Photo Gallery: Schlingensief at the Venice Biennale

Foto: Getty Images

Death in Venice Resurrecting Schlingensief at the Biennale

German filmmaker, theater director and artist Christoph Schlingensief died before finishing his upcoming exhibition at the Venice Biennale, but preparations went on without him. But should a dead man represent the country? A preview reveals that his death created a unique opportunity to re-examine his legacy.
Von Georg Diez und Nora Reinhardt

Aino Laberenz is wearing pink nail polish. She is waiting in the shade of trees in the giardini in Venice, the city's municipal gardens, in front of the entrance to the German Pavilion. It is a stone neoclassical tomb of history, built in 1909 and redesigned by the Nazis. The word "Germania" is normally printed above the entrance -- a dark threat. During the Biennale, it will be replaced with the word "Egomania" -- a dark promise. Laberenz is wearing a children's temporary tattoo of a butterfly on her forearm.

She is the German widow. Laberenz was married to Christoph Schlingensief, splatter filmmaker, Bayreuth director and national artist, a modern-day Joseph Beuys. She wears her wedding ring on her finger and her husband's large, gold ring on a heavy chain around her neck. "Now I'm really beginning to feel the true extent of Christoph's absence," says Laberenz, her eyes welling up with tears. "I would certainly be happy if he could just be sitting here and smiling."

These are stressful days for Laberenz. Schlingensief's last stage production, "Via Intolleranza II," was just performed at the 2011 Theatertreffen theater festival in Berlin. Before that, she flew to West Africa to tour Schlingensief's last project, an opera village in Burkina Faso. And now Venice, where the power is finally on again, and the videos are running. It's a good day.

She walks up the massive stone steps into the Pavilion . Inside it looks like a cool, solemn church, complete with an altar, a stained-glass window, pews and a panel with a list of hymns. All that's missing is the smell of incense. It's the set from a 2008 production called "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within," and a replica of the church in the western German city of Oberhausen where Schlingensief was an altar boy for 12 years.

At first glance, the scene is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys. A stuffed rabbit sits on the altar, the word "Flux" is printed on a banner, and a grimacing deity with an erect penis hangs on the wall. At second glance, however, it's classic Christoph Schlingensief, the curious blending with the obvious. Behind the altar is a tall stool that looks like a tennis referee's chair, next to it is a hospital bed, and Schlingensief's X-rays are attached to a light box.

Resurrecting His Curious Career

Schlingensief created "Requiem für einen Untoten," or "Requiem for an Undead Person," in 2008. He appeared in the production himself, convinced that he would survive his lung cancer for a few more years. But now no one will appear.

Schlingensief died in August 2010 , shortly before his 50th birthday, in the midst of work on the Pavilion. Since then, heated debate has erupted over whether something so unprecedented should even be done -- devoting the entire German Pavilion in Venice to the work of a dead man. Two women have waged a joint battle over his legacy: Schlingensief's widow Laberenz, a 30-year-old costume designer, and 44-year-old Susanne Gaensheimer, a museum curator in Frankfurt and the commissioner of the German Pavilion.

The exhibition resurrects Schlingensief's curious career, from urchin to Jesus of the educated classes. It shows how he migrated from film to theater to art, constantly searching for good energy. It presents Schlingensief as a link between the trashy fantasies of doom in the 1990s and the spiritual desires for salvation of the present -- in the most Catholic of forms, the triptych.

The room installation "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within," which is dedicated to Schlingensief's illness, occupies the central section of the pavilion. "We chose it because it clearly demonstrates how Christoph interacted with other artists," says Gaensheimer. In it, Schlingensief built his own version of Beuys' "Fettecke," as well as a version of Austrian artist Valie Export's "Tap and Touch" box, Viennese Actionism, Fluxus and Nam June Paik.

In the wing to the left of this installation is an exhibit showing Schlingensief's Africa project, devoid of Albert Schweitzer-like pathos, but with a model and photos showing the current state of the opera village near Ouagadougou. Six of Schlingensief's films are shown in the right wing, including the 1986 film "Egomania," with his former girlfriend Tilda Swinton, and the so-called Germany Trilogy with the legendary "Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker," or "The German Chainsaw Massacre."

Two Kinds of Suffering: Germany and Cancer

"The films were very important to us because they show how Christoph's work began," Laberenz says. It was not intended as a complete retrospective, but as an introduction to the Schlingensief universe on the basis of two lines of suffering, Germany and cancer, and on the basis of an optimistic outlook for Africa. Suffering and salvation.

Nothing could be more consistent. These are Schlingensief's two central themes, from the first films to his last theater productions. The films are full of murdering, slaughtering and dying. Death is omnipresent. This man was a pathologist.

He used death like a tool to dissect his era. He used disease with the full pathos and rage of a man who did not believe in the general concept of health. He opened himself up to his cancer and his dying in a way that was not exhibitionist, as many believed, but authentic. Schlingensief lived in opposition to the present.

He was a wound, and that was the way he wanted it. Show your wound and you will be healed, Schlingensief said, echoing Joseph Beuys. In his fascination with death, he was a German artist, and yet in this respect he was just as close to Richard Wagner as to Jean-Luc Godard.

On the whole, there are strange overlaps, now that his body of work is being presented in this fashion, as nakedly and simultaneously as that of a classic artist. He was as German as Dürer and as funny as Lubitsch. He was as in tune with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's expressionistic horror films as he was with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's excessive historical melodrama. He loved pathos and slapstick. He was a man who whisked together images and thoughts and yet remained an enlightener in the end, which, at first glance, is an odd thing to say about someone who stirred up so much delirium and confusion.

High-Minded Nonsense

This is the surprising takeaway from this show at the German Pavilion in Venice: Only Schlingensief without Schlingensief reveals the true Schlingensief. His death and his absence clear the way and create a view of a body of work characterized by defiant energy and cheerful despair. A clear view of the Mediterranean!

This is a saying from the depths of the 1980s, and Schlingensief's creative work is informed by the spirit of this anarcho-Dadaism. It was the post-Punk and post-New Wave era, a time when a dislike of this country became mixed with a mercilessly good mood, which came to a sudden end when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, things got serious again for Germany.

Schlingensief reacted like an unruly child. He found his salvation in a style of high-minded nonsense, which said a lot about the fears, lies and contradictions of those years. His 1990 film "The German Chainsaw Massacre" left no cliché or corny joke untouched, was desolate and wild, and portrayed reunification as a horrible scrawl of blood, under the motto: "They came as friends and turned into sausage."

In this deliberately lowbrow horror film, sex drive, an obsession with cleanliness, a butcher's lasciviousness and nationalism came together in a way that cannot be attributed solely to an anti-authoritarian reaction to Schlingensief's childhood as an altar boy. His dislike of this country was more deep-seated than that, a mixture of disgust and fascination. Schlingensief became a political artist as an act of self-defense.

The first part of his German Trilogy, the 1989 film "100 Years of Adolf Hitler" shows how dependent on and trapped in history Schlingensief was himself. The work is an anti-"Downfall," made long before Bernd Eichinger and Oliver Hirschbiegel shot their film. Udo Kier, as Hitler, portrays life in the bunker as a cocaine-induced delirium. As is always the case with Schlingensief, the film is a great massacre of references.

But there is a deeper meaning to this carnage of images. His grandmother, Schlingensief said in an interview, was a distant relative of Joseph Goebbels. "I carry fear inside of me," he said, referring to the fear of his inner concentration camp guard. This fear, he explained, was the reason he wanted to "wear out Hitler" by offering audiences the image of Hitler "for their use." This is the Schlingensief principle: images against images, thoughts against thoughts and Hitler against Hitler. In the end, the debris Schlingensief dredges up serve a thoroughly German purpose -- self-purification.

The Garbage of German History

Let's lift the cheese cover, blow up the temple and say the wrong thing -- now! That was the credo with which he plowed through the next 20 years of his life, pressing ahead like a visionary, driven by a furious energy, sometimes wandering aimlessly and sometimes illuminating, but constantly moving, and always determined to elicit pain. This German grappled with history the way Laocoön wrestled with snakes.

This also inspired his 1992 film "Terror 2000 - Intensive Care Unit Germany," in which he reacted directly to xenophobia, but without moralizing. He showed burning swastikas and Ku Klux Klan hoods, he talked about masturbation and everyday life, and he asked the question: Am I obscene, or are you?

It was also why he continued to labor away with history and the present, directing "100 Years of the CDU -- A Game Without Limits" at the Volksbühne theater in Berlin, as well as "Kühnen 94, Bring Me the Head of Adolf Hitler" and "Rocky Dutschke '68." He wanted to wear the images down in hopes of delivering himself from this unholy entanglement.

For this he also boarded a ferry in New York on Nov. 9, 1999 to "sink Germany," bringing along an urn filled with what he called the garbage of German history and throwing it overboard to the strains of Wagner. The urn drifted away in the murky waters of the Hudson River, like an emblem of guilt that overcomes us repeatedly.

All of this is being brought back to life in the hideous stone monstrosity that the German Pavilion in Venice will always remain. Curator Gaensheimer was searching for an explicitly political artist, but not one who deals primarily with the history of the pavilion. Many were surprised when she found Schlingensief.

The Unfinished Idea

At the time, in 2010, Schlingensief seemed to be dashing around the world in various incarnations, propelled forward by death, a messiah on his own behalf. He did an opera in Berlin, theater productions, and released his bestseller about cancer, "So schön wie hier kanns im Himmel gar nicht sein!" (Heaven Can't be as Beautiful as This!). He also went to Africa repeatedly. Schlingensief was never as present as he was shortly before his death.

Gaensheimer never really got to know Schlingensief the networker, the texting virtuoso. She visited him once in his apartment in Berlin, "just like that, to meet each other." She had to wait a while as he was getting dressed. His left lung had already been removed by then. It was around noon, and the conversation was relatively formal. "At some point we started talking about the Pavilion," she said. "He thought it was tedious that people were constantly reexamining the building's Nazi past. The real challenge, he said, was to bring life into the building."

She asked him right away whether he wanted to do the project. "He said that if he knew, he would have opened the door right away in his pajamas." Schlingensief texted his answer to Gaensheimer the next day: "If we promise each other that we can express any idea, no matter how idiotic (without feeling embarrassed about it, although embarrassment also has a great deal of production value), then I would very much like to say YES." Later on, he sent another text message: "Oh, by the way, shouldn't we be on a first-name basis? My name's Christoph."

Schlingensief planned something huge and sublime for Venice. He had long asked himself "why we want to help Africa when we can't even help ourselves." He wanted the Pavilion to have something to do with Africa. He wanted to build an "African wellness center," which he later called the "German Center for Wellness and Prevention." It was to include a swimming pool, sauna, Turkish bath, cryotherapy, massage and "African Ayurvedic medicine," as well as the opportunity for visitors to probe into their genetic roots with a saliva test.

It was a medical carnival, a mythical place, something between a satirical view of the German cult of Africa and a spectacle on prevention mania. One idea was that visitors would be able to climb on top of the Pavilion and observe everything from above, as if viewing it through a lens. Film images of African landscapes were to be projected onto screens inside, where every 24th image would be a jarring, out-of-place image of squalor, starving children and child soldiers.

Schlingensief was influenced by an association with ethnological exhibitions and colonial exhibits. "A giant African mask with a movable, oversized upper lip was to hang from the gable in front, smiling down at people," says Gaensheimer. "There was an incredible temptation to implement this wildly good idea."

Predicting His Own Death

She still sounds wistful when she talks about the plans, described in a new book published this week. Would it have worked? Yes. But after Schlingensief's death, the question was more philosophical: Can the unfinished even exist in our time? Gaensheimer and Laberenz decided it can.

The Pavilion has now been created entirely as Schlingensief would have liked it. He was a master of improvisation, process, and the imperfect. "Failure as an opportunity!" was one of his rallying cries. Laberenz and Gaensheimer have allowed the Pavilion to flourish in this same spirit. A lot of things went wrong, and just as the hectic final phase was about to begin, Gaensheimer ruptured a ligament and could hardly walk, particularly on the uneven surfaces of the giardini in Venice.

Laberenz jumped in and traveled to Venice. It had always been clear to both women that there was no turning back. "In my view, Schlingensief is simply one of the most important postwar artists in Germany," says Gaensheimer.

What this show also reveals is that Schlingensief served almost as a medium, absorbing everything around him, though he had a sense this might be unhealthy. Laberenz says that as long ago as 2004, while he working on "Parsifal" in Bayreuth, Schlingensief predicted he would die of cancer as a result.

At the time, he was known as a provocateur, a charlatan, a circus director, accepted within the heart of the same sophisticated culture he had once fought. His is one of the most unlikely art careers of the last 20 years. When he suggested at the 1997 Documenta contemporary art exhibition in Kassel that then Chancellor Helmut Kohl should be killed, he was arrested. After his own death he was awarded a Bambi, Germany's mainstream media award.

Love Delayed

First he was hated for the wrong reasons, and then he was loved for the wrong reasons. Schlingensief was never the rogue who merely wanted to scare people, nor was he the son-in-law to which he was almost trivialized. But he was always an artist who wanted to save himself and, therefore, the world.

The delayed love for Schlingensief may have come about because something changed in Germany. Trash became mainstream, wrangling with nationalism slowly subsided, the anger and disgust were disappearing and the reflex of history became the routine of history. It was a love for a de-politicized artist.

This is a contradiction that the Venice show cannot resolve. But perhaps it merely shows that Schlingensief had continued to develop. He was no longer searching for the fear outside but for the "fear of the stranger in me." In this sense, "A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within" is indeed an important work and a new discovery.

On the church set, as in the earlier production, one of Schlingensief's films is projected above the altar. It shows a surreal memorial service in which two basins shaped like lungs are filled with red paint. The guests at the memorial service dip their hands into the paint and smear it onto a white sheet. Soiled in this manner, it now hangs in the Pavilion, holy, desecrated, blasphemous and free.

Perhaps this was the way Schlingensief saw himself at the end. Release, set free and keep on going, those were Schlingensief's words. At this exhibition, the goal is not to sanctify or kitschify anything, the way it was done after the death of Joseph Beuys. "Let's see how powerful the works are," Laberenz says. She sounds completely open-minded.

Although the show did not become a celebration of life, it is at least a beacon of hope against extinguishment, a German tragedy. In "Death in Venice," Thomas Mann wrote that "nearly everything great owes its existence to 'despites': despite misery and affliction."

The Venice Biennale  runs from June 4 to June 27.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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