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|Nitsch in New York
by Dominique Nahas
Gunter Brüs and Hermann Nitsch, Oct. 7th-Dec. 18th, 1999, at White Box, 601 West 26th Street, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10001.
If you're craving a non-ironic art experience that stirs the psyche in extremis, head over to White Box for the rare, museum-quality exhibition of works by the Viennese Actionists Gunter Brüs and Hermann Nitsch. The gut-wrenching display couldn't have been timed more auspiciously in light of the ongoing "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the young Brits' fixation with the "shock of the new" seems regurgitated and pale compared to the work of their historic predecessors who rose to fame in 1960s Vienna.
The exhibition documents Hermann Nitsch's notorious, six-day Orgien Mysterien Theatre held in 1998 at Preizendorf Castle outside of Vienna. On view are remnants of the performance -- videotapes and large photographs as well as blood- and paint-soaked liturgical vestments, stretchers and canvases -- along with "poured paintings" from 1990.
Looking at the videotape of the music-filled festival, which was attended by some 500 people, we see a roly-poly, bearded Nitsch, decked out in his skull-cap, robes and bullhorn, happily officiating over the rituals of his ongoing Gesamtkunswerk like a priest-manqué. The festival included processions, foot-washing ceremonies, the spilling of blood and entrails of farm animals over mock-crucified bodies, the crushing of grapes and daily feasts with plenty of libations.
Drunkenness and high good-humor mixes well with reverential solemnity during the performances, the artist told me during an interview the day before the White Box opening. The overall intention of his Orgies and Mysteries Theater, he said, is to have the participant-viewer achieve a state of catharsis and eventual transformation and spiritual integration. He's been doing these types of theater works for over 30 years. He evaded my question, however, regarding the inevitable replacement of revelation with orthodoxy after all this time.
As for Gunter Brüs, he abandoned performance art in 1970 but still paints and draws. The exhibition includes photographs of his performances from the early 1960s, in which he would frequently urinate, defecate and masturbate, along with gesture drawings, a series of "action-sketches" from 1965-66, four "imagepoetry" works (paintings with text) from his 1991 "Miasma" suite and images from the "Pass-Bild" drawings series of 1987.
The electric line of the action-sketches, with its Egon Schiele-like emotional intensity, is most striking. Although the earliest and smallest of the Brüs works in the show, these drawings are the most searingly tendentious, easily rivaling Antonin Artaud's drawings of 1946-47 in their depiction of a tortured self-awareness without a shred of self-pity.
It's important to keep the Nitsch-Brüs historical framework in mind. Along with Otto Muhl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, these artists crafted a specifically European performance art that responded to post-war influences quite different from the Existentialism that informed American Abstract Expressionism. The Actionists saw themselves as society's lightning rods for the collective coming to grips with the legacy of Germany's Nazi past as well as Viennese socio-religious repression. The artists were equally affected by the history of medieval passion-plays, Friedrich Nietzsche's writings on the Dionysian-Apollonian formula for communal ecstasy, as well as Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, experimental poetry, linguistic philosophy, the writings of George Bataille on the death drive, and Antonin Artaud's concept of the "Theater of Cruelty," which intends to remove the spectator from the role of observer.
The result is a dynamic, if localized, art form that is both fascinating and purposely repellent. The images of "blood and gore" (as one critic imprecisely put it) in Nitsch's black masses is very hard to take for the uninitiated. I have seen visitors enter White Box, see the blood-drenched imagery, blanch and hastily take to their heels.
DOMINIQUE NAHAS is a New-York based independent curator and critic.