‘They’re collages.’ That’s how the German art consultant Helge Achenbach described the false invoices that landed him in an Essen court in 2014. In an episode of Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s new satirical film mini-series ‘Rheingold’ (2016–ongoing) – sketches from which will be screened at the Kunstverein in Cologne later this month – we see Achenbach sitting at a table, scissors in hand, cutting out figures and sticking them onto invoices. He becomes frustrated when the photocopier jams. For artists Wissel and Bonny the collages are more than just a nice story. They reveal a tale of cultural politics and the dovetailing of business, crime and the 20th century artistic avant-gardes.
Before he was jailed on charges of fraud, the real-life Achenbach was one of Germany’s most influential art consultants. His clients included Deutsche Bank, Siemens and the heirs to the supermarket chain Aldi; he would defraud them of €20 million. Before this Achenbach was a social worker, joining Germany’s Social Democratic Party with the hope of improving the world. Later he befriended the Dusseldorf-based painter and revolutionary idealist Jörg Immendorff. From the estate of Joseph Beuys, he bought the Bentley in which Beuys would drive himself to openings (Beuys took care to park a sufficient distance away so as to not be seen leaving his luxury car). In 2014, Achenbach was arrested at Dusseldorf Airport on his way back from Brazil where he had been installing art in the German national football team’s extravagant living quarters during the World Cup – the so-called ‘Campo Bahia’.
In one scene from ‘Rhinegold’, we see former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder – a real-life friend of Achenbach’s – proclaiming that ‘art inspires to greater heights of achievement’. He is adopting a Napoleonic pose for a portrait by Immendorff. Indeed, one of the pillars of Schröder’s Agenda 2010 reform programme was based on Beuys’ notion that ‘Everyone is an artist.’ This Beuys-Schröder concept becomes one of the film series’ leitmotifs: Achenbach sitting at the table, gluing and cutting his ‘collages’. ‘It’s all about art, it’s all about ideals, we can learn from art,’ says a character in another episode.
In the 21st century, Beuys’s argument for artistic universality would become, ‘Anyone can become Me Inc.!’ Bonny and Wissel’s series alludes to claims made in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), first published in French by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in 1999. In the book, they trace the shift within capitalist economies since the 1960s, a shift they blame for the deepening gulf between rich and poor on a global scale. Added value is no longer created by material products but are replaced by immaterial values, above all information. The new means of production are networks and their products are data. For Boltanski and Chiapello, this shift coincided with political and artistic avant-gardes’ call for creativity, flexibility, authenticity and the levelling of hierarchies. Meanwhile creativity, flexibility and flattened hierarchies have become the watchwords of neo-liberalism, and its equating of art and capital. The artistic avant-gardes and the liberal left, it would seem, are not only complicit in this change but have supplied the ideas for its development.
Capitalism didn’t co-opt art as people like to believe, rather, art became an accessory to the crime. Bonny and Wissel’s series tells the story of how one of the great myths of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century – the ethical superiority of art making over capitalist production – has crumbled. One scene in ‘Rheingold’ is particularly telling. Achenbach sits at a table making collage-invoices when Joseph Beuys walks into the room. Like a ghost, Beuys slowly strides around, his gold-plated face falling off in flakes. His arms cling to a plush rabbit. Silence. Achenbach becomes restless. With an almost tearful voice, he turns to Joseph: ‘Neo-liberalism and the baby-boomer generation have fulfilled what you and the 1968 generation promised. Everyone can work when they like, no hierarchy. Everyone is their own boss, no unions. At last, everyone is responsible for themselves. Everyone is an artist.’ It is a quiet, desperate lament that begs to be contradicted. But no contradiction comes.
Joseph, say something!
Silence. Footsteps. Slowly, Joseph lies on the sofa and, with stony mien, strokes the rabbit’s head.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s sketches for ‘Rheingold’ will be screened at Kölnischer Kunstverein on Thursday, 28 April 2017 at 6pm.