The Ritual Art of Hermann Nitsch
Wounds and Mysteries - a joint exhibition of the works of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwartzkogler, two representatives of the Viennese Actionism - hit the National Gallery in Prague early this spring. Rumors had it that the sight was quite shocking; so before I visited exhibition I was prepared to be shocked. And I was, that's for sure!
Some general information:
DIRECT ART (also Viennese Actionism). A group of Austrian artists - Otto Muhl, Hermann Nitsch and Gunter Brus called themselves at one point the "Vienna Institute for Direct Art". At first these artists produced violent action paintings and crude assemblages but they become dissatisfied with the secondary nature of painting and sculpture: they sought a form of expression that was more immediate and direct.
During the early 1960s they organized a series of "actions" similar to the "happenings" of New York that become notorious because of their brutal, sadomasochistic content involving nakedness, blood, and the destruction ofanimal corpses. The movement was also known as "Wiener Aktionismus", the central idea of which was "material action", i.e. the insistence that rituals and ceremonies must be real - direct, literal events - not pretended events as in conventional drama. Nitsch's events took places under rubric of "Orgy Mystery Theater" (O-M Theatre). The Italian critic Lea Vergine called their work "Irritart" because it functioned as social irritant. 
I shall not consider Schwartzkogler' works here. It could be a special theme. Only to note that Nitsch owes a lot to Schwartzkogler's body-art aesthetics and develops many of his surgical- artistical motifs. However, unlike Schwartzkogler with his wreckage-like self-mutilations, Nitsch uses the bodies of others. And unlike Schwartzkogler, who committed suicide at the age of 28, Nitsch looks vivacious, ruddy-cheecked and full of creative projects.
There were five kinds of objects at Nitsch'sexhibition:
(1) a lot of canvases smeared with blood-like paint (varying in colour from bright red to violet black), often incorporating a blood-stained smock - a priest's vestment or maybe a surgical robe;
(2) tables with ritual objects such as ecclesiastical items, medical equipment (syringes, scalpels, bandages,etc), and containers with blood;
(3) colour and black-and-white photos made during performances;
(4) Nitsch's drawings presenting both a map andscenario for performances, and
(5) video-recordings of performances showncontinuously on screens of four TV-sets arranged together ina corner of the hall.
All these formed a total space of Nitsch's mystery. It was not actual mystery, of course, but only its documentation (as Nitsch himself emphasized in an interviewgiven one Sunday in the Gallery). However, it was enough to cause - if not a nervous breackdown then - at least spasms in your stomach.
The spectator was stund by the abundance. Images and objects acted as variations of a single theme, of one action, which enormously amplified their effect.
Nitsch, however, pursues something more then pureartistic aims. He seeks not only to startle the audience by some special effects but also in a sense to convert them. The total space of his mystery - space of a slaughterhouse - acqures symbolical and even mystical significance.
In his theoretical wrightings (from which the most known is Orgien, Mysterien, Theater, Darmstadt, 1969) he proclaimed his wish to revive antient Dionysian and Christian rites and refers to Aristitle's notion of catharsis through fear, terror and compassion. He believes that natural human instincts have been repressed by the social norms and conventions. The ritualized acts of killing animals and physical contact with blood are supposed to be a mean of releasing that repressed energy as well as an act of purification and redemption through suffering. He provides his own art with therapeutic and religious functions, which act, in fact, as one. (Mixing of medical and ecclesiastical symbols in his art is, of course, quite deliberate).
Let us look how the theory looks like when put into practice. I shall try to describe one of Nitsch's typical performances shown on the video in the Gallery. Certainly, the video-recording is only a film, that is, a trasformation of a real event through the alteration of shots, montage, etc. However, it gives us a chance to see performance as a whole. For analitical purporses I shall divide the continuity of the action into its constituent elements.
84th Action, 7/7/87, Printzendorf
(1) A brass band plays loudly; there some tables served with drinks and food outdoor; the sun is shining; people are gathering; an atmosphere of an open-air festival;
2) a chamber quartet replaces the band; nice classical music;
(3) loud, sombre and mysterious chords of the organ are heared from the castle; they are produced by Nitsch himself who thus annonces the beginning of the mystery.
2. ACTUAL BODY OF THE ACTION
(1) The camera transports us into one of the rooms of castle. Spectators stand around a long table covered by a white table-cloth. Gradual fusion of the strings and the wood-winds. Music turns to a cacophony involving rattles,wistles, drums, etc. The noise reaches its peak and suddenly breaks off.
(2) Silence. Three men in white approach slowly to the white canvas stretched on a frame. Above the canvas a slaughtered lamb is strung, fastened head down as if crusified. The man in the middle takes off his robe andstands close to the canvas, holding on the to carcasse with both his hands. Nitsch solemnely pours several mugs of blood on his back.
The man is redressed, his eyes bondaged, a cord attached to his arms. They lead him, hands aside, back to the audience. Music.
He stands as if crucified; Nitsch gives him blood todrink; blood is flowing on the actor's white robe.
(3) The naked man lays as if crucified. Viscera (or brains?) are put on his sex organ and doused with buckets of blood by Nitsch. The man is again given blood to drink. He kneads the mess on his own body for a long time with apparent enjoyment. Then he is taken away on the stretcher with a cacophonic noise followed by a charming violin piece.
Subsequent episodes vary the same pattern:- position of 'crucified' actor: standing, sitting, laying, hanging upside down;
- acts upon him: he is given blood to drink, his faceand sex organ are drenched in blood, a few people kneads the entrails on his body;
- accessories: drained carcass upturned over his head into which the entrails and blood are poured so that they flow down on his face and chest.
(1) Dance on the heap of entrails. A few men trample animals' viscera under their feet to the sound of drums, rattles and tambourines. Their faces and robes are stained with blood. They hold on a tight cord to prevent themselves of falling;
(2) Celebration of Nitsch;
(3) Refreshed and happy, the youth go home.
We can see that the performance is a rather monotonous train of rigidly structured episodes. Some more episodes from the other actions:
- a detailed display of how the cow is slaughtered and dressed;
- a naked woman with bondaged eyes is slowly driven horeback in a circle;
- a number of youths ecstactically trample grapes in a large wooden box until compeletly exhausted;
- a tank drives about the yard squeezing entrails arranged in heaps. Participants pour the tank with buckets of blood and throw with flowers over it. Crashed entrailsand blood are mixed with dirt;
- during the break a free lunch on the meat of killed animals.
From this outward description let us try to comprehend the inner meaning of what is going on.
Firstly, we can see very strict organisation of theritual. The same set of elements is reproduced; the roles of participants and spectators are rigidly determined; an opportunity of improvisation is reduced to a minimum. Properly speaking, there is only one person who develops any creative activity - Nitsch himself. The others merely realize his scenario or passively observe what's going on.
That is, of course, what differs Nitsch's performance from the ancient mysteries where there could not be spectators at all. There all were actors and creators atthe same time. In the course of an ecstatic co-action everybody "transcended himself" and entered into communion with a high mystery of the being and of the self. What mysteries do Nitsch's performance lead to? And how are they connected with 'wounds'?
Nitsch plays with the symbolism of Christian ritual. Communion with real blood and real flesh means, of course, a desymbolization of the Eucharist. In this sense he acts as a consistent Protestant reaching the last limits of iconoclasm. On the other hand, this desymbolisation can be perceived as a negation of the transcendental, spiritual significance of the Eucharist. "Blood is only blood and this is the only reality of existence". Such a belief, from the Christian point of view, is undoubtedly a satanic perversion of truth.
If desymbolized blood and flesh are considered to be alpha and omega of the human nature, there remains no room for a faith in the immortal soul. For through blood, whichg ives equal right to active violence and passive suffering and also justifies all kinds of perverted sexuality, human beings communicate not with transcendental reality but with the animal's world of instincts.
Accusations of blasphemy, brought against Nitsch, certainly had some grounds. The burlesque perversion of the Christian ritual is presented not only in the bloody communion. The substitution of spirit by flesh, of the transcendental by the immanent is realized in many ways. Instead of ecclesiastical items there are syringes and scalpels on the altar. Instead of the iconostas a blood-stained canvas. Instead of Christ a crucified lamb or pig. To note that both humans and killed animals are often crucified upside down which can be interpreted as a metaphorical indication on a complete turn the Christianity upside down.
However, if we look at the faces of the audience, we shall see that no one takes it very seriously. People smoke, drink beer and laugh during the performance. They are well protected by awareness that it is only a show, only an immitation of blood sacrifices. Arcane rituals are not performed in public. They are not performed for money. And as one art critic has recently noticed about Viennese actions,"with them as with many examples of Body art, there was an element of theatrical fakery. The barnyard and the abattoir, not the operating room, provided blood for the Viennese performance artists" 
However, if to speak about fakery, it seems more important that, by being institutionalized as art, Nitsch's "ritual art" turns to a simulation of ritual and therefore a simulated art. It represents, as Alexandra Obuxova would say, 'an emancipation of the texture of action from its (supposed) meaning'.
So we can see in Nitsch an example of religion degenerated into art (in this respect our (post)modern condition reveals once more a sad similarity to Hellenistic epoch). On the other hand, art itself becomes no more than a charlatan's hocus-pocus, however terrifying or purifying it could seem.
On a deeper plan such an art remains a play with demonic forces. Regardless to public protests (the last one was against the current Nitsch's exhibition in Prague ),the art of Nitsch and the like will always have a strong appeal for those who follow their impulses of violence and lust because of their lack of awareness.
Prague, April 1993 - Tartu, August 1993
Hermann Nitsch. A brief biography
Born in 1938 in Vienna.
1957 - he develops the 'Project des Orgien Mysterien Theater'.
1960-66 - various actions in Vienna followed by exhibitions of 'documentation'. A number of trials; accusations of violence, pornography andblasphemy; 3 times imprisoned.
From the late 60s to the present - numerous actions, exhibitions, lectures and concerts along Europe and US.
1971 - bought the castle of Printzendorf to the North of Vienna which became the usual place for his performances.
1972 - participation in the Documenta 5 (Kassel).
1975 - 24 hours' action (#50).
1984 - 48 hours' action (#80).
1985 - presentation of Nitsch's 7th Symphony in Gratz.
1988 - retrospective exhibition of Viennese Actionism in Germany and Austria. It was also due to be shown in Edinburgh but was cancelled because some suspected it was considered too shocking for people of Scotland.
1993 - exhibition in Prague.
1. Walker John A. Glossary of Art, Architecture & Design since 1945. 3d ed. London: Library Association Publishing,1992, # 214.
2. Cf. Goldberg R. Performance Art From Futurism to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990, p.163-4.
3. Rose B. "Is It Art? Orlan and the Transgressive Act" - Art in America. 1993, vol.81, # 2, p.87.
4. "Bogumil Hrabal Foundation for the rights of animals havemade a protest against Hermann Nitsch's exhibition in the National Gallery because works of this artist are based on torturing and killing living beings". - Respect, 1993, #12,p.16.
- Orgien Mysterien Theaters: Hermann Nitsch's Official Site
- Wiener Aktionismus (Osterreich-Lexikon)
- Wiener Aktionismus (Der Standard)
- Rudolf Schwartzkogler
- Gunter Brus
- Otto Muehl
- Nitsch's six-day-play in Prinzendorf (1998)
- Hermann Nitsch in Saatchi Gallery, London (images, information, biography and text)
© Евгений Горный / Eugene Gorny, 1993-2020.
© Сетевая Словесность, 2007-2020.