Berlin

Christoph Schlingensief, The African Twin Towers: Stairlift to Heaven, 2007, stairlift, digital video projection (color, sound, 29 minutes 20 seconds). Installation view.

Christoph Schlingensief, The African Twin Towers: Stairlift to Heaven, 2007, stairlift, digital video projection (color, sound, 29 minutes 20 seconds). Installation view.

Christoph Schlingensief

KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Christoph Schlingensief, The African Twin Towers: Stairlift to Heaven, 2007, stairlift, digital video projection (color, sound, 29 minutes 20 seconds). Installation view.

The phrase “Spiel ohne Grenzen” (Game Without Borders), the subtitle of one of Christoph Schlingensief’s many outrageous theatrical productions, succinctly characterizes what held the vast range of work together in this posthumous exhibition staged by Klaus Biesenbach, Anna-Catharina Gebbers, and Susanne Pfeffer, and traveling to MoMA PS1 in New York this month. The manically prolific Schlingensief began his career as a filmmaker and morphed into a theater and opera director, TV-show moderator, pseudo politician, all-around provocateur, and finally artist before his untimely death at the age of forty-nine in 2010. Across mediums, Schlingensief was a consummate performer who dedicated himself to radical political engagement, always working at the tenuous boundary between fantasy and reality. The result was both a persona and a form of political theater, enacted on-screen and in the streets, that was at turns charming, crass, absurd, self-involved, and generous—while never losing its pointed (and pointedly unrigorous) social commentary.

Always devoted to the moving image, Schlingensief incorporated projections into all of his theatrical work, his 2008 installation Kirche der Angst (Church of Fear), and the series of four Animatograph installations that he constructed in 2005 and 2006. The version at KW, Animatograph Edition Parsipark, 2005, originally shown in a former East German military facility, consists of a rotating platform topped with a ramshackle wooden structure covered in dusty detritus, paintings and drawings with obtuse Wagnerian references, images of Hitler, and film projections that envelop the space and the viewers exploring it. Schlingensief’s forays into semiparticipatory installation art were surpassed, however, by his fully participatory, partially scripted reality-TV shows, all of which aired on German networks. Freakstars 3000 (2002), for example, played on the most exploitative tendencies of talent-seeking shows such as American Idol by casting exclusively physically and mentally handicapped “contestants.” They undeniably appear to have had great fun shooting the six episodes of the series, but it is never clear whether we as viewers are laughing with them or at them. Who, exactly, is in on the joke?

Moral ambiguity and bad taste are equally in evidence in one of Schlingensief’s most ambitious projects, Please Love Austria—First Austrian Coalition Week, which took place in June 2000 as part of the annual Vienna Festival. Directly adjacent to the Vienna State Opera, three mobile homes (a replica of one was on view at KW) were set up crowned with banners proclaiming FOREIGNERS OUT! The homes functioned as the 24/7 living quarters of ten or twelve (purported) asylum seekers; in the style of Big Brother, two people were voted out by the public each day and “deported.” Organized in response to the xenophobia of recently elected far-right politicians, the action engendered incredible rancor from the entire political spectrum. In a documentary film about the project that was shown at KW, an embattled Austrian politician yells at Schlingensief, “I won’t be acting in your play!” It was better than any line the artist himself could have scripted, highlighting the crux of the work and its much larger point: Art, like politics, has no limits, and everyone is implicated in the inhumane treatment of others, whether one chooses to participate actively or to attempt to avoid culpability as a spectator on the sidelines.

Opera Village, Schlingensief’s final project, begun in 2010, shortly before his death, was presented at KW in the form of scale models, preparatory drawings, and documentary film and photographs. A true Gesamtkunstwerk, the village, located in Laongo, Burkina Faso, is an evolving community conceived by Schlingensief, with living quarters, a school, a clinic, and a theater, all designed by Burkinabe architect Francis Kéré. By his own admission, Schlingensief wanted to spend his last days building something of importance to serve as his memorial. But the apparent sincerity and naïveté of Opera Village are difficult to reconcile with our image of an artist whose work was so often crassly manipulative and cynical, and whose politics would have rendered unimaginable a project with such discomfiting neocolonial overtones. Perhaps by design, Opera Village functions as a question mark rather than a period at the end of a remarkable oeuvre.

Andrea Gyorody