The Politically Charged Performance Art of Jörg Immendorff
Maisie Skidmore
3 June 2016

A new London exhibition draws the capital’s attention to the artist and activist who sought to engage with his community through play.

Jörg Immendorff is one of the most important artists to emerge in post-war Germany, so it is unsurprising that his influence – that of a revolutionary and an activist – continues to resonate today, most recently in a string of exhibitions in Berlin and in London. Immendorff was born in the country’s Lower Saxony region in 1945, as the country was thrust into the dreary aftermath of the Second World War, and would come to create some of the most politically charged and irony-drenched work it had ever seen. In 1963 the young artist began studying at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf, and it was while there that he became close to tutor Joseph Beuys. “I think that they recognised that they had similar ideas, so Beuys was an important figure for him,” Birte Kleemann, the curator behind the recent Berlin exhibition of Immendorff’s work at Veneklasen/Werner, explains, “but they also had certain contrasts, so they had a very fruitful relationship.” Beuys’ influence soon helped Immendorff to recognise the power that art could wield in a cultural sphere. “I guess he saw that he really had to channel his energy in a different way, and give it a political voice.”

Soon afterwards, LIDL, the mouthpiece to the artist’s political voice, was born. The word in itself was deliberately nonsensical, constructed phonetically by the artist in order to recreate the sound of a baby’s rattle in much the same way as ‘Dada’ before it, but it was to signify a kind of performance art-cum-community activism as Immendorff’s work grew both in concept and in consequence. In the years that followed Immendorff created a LIDL academy, a LIDL school, LIDL sport, a LIDL commune, and so on and so forth. “He had this greater idea for society, for an engagement with a group of people,” Kleeman continues. “LIDL was just forming to bring us together, you know?”

At the centre of LIDL was Immendorff’s innate belief in speaking up for the power of the people, while simultaneously denouncing the authorities. He was kicked out of school for his Maoist beliefs, arrested for defaming the German flag, and repeatedly halted in his artistic endeavours by the police – but nothing could dissuade him from his mission to connect his viewers through immersive performed activities. In his 1967 piece The Only Respectable Weapon, for example, Immendorff constructed a cannon and donned a mask depicting the face of a baby, before firing a series of paper balls at his audience; a direct criticism of the atrocities of the Vietnam war. “Immendorff was extremely young when he did the LIDL works – he was in his early 20s,” Kleemann says of the early actions. “He was very adamant that art had to have a social function, to better society. He deliberately uses art as a vehicle. He later goes on and decides to go into teaching at art schools, because he thinks that it’s important to give to society through teaching.”

Immendorff’s immense contribution to contemporary art is the subject of two new exhibitions at London’s Michael Werner Gallery, entitled LIDL Works and Performances from the 60s, and Late Paintings after Hogarth. While the former charts the growth of LIDL through paintings, models and footage of performances, the latter, Paintings after Hogarth, examines his later work, forming a revelatory and 360-degree view of his career.