Magazine article Artforum International

Loose Canon: Matt Saunders on Jonathan Meese's Mother Parsifal

Magazine article Artforum International

Loose Canon: Matt Saunders on Jonathan Meese's Mother Parsifal

Article excerpt

AT THE END of John Boorman's 1974 cult film Zardoz, Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling sit in a cave and age quickly through the rest of their lives while Beethoven's Seventh Symphony booms. The cuts move with the music, so each new phrase of orchestral high Kultur seems to bury them deeper under campy pancake and latex. As pretentious tableau, it pits lifetime against geological time, and as eccentric comedy, it transforms the two sex symbols into Pirate's Cove theme-park skeletons. From Jonathan Meese, I expected something of the same.

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Jonathan Meese Is Mother Parsifal set the young artist alone against the well-over-five hours of Wagner's slow-moving epic in the vast scenery storehouse of Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden. There Meese performed three shows in March, with music piped in live from the new Eichinger and Barenboim production of Parsifal, which was playing simultaneously in the Staatsoper's main auditorium. It was a prestigious venue for the Berlin art scene's resident Wagnerian--although, aside from promising an endurance test, it was unclear until opening night what Meese would actually do.

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Sitting on bleachers, clutching wool blankets in the soaring, unheated Magazin, we confronted an extraordinary junk pile of a stage. Majestic in the center stood the enormous stone head from Zardoz, transformed into a Janus-faced portrait of Wagner--on one side Meese's rough version and on the other a souvenir-shop likeness, embellished with a great phallic chin. A blowup of a small sculpture, it bore oversize traces of the artist's thumbprints. On the back wall was a painted caption: DR. SAINT PROPAGANDADDY SPOKE. Homemade Meesiana littered the stage: weapons and helmets; large photos of Klaus Kinski with hand-painted captions like THANK YOU and FRIEND; and, down some stairs, The Propagandist, a bronze humanoid sporting five huge dicks. A rickety ladder led down to a pit, where four blank canvases stood ready. With rows of plastic skeletons flanking a throne at center stage, the set seemed as much goth bar as Valhalla.

At the premiere, Meese started by fondling and back-slapping his sculpture--"You are a good boy"--before embarking on a series of both ritualized and apparently aimless manipulations of the props. An iron cross on an elastic rope was a favorite, whether stuck in his eye like a monocle, displayed as a talisman, or hung around the neck of The Propagandist. The sculpture also became a sort of coatrack for piles of swords, spears, crosses, and banners that Meese, a gleeful raider of the Staatsoper prop storage, variously seized, wielded, and discarded. Changing his military coat for another uniform--a black Adidas jacket--he made fast paintings straight from the tube, labeling each stringy tangle like the diagrams on a Joseph Beuys chalkboard. A cameraman tagged along throughout the show, feeding a giant video projection at the rear of the stage that also featured intercut footage of past Meese performances and other miscellany. As the artist grimaced, saluted, held signs, and donned helmets below, there were repetitions and correspondences on the screen above. All the while, Wagner's music, like the Beethoven in Zardoz, at once heroicized and diminished everything Meese did.

The actual relation between Parsifal and Mother Parsifal seemed loose at best. Wagner's opera tells the story of a naive fool who emerges from self-absorbed cluelessness to learn compassion and, eventually, take on the social role of redeemer and spiritual leader. Meese took the opposite path, descending from a headlining artiste (greeting a representative from the Staatsoper on stage before the show) to a withdrawn lunatic, literally frothing at the mouth. On opening night, this was compounded by two bottles of wine. As Meese withdrew into the inscrutable inner world of his own inebriation (which we watched like a restaging of Warhol's 1964 film Drunk), he dragged the whole backstage of the production into view. …

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