Schlingensief Fragments of the Impossible

Dr Anna Teresa Scheer
Dr Anna Teresa Scheer at Carriageworks, one of the 20th Biennale of Sydney venues | © Sabine Scholz-Hinton

Christoph Schlingensief used to wear many hats: He was an artist, film and theatre director and author. Dr Anna Teresa Scheer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts at the University of New England in Armidale and has extensively researched Schlingensief’s work. Now, as part of the Biennale of Sydney, Schlingensief’s multimedia installation "The African Twintowers" (2005) will be exhibited in Australia for the first time. In this candid interview, Anna lets us in on her personal reasons for focusing her studies on Schlingensief and how she thinks Australian audiences might receive it.

You have been invited by the 20th Biennale of Sydney to give a talk on German artist Christoph Schlingensief. Can you tell us a little bit about his work, in particular about the installation that is being exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) as part of the Biennale?

The great thing is that this is the first occasion that Schlingensief’s work is being shown here in New South Wales. In fact, it’s the first time one of his artworks is being shown in Australia, though The Queensland Art Gallery did show his films in 2011.

EMBASSY OF SPIRITS

To have included Christoph Schlingensief in part of something called the Embassy of Spirits is particularly special. Because his later work really was engaging with spiritual matters, certainly after his diagnosis with cancer in 2008. His thoughts, unsurprisingly, turned towards his own passing and matters of what do you leave behind. What does it mean to know that your time is going to be limited. His inner battle with his own religious beliefs, as someone who had been brought up in a very catholic family, became a focal point. But apart from religion, the catholic religion, there is also spiritualty. Religion and spiritualty can often be very different things.

So this work, The African Twintowers, was made in 2005, and the title itself is particularly surprising. It is referring to the attack on the Twin Towers of September 11th in a particularly challenging, controversial way even. For Schlingensief there was the matter of what had been going on. The number of deaths in Africa that could total something like 35,000 a day, completely glossed over, or ignored in the face of a major Western catastrophe that took a lot less lives - as important as those lives were. The title of this piece is making the point that there’s something like the Twin Towers happening every day.

THE PLAN THAT DID NOT WORK

Again, this is his particular perspective as a German artist. The starting point of the film was that [Schlingensief] was reconnecting with an engagement he’d had with Africa for many years. This time he was going over there to shoot his first feature film in eight years. That was the plan - and that plan did not work. After two days of shooting, the whole thing fell apart. His ideas for a script – [his scripts were] usually kind of crazy, funny, humorous, dark, political, satirical – weren’t working in terms of his take on colonialism […] and he abandoned that plan. He continued shooting for the duration of 27 days.

Christoph Schlingensief’s multimedia installation Christoph Schlingensief The African Twintowers, 2005–07, multimedia installation, 18 flatscreen monitors, 18 videos, no sound 165 x 421 cm (overall) Installation view of the 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Courtesy the Estate of Christoph Schlingensief and Hauser & Wirth, London and Zurich © Leïla Joy

What we see at the AGNSW are the fragments of something that became impossible. 18 monitors, different images on each. What’s interesting about this work for the viewer, is that you won’t be told where to look. You won’t find a narrative. You won’t find a central point of these 18 screens – start here and end there – you will choose where to look randomly.

This installation has no sound. I find that extremely interesting and challenging. So would you say that The African Twintowers is merely a visual installation?       
     
This is a visual installation. But this work also exists in movie form where there is sound. I have only seen it in Germany recently. Again, it’s not a narrative film. A lot of the same images, but there is sound. You can hear what the actors are saying; you can hear what Schlingensief is saying. So that’s kind of a film shot in a sequence shown on one video monitor.

So it’s kind of the same material but used in two different formats?

I think it could actually be different material. Because after 27 days of shooting some of it probably ended up in a film sequence of his cut and some of the images here could be quite different.

FROM THE BIZARRE TO THE MUNDANE

But they will range from the bizarre to the mundane to the political, to images that reference German colonialism, to the surreal, the grotesque, the very humorous - all of these different things. So to try and search for an ultimate meaning will not work. But the work should be challenging, very engaging and I think it will provide a starting point for many Australian visitors to Schlingensief’s work. I think he will also be in very good company with other really interesting artists at the Embassy of Spirits.

How did you find your starting point for looking at Schlingensief’s work? How does it fit into your life?

When I lived in Berlin for 14 years, in Prenzlauer Berg, which is now a very trendy, gentrified neighborhood. The reason I was there was not to be trendy, but because I was working at the Volksbühne which is a major theatre in the former East on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Schlingensief started working at that theatre in 1993 which was at the same time that I was there. He also lived around the corner from me. So I did not only see his work at the Volksbühne, but he was also a familiar figure in my neighborhood - at the beer garden we all went to, or at the shop where we got our photos developed.
 
So you are not someone who has just studied his work, but also someone who knew him personally.

Yes, I wasn’t studying anything at that time. I was working in the theatre. It was years later, when I came back to Australia in 2007 to take up post-graduate studies. The question of what I would study was very clear to me; that the only artist that I would really want to focus on would be Schlingensief, for the reason that his work had struck me very much.

As someone who spoke German as a second language, I was deeply aware of the political nature of his work and the fact that in Australia, my country of birth, there was nothing like that. There was no artist engaging with politics as deeply and as radically and confrontationally as him, across all these different mediums. It was astounding to me that he was relatively unknown, in fact totally unknown, in Australia. I set about doing my first honors type thesis on him and in 2010 brought out the first co-edited book on his work, for the first English publication on his work. I then completed my PhD on Schlingensief and I have another monograph forthcoming on his theatre practice, [which will be] coming out in 2017. It simply continues to engage me.

AN INTERNATIONAL FOCUS

After his death, way too early in 2010, it was very clear that there was a whole body of work that really needed to be looked at. Scholars were really at the tip of the iceberg. Germany’s a considerable way further, but to have that work just confided in a German context, I don’t think really does him justice in terms of what his contribution to art is overall. I think the work needs an international focus and also, apart from retrospectives and catalogues, we still don’t know very much.

Would you dare to make a prediction of how his work might be received by Australian audiences during the Biennale?

With total bafflement. I think [it will be received] with bemusement, with curiosity, with some shots of recognition when you see colonial type images. When you see the old pith helmets they used to wear there. The African people and their own bemusement at what’s happening there with this crazy film crew. I think for some Australians it will resonate with our own colonial history, with a very tentative engagement many non-indigenous Australians have with this part of our history. I think there will definitely be some curiosity about what it all means.

Thank you very much for the interview Anna.