PRINT Summer 2005


Matt Saunders on Jonathan Meese’s Mother Parsifal

AT THE END of John Boorman’s 1974 cult film Zardoz, Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling sit in a cave and age quickly through the rest of their lives while Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony booms. The cuts move with the music, so each new phrase of orchestral high Kultur seems to bury them deeper under campy pancake and latex. As pretentious tableau, it pits lifetime against geological time, and as eccentric comedy, it transforms the two sex symbols into Pirate’s Cove theme-park skeletons. From Jonathan Meese, I expected something of the same.

Jonathan Meese Is Mother Parsifal set the young artist alone against the well-over-five hours of Wagner’s slow-moving epic in the vast scenery storehouse of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. There Meese performed three shows in March, with music piped in live from the new Eichinger and Barenboim production of Parsifal, which was playing simultaneously in the Staatsoper’s main auditorium. It was a prestigious venue for the Berlin art scene’s resident Wagnerian—although, aside from promising an endurance test, it was unclear until opening night what Meese would actually do.

Sitting on bleachers, clutching wool blankets in the soaring, unheated Magazin, we confronted an extraordinary junk pile of a stage. Majestic in the center stood the enormous stone head from Zardoz, transformed into a Janus-faced portrait of Wagner—on one side Meese’s rough version and on the other a souvenir-shop likeness, embellished with a great phallic chin. A blowup of a small sculpture, it bore oversize traces of the artist’s thumbprints. On the back wall was a painted caption: DR. SAINT PROPAGAN DADDY SPOKE Homemade Meesiana littered the stage: weapons and helmets; large photos of Klaus Kinski with hand-painted captions like THANK YOU and FRIEND; and, down some stairs, The Propagandist, a bronze humanoid sporting five huge dicks. A rickety ladder led down to a pit, where four blank canvases stood ready. With rows of plastic skeletons flanking a throne at center stage, the set seemed as much goth bar as Valhalla.

At the premiere, Meese started by fondling and back-slapping his sculpture—“You are a good boy”—before embarking on a series of both ritualized and apparently aimless manipulations of the props. An iron cross on an elastic rope was a favorite, whether stuck in his eye like a monocle, displayed as a talisman, or hung around the neck of The Propagandist. The sculpture also became a sort of coatrack for piles of swords, spears, crosses, and banners that Meese, a gleeful raider of the Staatsoper prop storage, variously seized, wielded, and discarded. Changing his military coat for another uniform—a black Adidas jacket—he made fast paintings straight from the tube, labeling each stringy tangle like the diagrams on a Joseph Beuys chalkboard. A cameraman tagged along throughout the show, feeding a giant video projection at the rear of the stage that also featured intercut footage of past Meese performances and other miscellany. As the artist grimaced, saluted, held signs, and donned helmets below, there were repetitions and correspondences on the screen above. All the while, Wagner’s music, like the Beethoven in Zardoz, at once heroicized and diminished everything Meese did.

The actual relation between Parsifal and Mother Parsifal seemed loose at best. Wagner’s opera tells the story of a naive fool who emerges from self-absorbed cluelessness to learn compassion and, eventually, take on the social role of redeemer and spiritual leader. Meese took the opposite path, descending from a headlining artiste (greeting a representative from the Staatsoper on stage before the show) to a withdrawn lunatic, literally frothing at the mouth. On opening night, this was compounded by two bottles of wine. As Meese withdrew into the inscrutable inner world of his own inebriation (which we watched like a restaging of Warhol’s 1964 film Drunk), he dragged the whole backstage of the production into view. He accidentally shattered his glasses and then began dismantling the stage and hurling it down into the pit, prompting frantic movements from his gallerist and the production crew on the margins. After a skeleton became entangled with the throne, dragging much of the scenery over the precipice—and almost Meese with it—the crew began stepping on and off the stage, urgently motioning him toward the cave inside the Wagner head. When Meese finally crawled inside, they rushed to childproof the stage by installing an impromptu railing (which remained for the following performances) and removing various valuables and hazards. Meese sat inside having a “time out” until he eventually peeked curiously, sheepishly out of Wagner’s eyehole at the activity below.

The third act was comparatively subdued, with Meese limping from a tumble he took down the stairs. But already we had seen something gripping. To the Staatsoper’s great credit, it never shut him down. On Meese’s count, it was a perfectly tuned testing of the limits. Like Connery’s remarkably mild-mannered “Brutal” in Zardoz, Meese is not a wild animal outside of society but within it—a young artist working in the arms of the state opera. When Daddyproductionstaff built the railing, Meese had provoked his safety net into showing its worried face on stage. I give him credit for this, so of a piece with the rest of the performance. The unchoreographed confrontation between the artist and his props tipped suddenly to reveal the mechanics of both the venue and the venture. To my eyes, what was surprising and powerful was not some mastery of cultural reference but the shambling, bored, clumsy breakdown of the performance, which seemed to always go wrong but occasionally stumbled into grace.

Mother Parsifal has been well received by the Berlin press. Most accounts have stressed the uniqueness of the collaboration between the artist and the opera or have simply provided a rundown of the themes and images Meese juggles. Likewise, previous writing on Meese’s work has often understood it as a great pileup of history and culture. One contention is that by assuming the trappings of unassimilable cultural taboos and heroic themes (German and non-German) Meese repeats and inflates them until they are rendered neutral or ridiculous. Perhaps. But it is difficult to truly judge how a Nazi salute backstage at the opera affects a world in which a picture of Hitler, like it or not, sells magazines. Difficult, too, not to recall the strategies of previous generations, most obviously Anselm Kiefer or the filmmaker Hans Jürgen Syberberg. Yet a comparison to Syberberg’s own Parsifal—also staged with a giant head of Wagner—reveals the wit and slapstick that distinguish Meese, who parodies his precursors, as when he manically quotes Beuys: “Ja ja ja ja ja nee nee nee nee nee.” The proximity to Kiefer ends with Meese’s paintings, which find a closer relation in Jean-Michel Basquiat. Meese paints with a kind of reductive, flat drawing, and, like the American, binds passages of broad gesture and masklike faces together with flocks of words.

Meese’s language has always been the most infectious part of his work, an inspired logorrhea that at once atomizes and encrusts. He boils things down to both abstractions and proper names, which are repeated like nonsense and configured as insane invented compounds. His notes for Mother Parsifal, for example, are populated with “Richard Wahnkind” (Richard Madchild), “Mother Parsiphallus,” and “Godaddy.” “It is a language that grew up in a cave,” he said in a recent interview, “and never left.” Inside that cave are many Nietzchean wild beasts but also the figures of the artist’s personal obsessions, from Zardoz to Caligula.

Meese’s performances generally follow the same principle: There’s a stage full of stuff that he knocks over and piles up, venerates and destroys. He gives improvised speeches, and, above all, he poses and postures. The pronouncements in Mother Parsifal are absolute (“The music of Wagner loves itself”), the gestures grand (a brandishing of weapons or a military salute). But his sword is too heavy and he holds it too high, so he trembles with the effort. As he makes his salutes, his eyes shift nervously from side to side and his arm snakes around, as if making up its mind before snapping into place. Between speeches he stammers. Between actions, we see him scanning the stage to figure out what to do next. Meese is neither shaman nor actor. He is clumsy. Things fall and break. His long hair tangles with everything.

Mother Parsifal was the first time that Meese had to give repeat performances (though each was completely different), and by the last night something of the act had been cleaned up. It seemed more like theater. In fact, it seemed like the theater down the street—the Volksbühne—where the directors include filmmaker and provocateur Christoph Schlingensief (who staged his own Parsifal last summer at Bayreuth) and Frank Castorf, for whom Meese recently designed a production of Pitigrilli’s Kokain. Both directors have used live, onstage cameras (it’s something of a Castorf signature), and in his more polished, third performance, Meese proved to have digested those precedents. Now, twice as many cameras, coordinated with more finesse, extended and complicated his act. The show began with Meese lying in the pit, the iron cross in his eye. Filmed from above and projected huge on the back screen, the ground plane tilted vertiginously, powerfully upward. On another night, an electric lift onstage was meant to raise Meese to a final apotheosis, but he seemed to ascend too early. The camera caught him there, frighteningly high above the stage, looking tired and tiny, stranded in the middle of a gigantic projection of himself.

Writing on Syberberg, Susan Sontag warned that a truly great work is devastating. It “extends the reach of art but also complicates and burdens the enterprise of art with new, self-conscious standards.” Meese guns for his greats: “My biggest goal is not only to direct in Bayreuth but to make A Clockwork Orange II, Zardoz II, The Damned II . . . ” These are impossible sequels. In lieu of overcoming, Meese tries to channel. In footage accompanying Mother Parsifal, he strides around an empty waterway in London, mimicking Alex de Large, the infamous protagonist of Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Prying his eye open for the camera, Meese compresses the film, conflating de Large in his ultraviolent mode at the film’s beginning with his submissive experience during the Ludovico treatment. Onstage, too, he performed to the camera, posing for it and delivering monologues directly into the lens. A gap opened between two different performances, with the camera acting as a focusing device and providing a change of scale. This seemed to propel Meese into moments when he was “incandescently amok,” in Jack Smith’s words (another artist not afraid to live within a private language of dress up and abundance). Amokness is performance at its most alive.

“Art is a ship with no railing,” Meese declared onstage. Well, not quite, given that his antics actually prompted his handlers to install one. The music, too, imposed a temporal structure on his usual open-endedness. Yet, astride these limits, Meese’s was a headlong, ambitious undertaking. He will keep the giant head of Wagner, installing it in his upcoming show at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen. A sculpture, a trophy, or a stage? It depends on how he uses it. “Let the Propaganda be the Propaganda,” he says about Mother Parsifal. His fondness for this term implies that his subjective, idiosyncratic oeuvre serves a higher cause, or perhaps a set of artistic precursors. Meese voraciously adopts and reuses such objects and references, keeping their status—and the performance itself—slippery, in play.

Matt Saunders is a Berlin-based artist.