German Pavilion will pay tribute to Christoph Schlingensief

The artist, actor and maverick director who was due to represent Germany at next year's Venice Biennale, died of lung cancer last month

Actor, artist and director Christoph Schlingensief

One month after the death of Christoph Schlingensief, the artist, actor and maverick director who was due to represent Germany at next year's Venice Biennale, The Art Newspaper speaks with Susanne Gaensheimer, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt and the curator for the German Pavilion, about what she is planning for Venice.

The Art Newspaper: Christoph Schlingensief died during the preparation of his work for the German Pavilion in Venice, 2011. How would you describe your collaboration?

Susanne Gaensheimer: Working with Schlingensief was an extremely inspiring experience for me—our collaboration was exiting and I would have wished to finish it with him. During the past few years he was engaged a lot with opera and theatre, where working processes are very different than in the art world. While exhibitions are planned a long time in advance, preparation periods are much shorter in theatre. But even though Schlingensief was very busy with other projects, he immediately devoted time to think about and discuss the pavilion.

TAN: During an interview in a German talk show, Schlingensief described the Bayreuth music festival as a “small fascist army, who guard you and eavesdrop on you.” What were his feelings towards the Venice Biennale?

SG: Schlingensief was exited about the invitation to present the German Pavilion and it was very important to him. But he also made fun of artists as well as curators —me included. His attitude offered a new perspective on the art world, which often suffers from very gridlocked behavioural patterns which is why I always enjoyed his critical and distant attitude towards Bayreuth as well as towards theatre and art.

TAN: Were you already discussing specific ideas for the pavilion? What did the project look like so far?

SG: I called Christoph one morning and he said: “Great that you called me, I just had a fantastic idea in the shower!” He filled me in and I loved his idea, but thought that it would evolve over time. In the end, this was the idea we seriously started working on. We have now decided to document it in the form of a publication for the biennale. But we cannot fully realise his idea, as it wasn’t finished yet. There are so many questions and no one knows what Schlingensief would have done. He is one of the greatest German artists and there simply is no Schlingensief replacement. He probably would have torn down half the pavilion two weeks before the opening and rebuilt it all.

TAN: What do you plan do to with the pavilion? Did you consider leaving it empty?

SG: It did cross my mind and leaving the pavilion empty is an option. But I don’t think that I will do that. This pavilion is a tribute to Schlingensief and it wouldn’t be enough to simply leave it empty. Schlingensief's work is not very well known internationally. After his death, there was a desire to see his work—and we want to show it.

TAN: Do you intend to remember Schlingensief with the documentation of his initial idea?

SG: A documentation of his vision for the pavilion will form one part. We simply want to present all aspects of his initial idea. It might be an option to curate his work like a retrospective. The challenge is to present his art without him being physically there. The pavilion will show and deal with this sense of a void which he left behind. You can’t ignore such a gap.

TAN: Even though Schlingensief was already very ill when you invited him in May to create a project for Venice, you chose not to have a “plan b” in case he died. Do you regret that now?

SG: I do not regret that at all. A “plan b” was always out of the question for me. I invited Schlingensief because I was absolutely convinced—and still am—that he was the right artist. You can’t not invite someone because the person is ill. I made a well thought through decision and will stick to it. The German Pavilion needs a new perspective; it has reached an endpoint and needs someone who causes a bit of a stir. Schlingensief’s work will do that.

Schlingensief's projects in Burkina Faso and Berlin

Schlingensief was also working on a project to build an opera house, school and infirmary near the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. “It was fascinating to see how the project gave him courage and energy,” Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut, said. The foundation stone for his school of music and film education, which includes theatres, workshops and a hospital ward, was laid in February. After the death of Schlingensief, the Goethe-Institut and the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Cultural Foundation) ensured their ongoing support for the project, which is due to be completed in October.

Schlingensief’s opera production of Jens Joneleits’ “Metanoia”, which is due to premier at the Berliner Staatsoper on 3 October will also go ahead. Schlingensief's colleague, Anna-Sophie Mahler, who took over the staging of Walter Braunfels’ opera, “Scenes From the Life of St Joan” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2008, shortly after Schlingensief was diagnosed with lung cancer, will see through the premiere.

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