Christoph Schlingensief: Fear at the Core of Things

A brief essay by Kathrin Rhomberg, the curator of the exhibition, Christoph Schlingensief: Fear at the Core of Things, on view at BAK from 5 February–29 April 2012.

Democracy—be it on the grand scale of world politics or on the smaller one of local day-to-day interaction—was a central concern for Christoph Schlingensief.[1] The works and documents presented in this exhibition show this rather poignantly; they are examples of how Schlingensief operated in the art world and within the context of film, how he used other media, and the way in which his work occupied public space—all in order to not only address, but wherever possible, to influence volatile social issues and matters of political relevance. The reason for Schlingensief’s ceaseless call for self-empowerment, a prerequisite for democracy to function, is best explained in his own words: “Today, democracy is nothing more than a clothes horse to which voters cling until they’re dry. Then they drop to the floor and form the humus for the next promises of democracy. History is not a storm in which you hang out to dry. Democracy means assuming liability for yourself.”[2]

In his early film Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker [The German Chainsaw Massacre], shot in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schlingensief captures the triumph of western democracy and the concomitant end to the confrontation of systems that pit East against West: a trashy and blood-drenched image shows an act of cannibalism taking place in which the West ingests the East and everything disintegrates into chaos and indeterminacy. Ten years later, in his project in Vienna, Ausländer raus—Bitte liebt Österreich [Foreigners out—Please love Austria], 2000, brought to life in this exhibition through documentary photographs, films, newspaper articles, and interviews, Schlingensief lent a sharp edge to the debate over Austrian society’s democratic constitution. “Media democracy art”[3] was the term he coined to describe his attempts to unmask the world of everyday life, which he saw as a reality produced by politics and the media.

This project, which pretended to be an action jointly organized by the then-governing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), known for its polemical xenophobia, and the rabble-rousing tabloid Kronen Zeitung, deliberately involved well-known public figures from a wide range of social sectors. Left in the dark about the role these people played in the progressiveelimination arrangement, whose “survivors” were asylum seekers awaiting deportation around which the entire project was staged, the public-at-large was unable to ascertain what was real and what was fiction. Schlingensief heightened this uncertainty by contradicting himself and feigning to implement political propaganda acting on his conviction that, “resistance is futile, contradiction is what is called for.”[4] He made statements such as: “I take Jörg Haider [leader of the FPÖ] by his word and play him through.”[5] The public no longer knew how to distinguish between right-wing and left-wing ideology, between real asylum seekers and actors involved in the production, between Schlingensief the artificial character and Schlingensief himself. Gone too was the sphere of unequivocal morality to which observers would retreat in order to remain above the fray. _Ausländer raus _grew into a disturbance for everyone, affecting those involved no less than outside onlookers. It was a painful simulation of reality that reflected the observer’s disorientation and reluctance to take a stand, as well as the manipulability of the public and the culture of resentment in which xenophobia and racism were rampant.

In Animatograph—Iceland-Edition. (House of Parliament/ House of Obsession) Destroy Thingvellir, 2005, Schlingensief shifts the focus from an action-based infiltration of current political issues to an exploration of the potential within the contemplative and sheltered spaces of the art world. Questions of generating visibility move to the fore. The Animatograph is meant to be an “organ of vision” that exposes the beholder to a deluge of images seemingly without any inherent logic to connect them. The traces these images leave are just as chaotic, disorderly, and undefined as those of the outside world, and thereby create a portrait of the divergent domains and systems of reality that make up our society. The _Animatograph _is anarchistic, contradictory, and relieved of the shackles of intellectual convention; it attacks the structures of order imposed by dialectically trained practices, which claim authority over how the world is explained and interpreted. Thrust into this frenzy of projections, appeals, and contentions, the beholder is at once included in the picture and is the very agent at its heart. Schlingensief renders him “part of the illusion … in order to send him back at once into reality.”[6]


[1] As Roman Berka argues in his excellent book, Christoph Schlingensiefs Animatograph: Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit Time Here Becomes Space.

[2] Christoph Schlingensief in an interview with Gabriela Walde and Eckhard Fuhr, “Ich bin nicht die Provo-Batterie“ [I am not the Provo-Battery], Die Welt, August 14, 2005, quoted in Berka’s Schlingensiefs Animatograph, p. 54.

[3] Berka, Schlingensiefs Animatograph, p. 89.

[4] Schlingensief in an interview with Karin Cerny, “Das war nicht abzusehen” [It was not predictable], _Falter _25 (2000), p. 18.

[5] Schlingensief in conversation with Alexander Kluge, in Ausländer raus[Foreigners out], documentation by Matthias Lilienthal and Claus Philipp (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000), p. 138.

[6] Schlingensief in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Meine Arbeit hat immer mit dem Blickwechsel zu tun” [My work has not always to do with a shift of focus], in Christoph Schlingensief: Church of Fear, ed. A. Koegel and K. König (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2005), p. 11.