The Vienna Aktionists

  • Orgiastic Rituals From the Cutting Room Floor
  • Friday, March 7, 8 pm
  • @ Cinecycle, 129 Spadina Ave.

Part of Winter 2003

In the early 1960s, four Viennese artists, Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, Gunter Brus and Rudolph Schwarzkogler, despondent over the reactionary state of modern painting, spontaneously crashed through the two dimensional canvas and into Aktionism. With their libidos as guides, they violently attacked petty materialism and gloried in direct sensual experience through carefully scored and executed performance art.

Film and video makers Kurt Kren, Ernst Schmidt, Jr., Stephen Gebhardt, Kim Tomczak and Thomas Draschan were drawn into the melee of Aktionism. Their works did more than record the chaotic energy of Aktionists‚ rituals and orgies, they reinterpreted it through their stringent editing structures. This programme of film and video focuses on the filmmakers‚ their art, and its contribution to the Vienna Aktionist’s legacy.

“Through my artistic production (a form of life worship) I take upon myself all that appears negative, unsavoury, perverse and obscene, the lust and the resulting sacrificial hysteria, in order to spare YOU the defilement and shame entailed by the descent into the extreme.” (Hermann Nitsch, 1962)

“I set my sights on the human body and realized things were moving at last, during my first material action, I soiled a female body with mud, paint, rubbish and paste, and tied it up in old rags and ropes dipped in mud.” (Otto Muehl, 1963)

“This ended one day in a dance excess that I celebrated on a marble-topped cafe table. As I was about to herald the grand finale with a few hefty stomps, the marble top shattered…it was at the very least the chain of association – marble plate-marble cake-mummy cake-tummy cooking = shit – that made me drop my trousers and force out my bladder and belly refuse.” (Gunter Brus, 1967)


6/64 Mom and Dad by Kurt Kren, 4:00 min., 1964, colour, silent, 16mm
jam, corpses, road construction machines.
occurrences are remoulded, material penetrates reality, loses its normal validity, butter becomes pus, jam blood, they become symbols of other occurrences.
performing any normal occurrence before an audience voids the occurrence of purpose, transforms it into a material action.
– Otto Muehl

7/64 Leda and the Swan by Kurt Kren, 3:00 min., 1964, colour, silent, 16mm
charlatans, obscenity, and cesspool aesthetics are the moral means I employ against conformity, materialism and stupidity. I am opposed to social rules that no longer accord with any kind of reality. When I swing my ax, I close my eyes.
– Otto Muehl

9/64 O Christmas Tree by Kurt Kren, 3:00 min., 1964, colour, silent, 16mm
ignore your digestive tracts, throw your hens’ eggs in the actors and ministers’ faces, slurp them up and spit them on to the nipples of freshly impregnated women, bite off their nipples, vomit up the chicken-embryos mixed with regurgitated chicken meat, and discover a new realm between eating and puking.
– Otto Muehl

8/64 Ana- Aktion Brus by Kurt Kren, 3:00 min., 1964, b/w, silent, 16mm
…I succumbed to a fit of painting as if some inner drive were breaking through. I jammed myself inside a step-ladder that had topples over, on which I had earlier performed the most appalling jerks, and smeared the walls in frantic despair – to the point of exhaustion.
– Gunter Brus

10a/65 Self Destruction by Kurt Kren, 5:00 min., 1965, b/w, silent, 16mm
Mr. Brus is angry with himself and uses these means to transform his suicide into a substitute activity, then the whole business has a moral function and is worthy of praise. But that may be just one motive; others are no doubt infantile in nature, and yet others share the spirit of Nero as set fire to Rome in happening fashion, or the Marquis de Sade as he conjured up ‘happenings’.
– Gunter Brus

10b/65 Silver-Action Brus by Kurt Kren, 2:30 min., 1965, b/w, silent, 16mm
– Gunter Brus

Cosinus Alpha by Kurt Kren, 10:00 min., colour, silent, 1966, 16mm
THE BASIS OF FUTURE ART: eating, drinking, shitting, pissing, fucking and killing people.
these are ticklish matters in our times, which are endlessly repressed and have yet to be mastered.
MURDER AS ART: in times gone by, animals and people were ritually tortured and killed. nowadays, animals are slaughtered en masse in order to fill the billions of gnome-stomachs. masses of gnomes allow themselves to be slaughtered for politically senseless objectives. should art alone be forced to look on idly.
– Otto Muehl


Body Building by Ernst Schmidt Jr., 9:00 min., 1965-66, colour, silent, 16mm
‘All the possibilities of the material are ruthlessly exhausted. as a result of the incalculable possibilities for choices that the materials presents to the actor, he plunges himself suddenly in a reality without barriers, perform as action resembling those of a madman, and avail himself of a fool’s privileges, which is probably not without significance for sensible people.
– Otto Muehl and Gunter Brus

OneTwoThree by Ernst Schmidt Jr., 10:00 min., 1965-68, colour, silent, 16mm
My body is the intention. My body is the event. My body is the result.
– Gunter Brus

Art & Revolution by Ernst Schmidt Jr., 2:00 min., 1968, colour & b/w, silent, 16mm
Our assimilatory democracy maintains art as a safety valve for the enemies of the state. the schizoids it creates manage to maintain their mental balance thanks ot art – and so remain this side of the norm, art differs from ‘art’. the consumer state drives a wave of ‘art’ before itself; it attempts to bribe the ‘artist’ and thus to rehabilitate his revolutionizing ‘art’ as an art that supports the state. but ‘art’ is not art. ‘art’ is politics that has created new rules of communication.
-Invitation from the SOS
10. defecation competition. whoever makes the most beautiful pile, in terms of form, colour, weight, is awarded 19 points. – Otto Muehl, Rules for Selecting Art College Professors

Herman Nitsch – An Introduction to the O.M.. Theatre by Stephen E. Gebhardt, 9:30 min., color, sound, 16mm
Complete disinhibition according to the principle of honesty. there are no secrets between you and me. i not only portray my existing wicked desires (self-reproach and revelation must be savoured to the utmost extreme), but also those that do not yet exist. Through my ‘self-sacrifice’ the audience will be purified of its secret dirty doings. Violent criminal, scoundrels, sadists – who riddle everything with holes, chop it up, stamp it flat, tear it apart and maltreat it – masochists, who shamelessly enjoy being crucified, grubby tykes who soil and dirty everything and spit pus, pigs who wallowing the mire, betrayers of the people, the asocial, the godless who injure the ‘holiest of feelings’, perverted swine, schizophrenics, the abnormal, those idiots who always tell the truth – these are the leading figures of Psycho-Physical Naturalism.
– Hermann Nitsch

Herman Nitsch At The Western Front by Kim Tomczak, 1978, 5:00 min., colour video
The excessive orgiastic mode of perception provokes in us a state in which pain and extreme pleasure mingle intimately, where the states of life and death appear to manifest themselves simultaneously in us.
– Hermann Nitsch

Prinzendorf by Thomas Draschan, 9 min., colour, silent, 1999, 16mm
inspired by Richard Wagner’s music dramas, greek tragedy and georg trakl’s poetry, and urged on no doubt by youthful impetuosity, i wanted to outdo all that theatre had previously achieved. i wanted ot expand drama to epic dimensions…i attempted in this drama to depict the entire history of mankind (the story of creation). not its outward history…but its true historical or dramatic process: the development of our psyche and consciousness…i strove to plumb the depths, the unconscious regions, in order to bring deep-lying psychic layers to awareness, to activate them and make them manifest.
– Hermann Nitsch

Brief Background to Aktionism

“In the early 1960’s, four Viennese artists, Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, Gunter Brus and Rudolph Schwarzkogler, despondent over the reactionary state of modern abstract painting, spontaneously ripped through the two dimensional canvas and into Aktionism. With their libidos as guides, they violently attacked petty materialism and gloried in direct sensual experience through carefully scored and executed performance art. They replaced the picture with unmediated reality in an attempt to resolve the tautology between artist and art work. Instead of paint, Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, and Schwarzkogler instrumentalized blood, hot water, raw meat, entrails, etc. for their aktions. To address all senses, the Viennese Aktionists combined music and noise, theater and poetry, action painting and body art into a Gesamtkunstwerk or totalizing artwork.

Ignored by art critics and gallery directors in its day, Viennese Aktionismus is today considered the only movement in post-war Austria that influenced the development of contemporary art internationally. Aktions were held in their apartments, studios and occasionally at campus events organized by student groups. All the aktions seem to contain a few common methods such as abreaction or the release of repressed energy and emotion by giving it expression, the use of the great themes of birth, death, dissolution and regeneration, and a synaesthetic presentation using bodies, art materials, props and noise music.

They chose to critique the oppressive and hypocritical society of post WW2 Austria by channeling their repressed urges directly into explosive physical performance. They called it ‘direct art’. By exposing and exploring suppressed feelings around taboo subjects such as sadomasochism, transvestism for the heterosexual male, castration and suicide, they elicited terror, revulsion and compassion in the audience that evoked a final catharsis. They were accused of trivializing national symbols and moral values. The Aktionists’ adherence to their own doctrine of psycho-physicality and blunt visual trauma brought them fines, jail time and even temporary exile for Hermann Nitsch.

The Aktionists were not a group but rather members of a movement. Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, and Schwarzkogler developed and expressed their own particular mode of Aktionismus. They rarely collaborated, but sometimes used each other as actors. As demented and chaotic as their performances may appear, Nitsch, Muehl, Brus and Schwarzkogler spent months thrashing out ideas together for their individual aktions in order to perfect the rightness of the aktions. Otherwise, they feared that the aggressive and destructive impulses they called into action might result in an undifferentiated bloodbath rather than a meaningful event. Every Aktion was carefully choreographed and scored. Form and aesthetics were given prominence. The scores for the performances read like instructions for bonzo scientific experiments.

The initiates in these rituals were called actors. The thingness of their bodies erased their egos and individual identities. Their bodies were the subject, material and surface for articulation. The actors were rendered helpless, whereas they portrayed a liberation from the trauma of socialization that renders the individual uncertain, guilty and without personal agency regarding their body. Putting the body and its intimate functions on display in public exposed the bodily delusions fostered by the fracture of body and mind through socialization. The social controls that govern everyday behaviour were dissolved by placing violence, sex and injury into the context of art. The extreme acts of Aktionism liberated the socially encoded emotions associated with them. The effect of the aktions on the general public was the provocation of bewilderment and scandal.

Otto Muehl was almost a generation older than the other Aktionists. While they were young children during WW2, Muehl fought on the frontlines. In one particular battle, he was one of a few soldiers to walk away alive. Muehl was most extreme in his revolt against anything that smacked of bourgeois tendencies. In the early Seventies, he established the polygamous Actions-Analytic Kommune that further explored polymorphous sexuality and infantilism through therapeutic group performances. In 1991, he was imprisoned for child abuse. Art-world insiders say Muehl was framed – the fall-guy in a factional dispute within the quirky community. He has since been released.

Hermann Nitsch’s life work was a poetic drama, The Orgies Mysterium Theatre, to encompass the history of consciousness through religious myth. His performances are contemporary interpretations of mystery rites from ancient Greece. They involve all five senses of the artist, actors and viewers. He regards them as a form of worship. The aim of his rituals is to present pure contemplation of reality in its most concentrated form through religious injury. To musical accompaniment, his Dionysian orgies act out wounding, crucifixion, sacrifice and death. According to Nitsch, primal excess experience in psychic economy is transmuted and translated in the sacrificial act towards redemption. In the sacred incantation of Aristotle, the soul reaches orgy and purity at the same time, from bile to fire, from manly warmth to enthusiasm. The synaesthetic incantation to abreaction are more closely related to rhythm and song than to this world. Nitsch continues the performances of his Orgies Mysterium Theatre from his castle at Prinzendorf in Austria and releases CD’s of the music used.

Gunter Brus was a despondent painter. He believed that art was dead. By following his instinctual drives, he initiated a fecund art practice of body aktions. Through his series of mono-dramas of self destruction, Self Mutilation and Body Analysis, Brus obliterated the double bind of self rejection. He defecated in public and used the blades, scissors and scalpels on himself. At one point, he was deemed that most hated man in Austria. Brus’ Aktionismus ended in 1970,when he declared that he was cured of his Aktionism. The ultimate aim of his excesses was to eliminate the need for them. Brus returned to painting and drawing.

The most fascinating Aktionist may be Rudolph Schwarzkogler whose photographic work and theoretical writings are not presented in this show. He was an aesthete and ascetic who took sado-masochism seriously as a psychic process. His aggression was an extreme will to express heightened erotic cruelty. His seven Aktions were staged before the camera. The resulting photos record a somatic and psychic wreckage; an expression of the impossibility of being. He cultivated a sublime intoxication of illness and beauty to the point of death. He wrote on extending his Aktions to include medicative cures and ritual ablutions. Certain foods and mind altering drugs would be administered to the spectators to vector the synaesthesia toward physical and mental purification. Best known for his images of penile mutilation, he did not kill himself by successively hacking away at his own penis. He fell from a window in 1969.

The definitive book on the Aktionists is Writings of the Vienna Actionists (Atlas Press 1999) edited by Malcolm Green and the Aktionists themselves. To avoid attributing themes and theories they did not espouse, this book allows their historical writings from personal letters to manifestoes to clarify their intentions and opinions. All quotes in the programme notes were found in this volume.” (Linda Feesey))

Art & Revolution by Ernst Schmidt Jr.

6/64 Mom and Dad
8/64 Ana