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Die Aktionen: 1962-2003

"But to make a fetish potent outside its cult is precisely the function of the aesthetic."
– Harold Rosenberg

How do we view the artistic blood orgies in Hermann Nitsch's performances over the last 40 years, in relation to the actual blood orgies performed today by militant terrorists in Iraq, Sudan, Chechnya, and other parts of the world? In this essay as in this exhibition, I hope to comment on this question by revisiting the immense body of work that Nitsch has completed in the field of theater, performance, and painting.

We might look to the period after the Second World War as the point at which the practice of art in America and Europe diverged. In America, painting developed along the lines of improvisation and surrealism (Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, etc), and in Europe, painting developed along the lines of art brut and Cobra (Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Jean Dubuffet, etc). At the same time, other groups avoided painting and sculpture altogether as an unproductive cul de sac. These groups created events and actions that were often referenced as Happenings and Performances in America, and Actions in Europe, in which the interaction with the public was understood as more meaningful than any past aesthetic practice.

We have to understand that even today so much American art suffers from Greenberg-ism and a dependence on his ideas about aesthetics and sublimity. The European scene, however, has in the past flourished precisely because it was inspired by disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. The field of European performance emphasized dramatic and anti-aesthetic practices, and in a certain sense it could be said to succeed in addressing essential questions without being subsumed by popular culture and the allure of entertainment. In the field of performance, this difference is most evident in comparing the happenings and performative practices in America including those of Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and Claus Oldenburg, among others, with European practices such as Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell, and the Vienna School (founded by Otto Muehl, Günter Brus, and Hermann Nitsch).

Nitsch's art is best understood within this phenomenon of performance art after the Second World War. That Europe was culturally as well as architecturally destroyed by the war is not in question. It is important, however, to consider how this destruction manifests itself in the work of artists from Germany and Austria more generally, and in particular in the work of the Vienna school. It is simply not possible to consider art such as that of the Viennese Actionists developing and finding an audience in countries such as America following the war, or in many other countries even today. Their work makes explicit all the violence and atrocities that so many people tend to repress.

Perhaps it can be said that Nitsch abandoned the paradigm of beauty from the very beginning: he has always been ready to sacrifice aesthetic aspects so as to permit catharsis and purification in a participant fully enveloped within the performance and physically in contact with animal parts, blood, smells and music. The dramatic feelings that Nitsch's work calls forth in us can be understood in relation to 'the primal scream', a traumatic moment during development which later serves as a generator of creativity and facilitates artistic fantasy.

We cannot deny the enormous eroticism, and a certain sort of sadomasochism, which is always evident in the work of Nitsch. If we want to recognize ancestors or antecedents to Nitsch's practice beyond that of the history of painting or contemporary art, we might look to early Greek theater, the Roman Coliseum in which Christians were sacrificed in front of the public, or to Mayan games, in which the loser would be executed. Other ancestors might include the public executions in England and France in the 18th century and the way in which violence was exercised as a spectacle, which Michel Foucault examined in Discipline and Punish. We might also look to the writings of Sade and Artaud, in which our identification with sado-masochism is probed and encouraged, and the pseudo-logical and pseudo-scientific explanations about blood, sadomasochism, and sex by Sigmund Freud that established modern psychoanalysis. Nitsch continues this trajectory, although in a very personal way, by creating artistic spectacles of a Wagnerian scale and duration (a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work) that encompass purification, therapy, and an awareness of death through catharsis and participation. (It is possible here to also detect traces of JL Moreno's psychodramatic and group psychotherapeutic performances, which first and foremost sought to heal the participants).


It is important to consider how Nitsch's work significantly departs from work by other members of the Vienna school. While Nitsch's early actions of 1962 feature his own body, by Action II of 1963 he already began to include bowels and the carcass of a lamb, which amounts to a significant change in subject matter from his previous work and that of his colleagues. Nitsch's subsequent work over the last forty years has consistently addressed not only the human body and the metaphor of crucifixion, but also the animal world and the role of the human body in that world. It is my position that we can interpret this development as one in which man is reintroduced and reintegrated to the spirit of the animal world through a sort of quasi-religious ritual and public ceremony.

Although this exhibition exclusively focuses on his Actions as documented in video format, it must be emphasized that he has a parallel practice as a painter in the tradition of performative gesture painters such as Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Georges Mathieu and Tachism in general, and this practice is often integrated into his performances.

If today Nitsch has become a sort of high priest of performance and ritual, we must also recognize that his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries ("Das Orgien Mysterien Theater") has became increasingly sophisticated over the years, to the degree that he often composes very personal music as an ambience for his performances. More than the history of painting, or even our inherited history of art, Nitsch's art seems to take as its primary inspiration the ludicrous game of life and death. The complete works also connect a number of interrelated points: the crucifixion of Jesus, the murder of Dionysius, the killing of Orpheus, and the idea of resurrection. Evidently, he uses art as a form of redemption bringing about an awareness of our sheer mortality, as opposed to the eternal substance of nature and life.

The subject matter that he takes for his art is, in a sense, the subject matter of every myth and religion in the history of the world. The idea of catharsis is perhaps emphasized the most (as is often the case in work of the Vienna school). It is also important to note the presence of large crowds in his work, participating over an extended period of time. In a sense, the large crowds and the duration of the performance provoke the destruction of individual ego and lessens the individual's psychological resistance. Here I see a big difference between the narcissism evident in performances by Joseph Beuys and his disciples, in which the main participant is the artist, and the work of Hermann Nitsch, in which the actions of the participants are even more notorious than those of Nitsch.

Most of the criticism against Nitsch is based on his denial of the symbolic consequences of his actions, or his apparent disregard for animal rights and the desecration of animals in his performances. Evidently, the public is also sometimes mesmerized by the cult of blood, and the executions (or simulated executions) of human beings and animals. Rather than answer to these specific criticisms or experiences, which seem to hold the arts to a higher standard, and deny the prevalence of these very practices in contemporary life, it is important to emphasize that a work of art permits people to receive their own existential experience, according to their own past. Nitsch's project is very rich and extreme in that sense and the sheer diversity of responses to his work should be embraced.


Now it is time to return to the question posed at the beginning of this article, concerning how Hermann Nitsch's performances should be viewed today in relation to the actual blood orgies performed by militant terrorists in Iraq, Sudan, Chechnya, and other parts of the world? How should we view Nitsch's project, and how will his work survive, in a world of real cruelty and liturgical fundamentalism, and the everyday encounter with images of extreme and bloody genocide and natural disasters (in Sudan, Indonesia, and South East Asia, for example, or even in movies such as Mel Gibson's recent blockbuster The Passion of The Christ)? After many years of viewing Nitsch's work as provocative, now, more than ever, it sadly seems like a kind of prophesy and has taken over the world around us.

Does the ferocity and degree of provocation and cruelty in Nitsch's work diminish when juxtaposed with current geopolitical developments in which Islamic fanatics behead innocent civilians through the medium of cable television? These activities by militant terrorists must also be seen as performances with their own political and social implications, targets, and agendas.

The ability to remove ourselves from Nitsch's work is an important quality which differentiates the domain of art from the domain of reality, and in particular the domain of terrorism. During Nitsch's performances, one receives catharsis without risking one's life, either by voluntarily participating as an actor, or by experiencing intense feelings as a viewer. It is the possibility to escape, however, that differentiates this art from its ceaselessly violent other. The absence of fear is what permits the ludic pact for Nitsch, which is so thoroughly contrary to the actual executions taking place right now in Iraq and broadcast on cable television.

While Nitsch mainly calls forth the forces of eros (life-affirming drives), he also flirts with thanatos (death drives). The forms of militant terrorism and fundamentalism that we see today in Iraq and other countries present us with a world marked exclusively by thanatos. And that is an enormous difference that needs to be recognized. I believe that art is to art, as life is to life. These are two different domains that never meet completely. If one day these two domains lose their singularity, perhaps one of them will disappear.


Osvaldo Romberg


Hermann Nitsch, Die Aktionen, Slought, 2005