BY Jörg Scheller in Profiles | 21 FEB 14
Featured in
Issue 13

Speak For Yourself

Staging Martin Kippenberger’s turbulent biography

BY Jörg Scheller in Profiles | 21 FEB 14

Marek Harloff in Kippenberger! Ein Exzess des Moments, Schauspiel Köln, 2013, Courtesy for all images: Schauspiel Köln

It’s no easy task. How to make theatre about the life and work of a man whose life and work could itself be described as theatre? Director Angela Richter accepted this challenge and produced Kippenberger! Ein Exzess des Moments (Kippenberger! An Excess of the Moment), currently showing at Schauspiel Köln, which adds another brick to the steadily growing Martin Kippenberger memorial monument. Last year, the enfant terrible of Germany’s postmodern art scene would have turned sixty. The anniversary hullabaloo was accompanied by retrospectives, film documentaries and publications, as well as the usual spectrum in the press from homage to criticism. On stage, on the other hand, the problem arose: in theatre about a life as theatre, won’t the subject matter compete with the performance?

Kippenberger painted, pranked, danced, drank, made music and published as if he was playing the lead role in a long-running show titled ‘My Downright Disorderly Life’. Whether she likes it or not, Richter demonstrates the ongoing dominance of the actor-artist or artist-actor even after his death. Premiered last October, her play samples original statements by Kippenberger and his circle of friends, including director and writer Gisela Stelly and actor Ben Becker. In this approach, Kippenberger! resembles Die Grünen (The Greens) by Viola Hasselberg and Jarg Pataki, a play that was shown to great acclaim at Theater Freiburg in 2011, whose text consists entirely of original quotations from Green Party members (parliamentary transcripts, party speeches, interviews). Research and compilation over fresh creativity and storytelling – with kind regards from the good old death of the author and best wishes from the younger spirit of ‘don’t make it up, take it up’.

Kippenberger! Ein Exzess des Moments, Schauspiel Köln, 2013

In this light it seems only logical – after Assassinate Assange, Richter’s play about WikiLeaks martyr Julian Assange (Kampnagel Hamburg, 2012), and her adaptations of texts by Wolfgang Bauer (Magic Afternoon, Kampnagel, 2005) and Rainald Goetz (Jeff Koons, Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, 2008) – that the director should once more turn her attention to a controversial renegade. She seems to be interested in a type of person that could be called an ‘embedded dissident’ – not the ‘outsider-outsider’ grafting in isolation, but the kind of ‘insider-outsider’ embodied by Kippenberger: always already part of the system to be blown apart.

At Schauspiel Köln, Yuri Englert, Marek Harloff, Malte Sundermann, Melissa Logan and Judith Rosmair serve as transmitters. Dressed simply in black and grey, the actors evoke Kippenberger’s turbulent biography, sometimes in dialogue, often through monologue, with some singing and dancing, and plenty of smoking and drinking. This is instructive and informative as theatrical hagiography, but it is troubling insofar as it suggests the impossibility of analyzing and interpreting Kippenberger. It is as if the artist and his immediate entourage must still be allowed to speak for themselves, like giving fresh bodies to those who had fallen silent. Top dog even in the afterlife, Kippenberger still calls the shots.

In only one scene Richter does distance herself from the auratic original and the oral history of the art scene. It is the best scene in the play. Yuri Englert stands alone on stage and tells a joke about a failed attempt to buy a tortoise – or rather, he tries to tell it, keeps starting over, gets tangled up, speaks directly to the audience, scores various collateral laughs, and never seems to get any closer to the punchline. When at last he does get there, the epic, absurd prelude feels far funnier than the joke itself. On the one hand, this is a portrayal of Kippenberger the notorious joke teller. On the other, the joke itself, beyond its content and biographical links, is a brilliant allegory on Kippenberger, mirroring his legend and his oeuvre: a seemingly endless but then abruptly ending series of puns and obscurities, somehow insipid but also fascinating, somehow still art but right off the map.

More allegories like this would have been good, and less of the diligent biographical research and first hand sound bites. In this sense, Richter’s production is symptomatic of Kippenberger’s reception, which often focuses more on his life than on the substance of his work. But this biographically inclined cult of Kippenberger is hardly surprising. He wasted his prolonged youth on behalf of all artists who do not have time, between all their yoga classes and further studies, to sacrifice themselves physically (and not just rhetorically) for their art. Out of gratitude for this service, people are happy to continue letting him take centre stage.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.