cross, the act could be read as political, brazenly in opposition to bourgeois reconstructionism. Claiming for himself the “negative, unsavoury, perverse, obscene, the passion and the hysteria of the act of sacrifice so that YOU are spared the sullying, shaming descent into the extreme,” Nitsch appeared as a proletarian Siegfried bathing in the blood of a new, polemical dragon. Only as the hypotheses surrounding his orgies-mysteries (o.m.) theater were institutionalized was it understood that, under the guise of Bacchic therapy, Nitsch had allied himself with the reign of Wotan, had become lost in the realm of the brutal.

In the survey of work accorded him by Documenta, Nitsch was represented by a combination of photographic documentation and performance artifacts. The photographs (mostly in color) show o.m. initiates spread-eagled under eviscerated sheep, sheathed in animal entrails, crucified upside down, and anointed with incarnadine bladders. Interspersed with the photographs are the relics of Kitsch’s “Aktionen”: here a row of litters, there an arrangement of soiled ecclesiastical vestments—all stained a rusty red. In his catalogue essay Nitsch claims that: “The concentrated aesthetic liturgy of the o.m. theatre can spread and extend itself to the whole life and can transform the course of life into a being-and-life-affirming, aesthetic ritual.” It is through the o.m. theater that Nitsch is pursuing his dream of Gesamtkunstwerk in the Austrian countryside. There, in the role of hieratic facilitator, he conducts six-day “feasts of existence” in which flesh and blood and music are orchestrated to transport adepts to heights of visceral ecstasy. This is a domain that Wagner knew only too well and in which he believed enough to sow therein the seeds for Siegfried’s destruction, and, later, to tempt Parsifal to the edge of the abyss.

Enter Documenta’s Parsifal, Joseph Beuys. Enter the innocent. Beuys was present in Kassel ostensibly as the dean of the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research. Not unpredictably, the dean found the time to act as a master of ceremonies, a droit de seigneur autocrat, and, for the pictures for posterity, “the holy fool.” Early on in Documenta—at the opening press conference, in fact—Beuys deflected questions addressed to the exhibition’s organizers in a pantomimic exercise which smacked of a publicity stunt. (Such is Beuys’ power that his right to disruption was given official sanction even at the risk of making those who had given the sanction look ridiculous.) Although his pride of place was publicly exercised at the press conference, it did not protect him from an antic act of subterfuge directed against the materialization of his Documenta-sponsored project, 7,000 Oaks—a long pile of rough-hewn stones on the lawn in front of the Fridericianum. The mechanics were as follows: for 500 Deutschmarks one could provide for the purchase of one oak, its planting in Kassel, the installation of one of these basalt stones next to the tree, and maintenance of both. In return, the donor would “receive a receipt acknowledging their donation and also TREE DIPLOMA, stamped by the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY, and bearing Joseph Beuys’ personal signature.” The mechanics of the subterfuge were even simpler: a guerilla attack on the dignity of the stelae whereby, under the cover of darkness, much of the mound was painted a hot, punk pink by a few young “troublemakers.” Only in the young of Kassel does one see signs of friction, hints that living in a cozy, geranium-bordered Alphaville may take a toll. In the children, one can see the kind of cultural degeneracy which expresses its need for anarchy in stance and costume. The Götterdämmerung experienced by their seniors—the humiliation and, after it, the steely will for a persuasive new order—means nothing to the international army of children who have come of age since the media revolution. In his press materials for Documenta, Beuys quotes Goethe: “Germany?—But where is it? I do not know how to find this country.” On the walls of their city’s pedestrian underpasses, the children of Kassel scrawl “Where is punk?” The dean was not amused by the attack, and, well before nightfall on the day of discovery, the rocks were power-hosed back to their original stoneness.

In a letter of support included in the project’s promotional package, artist Otto Muehl lent his voice to the troubling poetics of nationalism: “You rinse the roots—of Wotan, through to Wagner, Hitler and the crusaders with their oak leaves and diamond filth—out of the branches of this innocent tree. I already hear the murmur of a new oak wood. . . . I admire your courage for having dug this tree out of the ideological swamp.” Thus blessed, Beuys marches forward. Or, and this is the fear, backward—right into that ideological swamp. Let us not forget that Germany has been methodically reforesting since the Franco-Prussian war and, ritually, since time immemorial. (As late as 1819 Caspar Friedrich’s adherent Carl Gustav Carus, on a visit to northern Germany, “noted the persistence of an ancient custom whereby every male, upon the arrival at maturity, was required to plant an oak tree.”) It also bears remembering how, in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, forestry rangers parade past Hitler with shovels (not guns) on their shoulders, setting out for the greening of the Reich.

Beuys is out to forge a new construct—a “SOCIAL SCULPTURE”—that will forever alter that which is to follow. Still, he is incapable of taking one step forward without the accumulated baggage of centuries trailing along in his wake. In a revisionist assessment of Beuys (in Artforum, January 1980), Benjamin Buchloh states:

In the work and public myth of Joseph Beuys the German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known. As much as Richard Wagner’s work anticipated and celebrated these collective regressions into Germanic mythology and Teutonic stupor in the realm of music, before they became the actual reality and the nightmare that set out to destroy Europe . . . it would be possible to see in Beuys’ work the absurd aftermath of that nightmare . . .

In his four-page manifesto in the Documenta 7 catalogue, Beuys advances along the “Alternative of the Third Path” on his way to the Grail of a “postcapitalist and postcommunist NEW SOCIETY OF TRUE SOCIALISM.” Given the realities of Germany’s last embrace with socialism this exercise by the innocent, filled with “CONSTRUCTIVE INITIATIVE ACTION,” “SOCIAL SCULPTURE,” and “UNITY IN PLURALITY” requires a cautious critical eye. It is easy to be romanced by Beuys’ utopian desire for a new order (old orders are inevitably non-sympathetic), and it is far more gratifying to align oneself with the path of the innocent than that of the brutal. (Parsifal’s quest was, after all, sanctified by his naiveté, by his ignorance of the rules). Yet, the innocent, in its generic transcendence of conscience, poses problems of affiliation which are more intricate than ever were those encountered in identification with the brutal. Each generation needs its Parsifals—they satisfy our need for romance—but they are not citizens above investigation. Beuys has become one of our leading visionary artists. Once that is acknowledged, his program must be assessed as part of the world it aspires to change.

In that remarkable exultation, “Syberberg’s Hitler,” published in 1980 in The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag wrote:

Syberberg is a great Wagnerian, the greatest since Thomas Mann, but his attitude to Wagner and the treasures of German Romanticism is not only pious. It contains more than a bit of malice, the touch of the cultural vandal. To evoke the grandeur and the failure of Wagnerianism, Hitler, a Film from Germany uses, recycles, parodies elements of Wagner. Syberberg means his film to be an anti-Parsifal, and hostility to Wagner is one of its leitmotifs: the spiritual filiation of Wagner and Hitler. The whole film could be considered a profaning of Wagner, undertaken with a full sense of the gesture’s ambiguity, for Syberberg is attempting to be both inside and outside his own deepest sources as an artist.

Sontag’s analysis might well stand as a description of Syberberg’s contribution to Documenta, which is, in every way, the continuation of an old feud-cum-love-affair. From Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King, 1972, through The Confessions of Winifred Wagner, 1975, and Hitler, a Film from Germany, 1977, to Parsifal, Syberberg has manifested an abiding fascination with his heritage. To a great extent, each of the films preceding Parsifal explores its title character through their appropriation of and identification with Wagner. Now, with his adaptation of Parsifal, Syberberg draws perilously close to those he had previously autopsied. He moves from the role of inquisitor to that of interpreter and, in so doing, arrives at the shores of the Sea of Ice.

Although it occupies a suite of six rooms in the basement of the Fridericianum, Syberberg’s installation goes unacknowledged in the catalogue. Asked to do an installation of props from his film Parsifal, Syberberg was given two weeks to arrive at a strategy that would both fill the allotted space and act as a complementary element in the Gesamtkunstwerk of Documenta. Possibly, the organizers should have guessed that the artist who took nearly three hours of film to deal with Ludwig of Bavaria and over seven to ponder Hitler would take up a lot of philosophical room, but they didn’t and the piece cast a very long shadow which, unanticipated as it was, threw the issue of art-as-a-manifestation-of-conscience into high relief.

Manipulating his grottoed chambers like a fractured narrative, Syberberg used his props to set up an impacted walking tour through the ruins of German history. The subject is, of course, Wagner: Wagner, the thought of whom caused Gabriele D’Annunzio’s mind to go blank when commissioned to write the composer’s epitaph; Wagner, whose rhythmic machinery Sergei Diaghilev referred to as “saliva.” Again, as in all of Syberberg’s work, the Parsifal suite acts as both an homage and an exorcism. Carpeted with leaves and studded with incongruous ruins (an enormous fragment of a sculptural rendering of Delacroix’s Liberté; an engorged stone penis rising cobra-like from the floor and capped with a German helmet of a foreskin; the base of the fountain which appears in Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece), the rooms unfold like visions in a dream. Everywhere are reminders and representations of an undigested past. In the final chamber the spirit of the thing becomes provocatively clear. There, in the center of the floor, is a litter, draped with a blood-stained shroud, bearing the death mask of Wagner. All around the room, meditating as it were, are representations of Aeschylus, Charlemagne, Ludwig, Nietzsche, Marx and—boysized, a puppet dressed in lederhosen—Hitler. All of it is extravagantly and unrepentantly artificial. One could almost hear Nietzsche declaiming from the grave: “Ah, this old magician, how much he imposed upon us! The first thing his art offers us is a magnifying glass: one look through it, one does not trust one’s eyes—everything looks big, even Wagner.” Even, I might add, Syberberg.

The Parsifal suite is, ultimately, an extended reverie on the awful toll of hubris—on the metamorphosis of art into weapon. It is a theme that Syberberg will not, cannot let go (one wonders if he clings to it with such tenacity as a guard against the sins of ambition); and one which, with its aura of high-strung vigilance, contributed an intellectual nervousness to an exhibition that Fuchs was determined should not be about nervousness (“We did everything to avoid a nervous exhibition . . .”).

So, in a way Wagner’s head did finally come to Kassel. Instead of the original plan, it was brought by Nitsch, Beuys, and Syberberg. And as was originally feared, it provided an uncomfortable moment. It would be convenient to see Wagner’s legacy as belonging only to a specific time and place. But that’s wrong. It belongs to the West and he is all of ours. Our artists, Nitsch and Beuys and Syberberg, also refuse to fit gracefully into a structure. Their projects not only encourage followers, they demand them—that is the point. Without followers, they would simply have an audience and the world that they want would be left as an idea. Like Wagner, their esthetic requires first re-evaluation, then appreciation. Their effect, or potential effect, is what elevates their art to life—to our lives, to our collective society which is no less exhausted than the one which longed to cry out “Brother . . . master” to Wagner when he took his bows at Bayreuth.

Richard Flood reviews exhibitions regularly for Artforum.