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Schlingensief: Art and life without division

INTERVIEW. Through the entire month of December, KW pays tribute to Berlin artist, actor, author and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief with a full posthumous retrospective, curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers and Susanne Pfeffer.

Image for Schlingensief: Art and life without division
Photo by Aino Laberenz

Through the entire month of December, KW pays tribute to Berlin artist, actor, author and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief with a full posthumous retrospective.

The exhibition uses the entire house as the backdrop for a very colourful extravaganza of Schlingensief’s thought-provoking imagery. Through his strongly provocative works, from installation to opera to television, Schlingensief constantly stirred controversy and challenged the status quo of German society. Curators Anna-Catharina Gebbers and Susanne Pfeffer, along with founding director Klaus Biesenbach, have returned to KW to curate this fascinating show in honour of their dear friend and colleague who actually lived in the KW building during its era as a squat in the early 1990s.

How did the project come together?

Anna-Catharina Gebbers: Christoph brought us together. At the beginning, he wanted to do a catalogue.

Susanne Pfeffer: Then I asked Christoph whether he would like to do a retrospective at KW together. So in 2010, we applied at the Kulturstiftung des Bundes for funding, and received it.

ACG: In the meantime, Christoph was asked to do the German Pavillion for the Venice Biennale.

SP: He was going to do a new work and he really wanted to concentrate on Venice, so we said “OK, so let’s do it a year later.” And then… he died.

How has it been trying to fill in the missing pieces?

ACG: Christoph was an artist who remembered everything about his work in his head. It looked like we had a lot – press archives, images, screenplays – but when we brought it together, there were bits and pieces that were missing. We had to find a way to cope with his work, without him. This was the very special quality of this project. We developed this show in a ping-pong game, not only with Klaus Biesenbach, but also with Christoph’s wife Aino Laberenz. I got to know Christoph many years ago and followed his work for such a long time – and met Aino as soon as they met each other. Susanne didn’t know Christoph so well, so she can view it from a distance. She’s really looking at the pictures. When I ask her for her specific view on his work, I’m always intrigued by what she says.

Was Schlingensief a visual artist, really?

SP: He was an artist who was always working and creating with images – that was an important aspect of his work. Like when he explained things to the audience, totally exhausting himself in the process.

ACG: I remember sitting in the theatre with Christoph performing, when he held a chicken in front of my face and said “I’m going to kill position, unable to choose between right and wrong. And he was really able to keep this in-between emotion alive. He wanted you to realise that you have to think for yourself.

We’d like to show the TV shows, so you can see him interact with people, interfering with what’s play and what’s not play… It is really interesting. He always acted in a really extreme way, where you were always thinking “Oh, my God! This is so awful!”, and you felt embarrassed, but at the same time you knew this was actually happening in society.

Schlingensief’s very existence seemed to have revolved around politics…

SP: This word is used a bit too often, but I think he was very radical. It’s interesting in the context of the exhibition that most of the topics are still relevant. He did this project in Vienna about people asking to get asylum. And like in Big Brother, people could vote on whether they stayed or had to go.

ACG: He was someone who challenged people, someone everybody knew in Germany. Why? Because he picked up themes that were somehow itchy and uncomfortable.

SP: He was an artist who firmly believed that there is no difference between art and life. Once, he founded a real political party and went to the Bundestag. It was like a process: what is democracy? What can you do? What does it mean to found a party, to be a part of this whole political cosmos? It was not a performance.

Christoph Schlingensief, Dec 1-Jan 19 | KW, Auguststr. 69, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Str., Wed-Mon 12-19, Thu 12-21

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.