Is the biggest art the art of living? (The Transformative Power of Art 5-6 February 2016)

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Opera-village-image2-600x600[1]Organised by PhD student Sarah Hegenbart, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a conference at the Courtauld Institute focusing on the life and legacy of the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010), his relationship to Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art.’ Presented by a host of impressive participants like Schlingensief’s widow Aino Laberenz and the director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon, much of the conference revolved around Schlingensief’s final project, the Opera Village in Burkina Faso – and the question whether this was a continuation, or realisation, of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. The Opera Village, which started in 2010, today consists of 26 buildings revolving around a school and a hospital. ‘How is this a Gesamtkunstwerk?’ you may ask – which, at least in part, was also the crux of the conference.

Defining the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk on the stage as a unity between lyric, dance and sound from his 1849 essays ‘Art and Revolution’ and ‘Artwork of the Future,’ much of Schlingensief’s work corresponded with this idea. Given that Schlingensief, who had his first Tate Modern retrospective in 2012, is certainly not known as well in Britain as in Germany, selected works introduced him as a socially engaged artist, often drawing on Catholic notions of the spectacle, with films and action art projects that involved bystanders as participants, consistently blurring the line between art and life. Please love Austria (2000), for example, let people vote asylum seekers out of the country in a Big-Brother-style fashion after the Austrian right-wing party FPÖ became part of the country’s government. Another piece, the trash film The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), dealt with the implications of the reunification of East and West Germany in 1989, showing West Germans turning their Eastern counterparts into objects of mass consumerism: sausages!

This narrow selection of works alone exemplifies the work of an artist who not only engaged critically with politics and popular culture, but was also blurring the lines between art and life in an idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. References to works like Please love Austria were well-chosen given the current socio-political climate in Germany and Austria, yet not assessed within this context. For all the critical and social engagement in Schlingensief’s work, one cannot help but wonder how pieces like Please love Austria would be received today — or how Schlingensief would have responded to the current refugee crisis.

In contrast to these critical works, it seems, the Opera Village was born out of a different kind of social engagement: that of fostering the arts in a place that Schlingensief identified with, far away from the remits of Western culture and ‘European values’ he so frequently exposed. Still, one wonders about the implications of a high-profile Western artist building his legacy in a remote part of Africa (the opera village is located 30 kilometres outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital). Aino Laberenz, who is now the project’s director, pointed out that, while she is overseeing things, the bulk of the project is directed by the local community, and there is a particular emphasis to foster cultural exchange, rather than to enforce ‘Western values’ onto the African project. Even though the artist may have started the Opera Village with the best intentions and, as was asserted, a great portion of naivety, it seems that more critical engagement with the socio-political implications of the project, especially given the current situation in Burkina Faso, is needed.

Particularly striking in this context is the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. If the Opera Village is not a charity project but an ‘artwork’ that integrates art with a social infrastructure, what do the people living there (Burkinabe teachers, doctors and nurses) represent? Are their lives a performance? Or has Schlingensief created a perfectly autonomous artwork that survives and continues after his death and is inseparable from the individuals involved with it? While it has been stressed that the people living in the Opera Village have their own input, their voices weren’t heard at the conference, and by focusing on the project as ‘Schlingensief’s utopia’ haven’t we somehow reversed his ideal by excluding them? As Schiller said, ‘the greatest art is the art of life’. Using the Opera Village as an example for ‘an art of life’, notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk can be re-assessed, yet its relationship to the direct socio-political situation in Burkina Faso remain to be explored.

As such, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a successful and engaging starting point to the reception of Schlingensief’s work in the UK: rather than providing answers, at the end of the one-and-a-half-day event there were more questions than before, some of which, like the contemporary relevance of Schlingesief’s work and a critical, socio-political reading of the Opera Village, are more pressing than others.