A biography on Christoph Schlingensief. By Till Briegleb.
No other German director has in recent years been as active as Christoph Schlingensief in earning the term “political” for his theatre. As society’s concept of the political became increasingly arbitrary and theatrical, Schlingensief responded with a rather unusual cure: he fought against the haziness of politics by totally confusing supposed unambiguities.
From his early films in the 1980s, in which Hitler, rapists and mass shooters indulged in orgiastic mischief, to his dramas at the Berlin Volksbühne in the 1990s, whose chaotic scenes brought German icons such as Rudi Dutschke, Helmut Kohl or Rosa Luxemburg down off their pedestals, and to his performances in public (e.g. the artistic welfare mission 1997 at Hamburg’s main train station), one basic theme is always apparent: do not trust certainties!
Schlingensief creates a permanent state of insecurity by blurring borders between reality and fiction, art and offence, intention and action. This often works brilliantly with his off-stage antics: most passers-by thought the Big Brother show with asylum-seekers in the centre of Vienna, where the last one to be ejected is supposed to win a residence permit, was real. There was also his staging of Hamlet in Zurich, for which he not only recruited officially repentant neo-Nazis, but also created a rehabilitation centre for their kin, triggered a heated debate on the credibility of this kind of stunt.
Schlingensief’s spontaneous and rule-violating theatre – as illustrated in this select range of his twenty-year-long voyage of disruption – is first and foremost dependent on decent minesweeping abilities. Socially relevant issues, which have either fallen prey to the general consensus (“Hitler is evil!” “Mohammed Atta is evil!”) or are treated with silent disquiet (disabled or homeless people, asylum-seekers, the unemployed), are at some point very likely to end up in Schlingensief’s basket. Being the chief protagonist of his own art, which only works at all thanks to his eccentric entertainer talents, his is a vehemently fought battle against hypocrisy using performance art, taboo violations and improvisation while stretching the limits.
We find hypocrisy in politics as we do in the media and in art, i.e. the areas in which Schlingensief moves, so widespread that the normal reaction would be cynicism. Operations such as “Kill Helmut Kohl!” at the 1997 documenta, symposiums on the artistic quality of terrorism, or the casting of mentally disabled people in his films and stage plays have repeatedly seen the artist himself face this accusation. What rapidly invalidates this suspicion, however, is the old-fashioned world view that is behind his racket. Christoph Schlingensief is a moralist with messages of an almost biblical tone; solidarity, honour and human kindness are the demands that emerge from his artistic assaults on their abuse.
The permanent moral alarm call triggered by the unbalanced harmony that Schlingensief creates, however, faces the danger that all provocative art is subject to; the irritation is lost as soon as the method has been revealed. Thus we now see his eccentricities in the theatre system, especially, attracting well-minded curiosity, which is extremely bad in terms of its effect. His current trilogy, Attabambi Pornoland, which attacks the powers of interpretation of the media with an orgiastic mix of videos, dramatic scenes, chaotic mess, pornography, noise and artistic citations, is viewed more in terms of a must-see event.
Neither does this defensive response, however, really defuse the political edge of Schlingensief’s performance theatre. His associative and aggressive style makes him difficult to define regards content, as such compelling the audience to scrutinize themselves. Whether as the charming darling of the media with his own talk shows or as an interview guest himself, he now presents his furious theatre of conscience to wide sections of the population. Nor is he now afraid to don the robes of a serious director; the confessed Wagner fan has been permitted to stage Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. There will not, he has already promised, be any bomb craters on the stage. A surprise can always be expected from him.