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Environments of Chaos: The Work of Christoph Schlingensief

A look at the work of provocateur Christoph Schlingensief in celebration of the Goethe Institute’s ‘Schlingensief: Approach Those You Fear.’
The 120 Days of Bottrop
There is a teasingly confrontational moment in Paul Poet’s 2002 action document, Ausländer raus! Schlingensiefs Container, wherein shock artist and political provocateur Christoph Schlingensief, having staged a Big Brother-style reality TV show in which viewers vote asylum seekers out of the country, proclaims, “You are now officially commissioned to the resistance!” His cheerful enunciation of a radically collusive public riles up the Austrian crowd before him into a state that is as perturbed as it is voracious, as outraged as it is inspired—with a smattering of confusion, just to top things off. This distillation of emotions has been at the root of much of the late artist’s critical reception, beginning with the early 16mm films he made as a teen through to his later works on stage, screen, and in public space.
No stranger to controversy, the late artist has come to be embraced, albeit with a wary eye, by the contemporary art establishment in more recent times. Schlingensief was posthumously awarded the Golden Lion for Germany at the 2011 Venice Biennale—by a jury which included, quite notably, the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters—for an installation which translated his theatre and film work into an Aktionist oratorio of sorts. With its final design organized by curator and director of the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt Susanne Gasheimer following his passing, the pavilion took as its materials the artist’s vast body of work, much of which was created in conversation with his two-year battle with terminal cancer.  
Titled A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, the pavilion’s galleries provided, in some sense, a compact and honorous retrospective in place of Schlingensief’s original intention for the space (to transform it into what he referred to as “an African wellness center”). One of the pavilion’s two side wings  served as a screening space for six of his feature-length films: Menu Total (1985–6); Egomania- Island Without Hope (1986); the Deutschlandtrilogie (The German Trilogy) of 100 Years of Adolf Hitler (1988), The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), and Terror 2000 (1991–2); and his penultimate film, United Trash (1995–6). Suffice to say, it is no small feat that the confrontational and decidedly anti-production cult films of an artist previously heralded, at best, as Germany’s fearless enfant terrible and, at worst, as its trolling berserker set on an altogether politically incorrect form of provocation, were shown on such a self-esteemed international stage. This is, after all, the artist who was arrested at 1997’s Documenta for carrying a banner advocating for the murder of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.  
What is conceivably most obvious about Schlingensief’s output, perhaps even more so in his film work, is such a penchant for excess that wholly renounces the convictions of good taste. Menu Total is a macabre 16mm film just shy of 90 minutes which includes, in no particular order, Nazi parents, a sperm exchange, child molestation, familicide, to say nothing of a pan-fried member, raw human brains, and, as it follows, cannibalism. A film that accumulates all it can manage and disposes of nothing as aesthetic directive, Wim Wenders famously walked out the film just ten minutes in at its 1986 Berlinale premiere. It likely did not help that Schlingensief had been a vocal critic of Wenders, stating in negative the polished aesthetic veneer and marked transcendent aspirations of his work.  
There is a sense that the horror of his films lies not only in what is presented, but in how it rises, a form of inverse sedimentation, from within its depictions of those groups who have historically held power over the individual. For better or for worse, Schlingensief presents us with an individualism gone mad by virtue of circumstance. 1986’s Egomania - Island Without Hope, starring Schlingensief favorite Udo Kier and Tilda Swinton, is no challenge to this. Set on a remote island in the Eastern Sea, Schlingensief’s only melodrama trains its Gothic eye on a romance which threatens the island’s vacuous social existence. What follows is a cartography of post-apocalyptic desire, suffering, and death, suffused with the critical potential of an unconscious and quasi-mythological rendering—a Caspar David Friedrich piece for the anti-Friedrich generation.  
Schlingensief reconstructs histories into twisted new models and re-figurations which laugh in the face of their original design, nevermind the presupposed inoffensiveness or organicism of their previous articulations. A film like The German Chainsaw Massacre, which gleefully strains under the weight of its political ramifications, is desperate, to the point of freneticism, to stir up the cultural contradictions lying just below the surface of things. A pointedly excessive remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and centerpiece of The German Trilogy, the film re-imagines German reunification as literal barbarism wherein a West German family indiscriminately murders, dismembers, and cannibalizes East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its status as a remake (a loose one, it must be said) likely threatens its equally due status as political critique. In spite of the trash, the distanced immediacy of grotesque imagery, there is an underlying ethos, which runs across his work as a whole, that Schlingensief presents us with such confrontational images of nationhood and identity in order to underlie the violence of its reality. 
There is no narrative rest, no cohesive story, no catharsis or salvation in his films. Instead there is the violence of the image in both content and the tenacity of its form. To watch a Schlingensief film is to wonder “When will he let up?” Instead of redemptive release we are faced with narrative hysteria and enthusiastic self-destruction. Meaning is fleeting in as much as in the rare moments it may be found he promptly destroys its image, its figuration, its integrity. This is autotelic sabotage as formal principle. Indeed, his movement toward theatre production and public actions such as Ausländer raus! Schlingensiefs Container follows the dominant aesthetic praxis of his work overall: the creation of a self-reproducing series of unstable spaces which trade in the revelatory capacities of excess, ambiguity, and failure, nevermind the sadomasochistic pleasures of a troubled irony that is both critically engaged and winkingly indifferent. Even in death, or, in approaching his own, as it were, the question of Schlingensief’s sincerity remains shifting but nonetheless radically engaging.    

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