'My father said that if I wanted to be an artist, I'd have to find my own style. That was the hardest thing of all for me. Finding my own style, I got very stuck until I suddenly realised that having no style is also a style, so that's what I did. That set me free. Don't worry about style but about what you want to say' (Kippenberger, quoted in D. Baumann, 'Parachever Picasso/Completing Picasso: Interview between Martin Kippenberger and Daniel Baumann', pp. 59-65, D. Krystof & J. Morgan (ed.), Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat., London 2006, p. 59).
Fliegender Tanga (Flying Tanga) is an important early work by Martin Kippenberger which consists of five paintings of different subjects in different styles. These five canvases were shown together in one of Kippenberger's most important early exhibitions, Wahrheit ist Arbeit, a collaboration with his friends and fellow artists Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner that took place in 1984 in the Museum Folkwang, Essen. Since then, the works have appeared in several of the books discussing Kippenberger's work and one of the images, that of the Chinese boy in a military uniform drinking an American drink, Coca-Cola, in front of the Great Wall, has featured both on the cover for Faster, a 1994 single released by the Manic Street Preachers, and in the pre-eminent Chinese artist Yue Minjun's Looking for Art, dating from 2007, in which three of the pictures that form a part of Fliegender Tanga were selected for an imaginary museum that he fictitiously curated. As such this painting has become an icon of the globalising concepts which are currently pre-occupying the art world as much as the world at large.
A consummate Post-Modern artist, Martin Kippenberger would have enjoyed the fact that his work was being used for the cover of a rock album, for he was constantly questioning the status quos in art. As his huge influence continues to grow on the emerging generations of artists, it is his rejection of style and also the traditional role of the artist, in favour of the expansions of both of these concepts which is the key inspiration. Where Gerhard Richter had in the late 1960s embarked on a trawl through the various styles of painting as a stylistic concern, Martin Kippenberger took this one stage further by questioning the role of the artist in society by not only embracing all forms of artistic media, from Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, installation, but also that of writer, poet, underground club manager, actor, musician, promoter, curator and director of his own museum (MOMAS, the Museum of Modern Art Syros). His one man artistic revolution took him all over the world and to all sorts of subjects as he constantly sought to undermine the traditions of art, in what can now be seen as one of the first truly global artistic discourses. Kippenberger's oeuvre presents the viewer with a dazzling and sometimes baffling range of subjects and styles. This was part of a deliberate strategy on the part of Kippenberger, through which he assaulted many of the hitherto accepted boundaries of art and life while often wittily and irreverently disrupting any chance of interpretation on the part of the viewer. The first signs of this new approach appeared in one of his first works, Uno di voi, un Tedesco in Firenze from 1976, in which he made a series of equal sized grisaille paintings of lots of apparently different and disparate images from postcards from Florence, which when stacked up were intended to measure his height, in other words a new take on a self portrait - a collection of images which form the perception of self.
One can clearly see how this concept has been moved on in Fliegender Tanga, in which an apparently disparate collection of paintings, painted in very different styles are presented together under a title which relates to the Flying Tanga asteroid belt which was first sighted in 1930 and named after the town Tanga, in Tanzania. Although nothing is ever clear cut with Kippenberger, it appears that here he is hinting at a small community of images which exist within their own self-sufficient system in the way an asteroid belt does. The image of a Chinese boy in a military outfit sipping coke in front of the Great Wall of China, is clearly a comment on Socialist Realism. Painted in a very 'Realist' manner, his face is ridiculously yellow and it is probably no coincidence that this work was painted just after the first, brief, ray of light was presented to Chinese artists under Communism to display their own work, free of government dogma and restriction in Beijing in 1979. The image to its right is a picture of hands tied, painted again with tongue-in-cheek in a 'liberated' expressive manner, perhaps poking fun at his Neo-Expressionist peers who were enjoying immense success at this time in the early 1980s. To the far left of the composition is a highly expressive abstract work, with the silhouette of a woman, with a French phrase at its centre which concludes with the words 'Rien ne vas plus', or 'nothing works anymore', the work is completed with a jigsaw puzzle collage over the paint. Just to the right of this is a monk conducting a lawn mower in full dress, his head is a collage of a printed image which would appear to be that of a whitened Malcolm X, with his hand held up in the 'Black Power' salute. This is an image which would go on to inspire a whole series of works on the mundane tasks in everyday life. Completing the group and anchoring it at the centre is a painting of a Henry Moore-like sculpture which appears to depict two bodies being developed from one. Caked in an almost sculptural form of polyurethane applied over the top of the painted surface, this image would appear to represent a further attack on the Modernist 'establishment' which Kippenberger would later famously enlarge with his 'Familie Hunger' series of paintings, sculptures and installations which depicted the abstract bodies which were the stars of Modernism, as thin, starved and disfigured. The work bears the logo of AOK, a German Health Insurance company, which also obviously doubles with the English terminology AOK, meaning all is perfect and fine.
Thus within this small collage of paintings of apparently disparate everyday images, Kippenberger has managed to incorporate symbols of religion, the military, communism, capitalism, modernism and abstract expressionism; a montage of countries including Tanzania, France, Germany, China, America and Britain; a collection of art historical styles in modernism, abstraction, expressionism and Socialist Realism. There is also a hint of Dada in the approach, but ultimately this is about absolute artistic liberation. Kippenberger made several similar anthological groups of paintings in the early 1980s such as Schade, dass Wols das nicht mehr miterleben darf of 1982-83, which are now seen as the cornerstones of his work. These scrapbook-like assemblages of works perfectly embodied Kippenberger's wry and deliberate 'stylelessness.' Within this group of works, one can see the seeds for many of the key messages and ideas which would inhabit his work until his tragic early death in 1997. Whilst there appears to be a very serious cross cultural message in this multi-faceted, multi-disciplined cycle of paintings here, it is delivered with a mixture of anarchic humour and play alongside a profound understanding of the state of our world- which appears to be even more prescient now than it was when he made the work more than twenty years ago.