Repugnant voodoo with relics, typical German murmurs, so the main criticism to be heard. By contrast, the Schlingensief fans claimed why not posthumously honor such an original artist figure. A noteworthy point being that supporters of the seemingly anarchic Swiss pavilion created by Thomas Hirschhorn usually did not find Schlingensief's pathos-filled "Egomania" so great – and vice versa. At any rate, hardly any commentators failed to mention the two pavilions. Which is understandable. Because at the Biennial in 2011 there are hardly any pavilions that exude at least a modicum of dram and discursive potential. And at least those by Hirschhorn and Schlingensief do.
Schlingensief and Hirschhorn both represent in their own particular ways an especially charismatic type of artist. For all the differences in how they realize their works, they also share something in common: both zealously get their teeth into the toxic political and ideological output of today. And in their respective oeuvres they both repeatedly opt for utopian goals – Schlingensief an opera village plus school in Burkina Faso, Hirschhorn audience-participation projects such as the temporary art museum in a "difficult" Parisian Banlieue.
Now there is a serious difference between the two: Christoph Schlingensief died in 2010. This is important as both artists with their works and persons offer a screen onto which petit-bourgeois images of yearnings of an mnic genius of the artist as the great Other can be projected. This artist type has to have traits of an enfant terrible for things to really buzz. And for this reason, his physical presence as artist-actor is important. By comparison, Beuys without Beuys is not the same as Beuys with Beuys, as can clearly be seen 25 years on from his death.
Without doubt Hirschhorn has realized many works in which he does not need to be present physically in person. His Swiss pavilion "Crystal of Resistance" is one of them. Yet his projects for social utopias have always been strongly fostered by his physical presence on location. And what Schlingensief is without Schlingensief is something we can see in his posthumous Biennial pavilion entitled "A Church of Fear of the Stranger in Me". It reveals at least as much about the art business today as it does about Christoph Schlingensief.
Let's start with the beginning of the story that ends with the Golden Lion for the German Schlingensief pavilion. When in May 2010 Christoph Schlingensief was nominated as the artist for the German pavilion at the Biennial, criticism, and not unjustified, was to be heard, among others from stars of the business such as painter Gerhard Richter. Film, theater and opera director Schlingensief had crossed into the art world from a different arena, and into an art business that still has its difficulties with the performative, transient genres, even though they have a firm place in 20th-century art history.
The art world first sat up and took real notice of Schlingensief of all things during his striking appearance at the Venice Biennial in 2003, where he declared his "Church of Fear" at the entrance to the Biennial was a response to Gulf War II. He had been invited by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist as part of the latter's "Utopia Station" project. At the same time, he was incorporated into the program of the influential Hauser und Wirth (Zurich/London) gallery. Iwan Wirth and Hans Ulrich Obrist are long-standing friends, after all, Museum shows then followed, for example in Zurich's Migros Museum and in Haus der Kunst Munich.
It was obvious why the art world was so interested, given that it was forever on the look out for fresh blood and potential sensations. Because Schlingensief's oeuvre was exceptionally radical. His actions were as polemical as they were political (one needs think only of the Big Brother container in Vienna or the integration of neo-Nazis in a Zurich theater project on Hamlet). They suddenly left the customary art in public space looking a little old-fashioned. His experimental films were a full-frontal attack on German myths and ghosts ("100 Years of Adolf Hitler – The Last Hours in the Fuehrer's Bunker") and ensured a strong response.
The pavilion's problems started when Schlingensief died of cancer last August. The preparations for the show were already well advanced. It was therefore a legitimate decision by curator Susanne Gaensheimer, together with Schlingensief's widow Aino Laberenz and others from his inner circle to advance the project to create a kind of commemorative exhibition including finished Schlingensief concepts. For Gaensheimer made it clear that she and her companions had not intention of simply morphing into mini-Schlingensief imitators and like Salieri with Mozart's Requiem completing the composition (among other things, Schlingensief celebrates his own death in the pavilion).
For all the intelligence, this decision directed attention to a difficult issue: Schlingensief would have given the pavilion a far more strident spin. He thus had, as Susanne Gaensheimer narrates, plans to turn the façade into a huge African mask that would have doubled up as a kind of inn sign. Especially promising was the Afrian wellness zone he had planned, where among other things you could have immersed yourself in a black bath. Instead there is now a museum documentation on the opera village project.
The result triggers mixed feelings. Curator Susanne Gaensheimer has brought above all those elements to Venice that Schlingensief himself envisaged including. The key piece is the central piece of the pavilion, which is structured like a triptych: it is a life-size model of the church in Oberhausen in which Schlingensief was an altar boy for years and which he used as a stage-set for a theater performance of the "Church of Fear" in Recklinghausen.
Anyone familiar with post-War churches will immediately feel at home in the central part of the pavilion albeit unpleasantly so. The fun-killing sense of Modernist religious architecture swiftly sends sensitive viewers packing. Yet Schlingensief wanted to parody the Catholic notion of the altar space as the place of redemptive sacrifice. Alongside the altar itself stands the hospital bed. Didn't help – would be one interpretation. While on screens Super-8 films run on Schlingensief's sheltered childhood, you soon grasp how ghastly he had come to find the nebulous Catholic fantasies of salvation. You can read it all up in his cancer diary of 2009.
Yet if you have soon but one of Schlingensief's visceral theater performances you soon notice that this pavilion lacks the decisive twist, indeed had to. Schlingensief's art thrives on the performative, on exaggeration, on the acerbic and riotous. It also thrives on his presence, on his immense courage in baring his soul. You can't inherit that.
This does not mean that "Schlingensief without Schlingensief" does not work. His restored films in the pavilion's "movie theater" are well worth seeing. They bear the mark of precise interaction with actors, spaces, light and editing. They show clearly that Christoph Schlingensief had a clear idea of the art space as a space in which the "German chainsaw massacre" (the title of probably his most famous film, devoted to mocking the pathos of German Reunification) had to take place metaphorically, too – as an attack on vapid traditions.
Schlingensief is one of those artists who for all their doubts believe in the utopian energy of art, in art as a mission and in the artist as preacher. The hubris of the egomaniac artist, delivered always with a shot of irony, was something that enhanced Christoph Schlingensief's appeal. This was especially the case for an art business that adores nothing more than an excessive ego. Schlingensief, who included handicapped persons or Africans in his projects, remained to the end a director who held all the strings in his hand. Directors, however, do not primarily produce objects, they are primarily choreographers of flowing time. If their work is successively then we (must) remember them. Their stage-sets are least suited for this purpose.
The Golden Lion for the German pavilion can be read positively as a signal to today's artists: be more courageous and take risks! More energy! Less careful calculation! The lion attests to the prevailing yearning for authentic, untamable, offbeat artist figures, a beast that is ever more rare in this thoroughly commercial business, which immediately cannibalizes them. Which is why the art business loves those who enter it from other careers. Not that this eliminates the discontent with the German pavilion. As the market-driven art business is interested precisely not in Schlingensief's creative processes, but in Schlingensief the sellable relic, and the latter is unavoidably celebrated in the German pavilion.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting