Art Without Borders?

 

Christoph Schlingensief and Allan Kaprow

 

By Philip Auslander

Although German artist Christoph Schlingensief is almost a household word in the German-speaking world, and his work was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 venue in New York City in the spring and fall of 2014, he is not well known in the United States. Schlingensief, who died in 2010 at the age of forty-nine, started as a filmmaker and went on to work in theater, opera, television, music, and installation art. He was also well known as a public personality and political provocateur. In January of 2015, TAS Editor Philip Auslander gave a talk at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, Switzerland on Schlingensief’s installation Kaprow City, which had served as the set for a theatrical performance at the Volksbühne in Berlin prior to its being converted to a gallery installation and its acquisition by the Migros Museum. This essay is adapted from the presentation.

Christoph Schlingensief is known for his frequent references to and appropriations of the work of other artists, which he used partially as a way of identifying and exploring his own commitments and affinities by finding points of connection with their work.  This is the case of Schlingensief’s engagement with Allan Kaprow, the American artist for whom Kaprow City is named, who is frequently cited as the “father” of Happenings, an early version of performance art. While there are profound connections between Kaprow’s and Schlingensief’s respective artistic projects, ultimately the means by which they pursued common objectives diverge significantly.

 

Stated most broadly, the strongest bond between Schlingensief and Kaprow is their common desire to “act,” as Robert Rauschenberg said of his own work, “in the gap between” art and life. This conception is hardly specific to Kaprow and Schlingensief.  Rather, it is the project of a great deal of postwar art both in the United States and Europe: the post-Abstract Expressionist New York School (in which both Kaprow and Rauschenberg participated), Fluxus (with which Schlingensief often aligned himself), French Nouveau Réalisme, and Italian Arte Povera, among many other art world developments, all sought out this gap, albeit by very different means. In the cases of both Kaprow and Schlingensief, acting in the gap between art and life meant, in part, trying to narrow the gap, particularly by making art more like life. Both Kaprow and Schlingensief also sought to reveal the gap between art and life to their audiences and offer it as a space within which anyone can act. Neither sought to impose a definition of the proper relationship between art and life nor did either recommend a specific course of action, but left these decisions to their audiences.

Once we turn to the means by which these two artists pursued common ends, however, their paths quickly diverge. Kaprow had his noisy moments, particularly in A Spring Happening, 1961, during which a man with an active lawn mower chased spectators through a corridor by, but his work was usually more inner-directed. Samuel Delany described his experience of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, the particular Happening to which Kaprow City refers, by saying that it was “spare, difficult, minimal, constituted largely by absence, isolation, even distraction.” Kaprow himself described it as “an early minimalist piece, in the sense that things happen with large spaces of nothing around them. . . . Under the influence of [John] Cage, I think I was really interested in the isolation of events.”

 

If Kaprow was in this sense a performance minimalist, Schlingensief was unquestionably a maximalist whose works are accretions of stuff: sculptural sets or installations, music and sound, film and video, live performance, social commentary and political demonstrations, and so on. In the theatrical version of Kaprow City at Berlin’s Voksbühne, 2007, for which spectators were invited to walk through an installation built on the stage that alluded to Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, the environment was densely packed and labyrinthine, every surface covered in writing or graffiti. It was also noisy, with sounds from multiple sources intermingling. As spectators wandered, they came upon performers in odd costumes engaged in simple actions while enveloped in intensely colored lights and surrounded by objects and video monitors. Even though multiple activities took place simultaneously in Kaprow’s 18 Happenings, the physical arrangement of individual rooms largely isolated them from each other. In the theatrical version of Kaprow City, by contrast, the individual actions overlapped and bled into one another, and it seems as if one could always at least hear what was going on in other parts of the environment if not also see flickers of projected images or shadows of bodies in motion. Ultimately, it may be that Kaprow and Schlingensief were trying to get to the same thing, what Anna-Catherina Gebbers calls the “recognition of pure, unstaged life” through actions that in both cases were staged. But the tone, style, and experiential quality of their works were significantly different if not opposite one another.

This difference is also apparent in their respective relationships to traditional institutions and definitions of art. Again, they had a general objective in common: both Kaprow and Schlingensief wanted to test the limits of what could be done in the art context, what could be considered art, how much pressure such traditional institutions as galleries, museums, and theaters could withstand, how indistinct the border between art and life could be made to be. But a key difference is that sometime in early 1962, after having staged a number of Happenings in galleries, Kaprow rejected such institutional settings (though not institutional support) for his work, and the idea of performing for an audience, preferring to do pieces so integrated with daily life as not to be readily discernible as art. He had chosen to call his earlier performances Happenings because he considered this a neutral term with no special significance that could evade such traditional categories as theater, dance, and music and their links to traditional institutions only to find the term institutionalized to designate a new genre of art.

 

At one level, Schlingensief was as suspicious as Kaprow of traditional art venues and contexts. Like Kaprow, he felt that museums, theaters, and other “official” art contexts divorce the things shown in them from life to become what Kaprow called “artlike art” (as opposed to “lifelike art”) or just “art.” But Schlingensief’s ambivalence toward the institutions of art never stopped him, as it had Kaprow, from operating within their precincts. In the course of his career, he had exhibitions, staged performances, or performed actions at the Berlin Volksbühne, the Vienna Opera House, the Zurich Schauspielhaus, the Migros Museum, Documenta, and many other certified art venues.

He justified his presence in such contexts by describing them as spaces in which he could pursue artistic research that would later inform actions to take place outside of these contexts. He referred to the theater as “a research facility,” and said the same thing of the museum: “I make use of the museum as a sheltered, cloistered space. For thinking, for experimentation, this space is great.” In both cases, he suggested that the value of traditional art institutions like the state theater or the museum lies in their being divorced from life, thus permitting the artist to use them for R&D: research and development of projects that will ultimately take place outside such institutions.

 

These different attitudes toward traditional art contexts suggest a fundamental distinction between Kaprow’s and Schlingensief’s respective ideas of how to act in the gap between art and life. Whereas Kaprow wanted his “art” to merge with life to the point that it disappeared into the fabric of everyday existence and the border between art and life became blurred to the point of invisibility, Schlingensief operated simultaneously and sequentially in both realms, fully conscious of their incommensurability but in the hope that his work could bridge the gap. Whereas Kaprow’s art was submerged in life, Schlingensief’s straddled the two realms.

 

Many of Schlingensief’s major works after 1999 jump the gap between art and life like arcs of high voltage electricity. In his staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Zurich at the Schauspielhaus in 2001, he notoriously brought supposedly repentant neo-Nazi youths onto the stage as both actors and “real” people who at one point in the production volunteered to share their stories and engage in dialogue with the audience. This was but one layer of a complex production that also reenacted an earlier production of Hamlet directed by Gustaf Gründgens, a German actor who had flourished under the Third Reich and went on to continued success after the war, by having the actors lip-synch to a recording of the earlier production. Schlingensief also engaged in political provocations outside the theater, bating the right-wing Swiss People’s party and raising questions about the often troubled relationship between Germany and Switzerland. In this production, art (in the form of the theater stage) was invaded by real life in the form of actual neo-Nazis, while Schlingensief’s actions outside the theater both engaged with real world politics and cultural difference while simultaneously bringing theater to the streets and creating a context from which what happened inside the theater was inseparable. The two realms thus interpenetrated and wrapped around each other so that they could not be readily disentangled.

 

Beginning in 2005, much of Schlingensief’s work centered on a structure he called the animatograph, a word borrowed from the British inventor R. W. Paul who had used it as the name of an early film projector he had developed in the late 19th Century. The inspiration for the animatograph came from Schlingensief’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2007 for which he built a revolving stage onto which films were continuously projected. Thereafter, Schlingensief’s animatograph became a form in its own right independent of its use as a stage setting. Roman Berka describes the constituents of this form:

 

 

Their basic element is a revolving stage installation equipped with building elements, props, and screens, a performance surface for action as well as a projection surface for filmic works. The animatograph thus offers the viewer both a frontal view and a literal entry point into the installation. From different locations around the room, films are projected onto the mobile stage. If the viewer enters the revolving stage, he himself becomes an integral part of the animatograph—a projection surface and actor whose entrance brings it to life.

Similarly to Schlingensief’s Hamlet, but arguably less provocatively, the animatograph bridges art and life by inviting “real” people (the spectators) into a theatrical environment.

Kaprow City is the last of Schlingensief’s animatographic works; like the set of Parsifal before it, it started out as the setting for a theatrical production. But what happens to the animatograph when it ceases to be a performance space and is turned into an object in a museum’s permanent collection? It is clear that Schlingensief understood the Migros Museum’s acquisition of Kaprow City as a watershed in the life of his creation since he altered it significantly. No longer an immersive environment into which the viewer can venture, Kaprow City is now an enclosed sculptural installation the viewer can experience only from outside.

 

The films projected inside the installation version of Kaprow City, many of which are visible only indistinctly from the outside, isolate spectators and make them very aware of their relationship to the installation: I am not the audience for these films. The fact that their sound has been turned off suggests that the animatograph is no longer able to provide the total sensory impact it could in the theater and has been reduced to a purely visual object to be seen from outside rather than entered, touched, and heard. Gazing in from outside, it appears that the life of the installation, its beating heart, is at its interior, from which I am excluded as a viewer. Former openings that once provided access are now roped off or blocked with impenetrable accretions of stuff. Bench-like structures where one presumably could once have sat to watch the films and live performers are no longer accessible. Whereas the audience for the theatrical version of the piece became participants, the viewer of the museum piece is cast as a voyeur who can only pick up hints of what’s happening inside the structure in the form of flickers from the projections seen through plastic sheeting.

Schlingensief may be said to have found a way of restoring in the museum the theatrical fourth wall that he sought to break down in Kaprow City’s original theatrical incarnation, by placing the viewer in the position of being outside looking in. This is, of course, the viewer’s traditional relationship to most theater staged on a proscenium stage: we are on the other side of the invisible fourth wall, gazing in at the action taking place on the other side of the proscenium. However, as the redoubtable sociologist Erving Goffman suggests in his chapter on “The Theatrical Frame,” the proscenium arch is not so much a way of keeping spectators out and rendering them passive as it is the condition of possibility for the spectator’s participation in that kind of theater. By enclosing Kaprow City and making its interior inaccessible to the spectator, Schlingensief excludes the spectator from the scene much more decisively than does traditional theater. Against the backdrop of Schlingensief’s career-long struggle to bridge the gap between art and life and despite the work’s rough beauty, this comes across as something of a capitulation, a tacit acknowledgment of the impossibility of staging an ongoing interpenetration of life and art in the space of the museum.

 

There is a book in English about Schlingensief called Art Without Borders. I am skeptical of this rubric. It seems to me that both Kaprow’s and Schlingensief’s respective work would be better described as Art About Borders. Neither Kaprow’s desire for art to disappear into life nor Schlingensief’s for art to mediate continually between the aesthetic realm and that of everyday life is meaningful apart from the idea that these are distinct realms whose borders can be transgressed and contested. Ultimately, however, these borders cannot be eliminated. Both artists were acutely aware of the borders within and against which they worked; I’m quite sure they were also acutely aware of the impossibility of art without borders.

 

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.

Photos:

 

Christoph Schlingensief, Kaprow City, 2006-7, Collection: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich © Nachlass Christoph Schlingensief.

 

Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, Reuben Gallery, New York City. Installation View. Photo © Fred W. McDarrah.

 

Christoph Schlingensief, Kaprow City, 2006-7, Collection: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich © Nachlass Christoph Schlingensief.

 

Christoph Schlingensief, Hamlet, 2001, Schauspielhaus, Zurich, Switzerland.

 

Christoph Schlingensief, Kaprow City, 2006-7, Collection: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich © Nachlass Christoph Schlingensief.

March 2015          Jane Freilicher       Marlene Dumas         Christoph Schlingensief