The Kippenberger Case

author Martin Kippenberger
written by Željko Kipke

PDF Download: Click here.

Why is the artistic strategy of Martin Kippenberger becoming more interesting to museums and galleries throughout the world from year to year? The tenth anniversary of his death was in March 2007, and the heritage of this German artist born in Dortmund (1953) continues to pique the interest of the profession, while the number of his admirers visiting cultural institutions is simultaneously increasing. An intelligent strategist who never managed to convince the major museums of his uniqueness during his lifetime has suddenly become welcome and a favourite in these very same institutions. Is it perhaps a case of that well-known say that a “dead artist is the best artist”, so that his legacy can literally be dredged out in every possible way, without additional problems created by a hyper-productive, at times even impertinent and very demanding person? In any case, it is easier to deal with a “dead artist”, and thus it is easier to understand the attempt of Kunsthaus manager Peter Pakesch to open a chapter on the subject of ethical and human values in Kippenberger’s works with a team of experts on the upper floor of his institution in Graz during the Styrian Autumn. Such a job was not at all easy, regarding the generally known egocentricity and strong self-promotional trait of the artist’s character.


“Model Martin Kippenberger: Utopia for Everyone”, as the exhibition’s title suggests, is an attempt to balance a dramatic artistic destiny – unpredictable and always different. A lack of style was a constant in all that, and that is why each subsequent story on a model should be taken with a generous pinch of salt. I believe that those who knew the German artist well during this lifetime would agree that the exhibition in Graz would not satisfy his artistic appetite. However, since no curator or manager expects new surprises by the artist in the future, it is quite natural that new “spices” are created where it is common today – among managers of exhibition halls and their close associates.


The Graz exhibition emphasizes Kippenberger’s construction work, primarily on remarkable objects, installations and several canvases that represent extraordinary architectural creations, including two virtual stories. The first refers to his private museum on the Greek island of Syros, where in 1993 he proclaimed the dilapidated architectural skeleton of a never constructed abattoir a new museum, and named it MOMAS (the Museum of Modern Art Syros) with a clear reference to the museum in New York. The difference was that Kippenberger’s acquisition did not collect or produce art works. Its primary activity was printing invitations – distributed all over the world by the artist’s gallery in Cologne. It also included meetings on the spot among a narrow circle of acquaintances and like-minded individuals, and live artistic projects which mostly dealt with the geography and facilities near the eerie building with neither walls nor windows. The MOMAS skeleton, situated high above the sea on the rocky terrain of a Cycladic island, irresistibly recalled the Acropolis in Athens. No doubt, strategically it followed Broodthaers’s Museum of Eagles, with an important distinction: a fictitious institution almost did not cross the borders of the virtual. There was no room in it for a collection of reproductions or a nomadic collection which would change locations as was the case with Broodthaers’s anti-museum two decades earlier. The museum on Syros had a fixed location, at the periphery of artistic events. According to Ulrich Strothjohann, one of the participants in the island’s meetings, and the artist’s assistant at the same time, it was created as Kippenberger’s response to existing museums, their strategy and, among other reasons, because he was considered an outsider in the perception of their managers and visitors. It was natural that a hyperactive artist, as Kippenberger was, did not have time to wait for the attention of the leading exhibition galleries. He would construct his logic in a detoured way, very often at places without a museum or gallery pedigree. He situated his “lodges” in well-known bars and restaurants in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Cologne and Graz, thus making the logic of his artistic moves and preoccupations hard to follow. With unpredictable procedures, ranging from the engagement of assistants whom he would commission to paint to the position of a curator whereby he would use his colleagues’ works for his own projects, he resisted the system which divided artists into two categories, those with privileges and incorporated into the system, and those without privileges, himself included. On the other hand, not all museums at the beginning of the 1990s had the same prejudices. In one of them, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, he had the opportunity in 1994 to exhibit a very demanding installation entitled The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’. It is interesting that Kippenberger’s personal acquaintances described the Rotterdam installation as “dull and chatty”, while art historians and curators mostly agree that it was an exceptional project. Regardless of everything, the exhibition consisted of numerous different chairs and tables arranged in a manner typical of interviews, but of course without live participants, formed the background to the gallery story of Kafka’s uncompleted novel. Thus, it was actually an allusion to the interviews which artists had to undergo with museum directors before being admitted to – or barred from – the privileged society. In Graz, the installation on the theme of Kafka’s novel was presented modestly and decoratively, with two identical plastic chairs and one table.


The second virtual story concerns his establishment of a global network for his private metro. The Cycladic island was the first link in the chain. He built the first entrance to the underground railway, which leads nowhere, at a friend’s estate. Michel Würthle, the owner, remembers that he gave instructions to workers to build stairs into the water tank, so that he would not have to explain the real purpose of the works and diminish their motivation. The second entrance, made of wood, was later built in Dawson City, Canada, also in 1993. It is quite clear that the subway did not lead anywhere, and it consisted of the entrance, which was also the exit, and ventilation manholes, including the one from the film The Seven Year Itch, above which Marilyn Monroe’s pleated skirt flew up. Entrances and manholes would also appear at the Documenta (No X) in Kassel, a sculpture park in Münster in 1997, and posthumously in the German Pavilion at the Giardini, as part of the Venice Biennale in 2003.


In the strategic sense, the German artist did not hesitate to use more or less trivial visual patterns, no matter whether they were part of the commonplace or the completely unknown. The originality of used images or objects certainly did not bother him, which he demonstrated very early on when, by the end of the 1970s, he commissioned ten large paintings from painters of large billboards and exhibited them later under the name “Dear Painter, Paint for Me.” An exhibition of the actual painting of the same name circulated in European centres – Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt – four years ago. Thus, about twenty years after Kippenberger’s impertinent move, three curators (Alison M. Gingeras, Sabine Folie and Blaženka Perica) used the same move as the leitmotif of painting practices at the beginning of the new millennium. Furthermore, for the needs of the exhibition “The Triumph of Painting” in the Saatchi Gallery two years ago, a new term was coined – Kippenbergiana. It was used to explain the attractiveness of open and unpredictable artistic practice among the coming generations of European and American artists. During his lifetime, the artist himself firmly believed and repeated that his time was yet to come.


In this respect, a global private subway network was symptomatic, which actually reflected his artistic vanity. Ventilation bars and entrances, each different from the other, reflected his utterly different and at first sight unconnected artistic performances. However, just as all of the subway entrances were dead-ends, in line with the motto of his secret Lord Jim Lodge, which he founded together with colleagues and associates: “Nobody helps anybody”, thus his projects also represented closed systems or blind allies. They were connected, in the same manner as the entrances and bars of the fictitious subway, by invisible channels, or energetically, and were directed towards each other in an astonishing way. That is why the artist, to the amazement of curators, nonchalantly used the objects from one programme for another, changing their meaning and context. That is why, again to the amazement of curators, he turned everyday life into the artistic context with ease, stating offhandedly: “I’m me – and I’m lots of people.” That is why, contrary to the established rules of exhibition practice, he arranged the foundations of a future metro by the end of the 1980s, when he turned bars, from the Café Alt Wien in Vienna to the Paris Bar in Berlin, including a deserted gas station in Brazil which he bought and named after Martin Bormann, into venues for artistic events. The Graz exhibition’s organizers, following the same logic, were on the right track when they squeezed the artist’s heritage on the upper floor, but they missed mixing its content in a provocative and humorous way, as Kippenberger himself probably would have done if he were alive. Since the Kunsthaus leaflet stresses the phrase “I’m me – and I’m lots of people”, it is truly a pity that the exhibition’s display was not radicalized in this regard. Under the circumstances of a Kippebergerian chaos, the theme running through all of the exhibits would go something like this: every object is specific unto itself, but at the same time it reflects all others with which it is connected by invisible threads. In this way, the key words from the exhibition’s title, the model and utopia for everyone would secure their real foothold. All the more so because the activities of this German artist were once related to Graz. It was in the Forum Stadpark in 1987 where, as part of a that year’s Styrian Autumn, he organized a group exhibition of various authorial orientations entitled “Broken Neon”. Finding himself in the role of a curator, he skilfully turned it into his own artistic project, and already then, quite concretely, he showed how the link between himself and the “lots of people” in him works.