Trophies From the Urban Jungle
Bettina Klein

On 11 August in the year 1921 electrical fitter Willi Schöller and his colleague Leo Wörner climbed onto the top of the St. Kilian’s Church tower, where Willi then performed a handstand on the “Männle”. “Something that does not happen every day and not everyone will emulate,” was how the local press commented on the unusual event at the time, which was also documented as a photograph on a historical postcard.

Almost a century later Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf repeated the action, not for a bet as in the case of Schöller and Wörner, but prior to an exhibition at Heilbronn Kunstverein. The handstand on the spire is by no means the first reckless action of the two men, whereby Leinkauf almost always is responsible for the camera and Wermke handles the performative side to things.

The connections between contemporary visual art and acrobatics are neither obvious nor particularly numerous aside from a handful of famous exceptions such as 8 Natural Handstands by Robert Kinmont or Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building. Kinmont did his handstands in the desert, in a river bed, a forest clearing or a ledge, and with the photography series of existential experiences produced in 1969 documented the remoteness of the Californian landscape. Just one year later Trisha Brown had a dancer (her husband Joseph Schlichter) walk down the side of a building in Wooster Street in Manhattan, secured by a harness. She described the action as “a natural activity under the stress of an unnatural setting. Gravity reneged. Vast scale. Clear order. You start at the top, walk straight down, stop at the bottom.”1

These two legendary works bring several aspects to mind that are also essential for the actions of Wermke Leinkauf: an extreme physical experience involving the mastering of gravity, the individual in his relationship to the city or natural landscape, and a strictly conceptual approach, which is also maintained in the documentary recording of the performances.2 As with Kinmont, Wermke Leinkauf’s actions also take place without an audience (with the exception of people that happen to pass by). And although the actions might be very spectacular when documented they are presented so casually that an unobservant person might well overlook them. On the one hand, they take up the pulse of city life, but on the other they represent a break, a break with conventions and the concept of a city that is thoroughly organized and structured. For example the film made on Super 8 and entitled Grenzgänger (Border Crosser) shows a young man, who swims the Spree river in the early morning from the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus on the eastern bank to the Paul-Löbe-Haus in the western bank. As a child Matthias Wermke had seen a film by a British tourist shown on West German TV and documenting an attempt to flee East Germany. He transferred the images from his memory into a specific action. As political reality has long since changed, the image created is a strange one: a small, naked man between the government buildings on the banks of the Reichstag, who despite the illegality of his action operates with a certain naturalness.

The calm with which the action unfolds and the quiet of the city form a stark contrast to the film’s historical inspiration, a dramatic escape across the River Spree in the 1980s. Historical references can be detected in some of Wermke Leinkauf’s works, and actions are often preceded by lengthy pauses for research. The fact that they repeatedly choose places and buildings that symbolize the existing political and economic balance of power makes it clear that their purpose is not merely to deliver a successful performance. On the contrary, failure and other possible effects of the actions that are not announced in advance and are mostly illegal are taken into account.3

The spectacular acrobatic actions always have something of the aura of a circus performance, show business, or a bet made in a pub after too many drinks. Climbing buildings requires a great degree of physical fitness and coordination, regular training and above all a lot of courage and self-confidence – especially when the performance is on unknown territory as happened in the work Drifter realized 2012 in Tokyo. Alongside architecturally significant buildings such as the Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa or the Yoyogi National Stadium designed by Kenzo Tange, Wermke Leinkauf also attempted to climb the museum of energy corporation Tepco, which has been closed since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Given the building’s history the two artists ended up being temporarily arrested.

In an installation of monitors stacked next to and on top of each other Drifter combines the actions conducted one after the other into a loose narration, which is repeatedly varied afresh thanks to the respective loops of the individual videos. The installation which is newly interpreted for every exhibition location (in the Heilbronn version it was complemented by video recordings from Berlin and Heilbronn) cites the dense web of architecture of the Japanese metropolis. Moreover, the turning and tilting of the video images serves to suggest that movement from one monitor to the next is possible and the three-dimensionality of the architecture and monitors could be transferred to the two-dimensional video images.

The photo series Landmarks (2013), which takes up the principle of earlier works in documenting performances in the urban realm, brings a new element into play: the artists sewed flags which were then placed in almost inaccessible places in Heilbronn, thereby marking in the manner of a cross on a mountain summit or a hoisted flag the monuments and public utilities of the city. The material for the flags was taken from high visibility vests, which often served Wermke Leinkauf as an aid in when performing actions as the vests allowed them to operate conspicuously inconspicuously in urban spaces. This strategy long employed by sprayers is the result of many years‘ experience in the “milieu“4, and which the two men can draw on in other actions (such as the handcar ride on the tracks of Berlin’s suburban and underground trains in Zwischenzeit). The bright colors of the vests stand out on factory chimneys, cooling towers and electricity masts like the insignia of an anarchistic movement whose political program demands free access to all accessible places. The figure of Fortuna on Heilbronn’s Fleinertor fountain was also given a small flag, which unlike the patchwork-like larger ones cites the sign for “monument”.
In the age of digital image editing the wish for authentic experiences seems to be greater than ever. The images taken by Mischa Leinkauf could be easily produced using Photoshop or modern video editing programs but the aim is to old-fashioned evidence à la Roland Barthes: “This is how it was.”5 Wermke Leinkauf‘s trophies are not capital antlers and bunches of edelweiss but the images of their actions they have captured and collected. Yet the artifacts and equipment integrated into the exhibition in Heilbronn do bear a certain resemblance to items of “hunting equipment”, and the camouflage (one of the high visibility vests also sports a camouflage pattern), which guarantees safety and efficiency.

Ich und die Stadt (I and the Town) – in Ludwig Meidner’s famous painting of 1913 the city is presented as a threatening juggernaut about to overwhelm the ego. But the urban experience in Wermke Leinkauf’s work is largely positive and being alone in the city (at night and in the early morning hours) the prerequisite for being able to operate freely. The two men are evidently so familiar with the backdrops and undergrounds of urban settings that they move in them quite naturally and almost symbiotically. Arguably it is this familiarity that lends the images their special atmosphere: they show mostly in wide shots ant-like people, which the city does not suppress but who move in it nimbly and appropriate it. Bas Jan Ader’s photo series In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles) from 1973, in which he strolls through L.A. at night with a large torch conveys a similar intention even though it is realized quite differently artistically: the individual exploration of the city’s peripheral zones far away from the generally accessible infrastructures and removed from a purposeful hustle and bustle.

For Wermke Leinkauf their interaction with the places in which they operate goes far beyond the performative act in urban space. Apart from the physical training the actions are preceded often by months of research in archives, a close observation of the locations and conversations with residents, employees and historians. The reference to a place might – as in this instance – even be reflecting in the seating used in the exhibition: after lengthy searching two crates of Kiliansbräu beer dating from 1965 were found in the basement of a family in Bretzfeld that had a pub. The crates are from the Cluss brewery, closed in 1982, and an old-established Heilbronn firm. Kitted out with cushions made from cut up high visibility vests they are also fragments of Heilbronn’s history like Willi Schöller and Leo Wörner, the Kilian tower or the power station: not so much trophies but rather artifacts for a museum showing everyday culture.

  1. Lydia Yee, “When the Sky Was the Limit”; in: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark. Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s, edited by Barbican Art Gallery, (London, 2011), p. 20. 

  2. See Barbara Clausen, Performance: Dokumente zwischen Aktion und Betrachtung. Babette Mangolte und die Rezeptionsgeschichte der Performancekunst, Ph.D. thesis, University of Vienna, 2010, pp. 94–101. 

  3. Recently, as part of the preparations for the exhibition in the in Heilbronn, climbing the cooling tower of the EnBW power station in Heilbronn resulted in their arrest and in legal proceedings for trespassing. 

  4. See also Matthias Wermke, Because it smells great! Fragmente zu Graffiti im Kontext zeitgenössischer Kunst, thesis at the Berlin Weissensee School of Art, Berlin, 2012.  

  5. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (London, 1982).