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He's Got Guts

Does offal make for awful art?

Do you faint at the sight of blood? Here's a tip: Skip the Herman Nitsch show "The Orgies Mysteries Theater" at the Station. It presents enough images of blood and guts to make an abattoir look like a paper cut. Nitsch is one of the core members of the Vienna Actionists, a group of artists who had their heyday in the '60s. Their likes included Rudolf Schwartzkogler, who mutilated himself as a part of his performances and was said to have cut off his own dick. (He didn't -- it was a sausage stunt double.) He died when he fell from -- or jumped out of? -- his fourth-story window. Then there are Gunter Brus and Otto Muehl, whose performances leaned heavily on sadomasochistic and scatological activities.

As for Nitsch, his performances often use the bodies, blood and organs of food animals -- sheep, pigs, etc. -- that were (humanely) killed. They eat the animals afterward -- waste not, want not. Documentation of the events show naked women and men blindfolded and/or restrained, with carcasses dripping on them or offal draped over their genitalia.

But the sole point of the work isn't sensationalism, although that's an obvious by-product. In Nitsch's case, he presents his work as a link to something primal and base, providing a catharsis similar to that supposedly provided by horror movies. As the theory goes, if you immerse yourself in what you fear and what repulses you, you will transcend it.

Not for the faint of heart: Herman Nitsch's The 
Orgies Mysteries Theater.
Station Museum of Contemporary Art
Not for the faint of heart: Herman Nitsch's The Orgies Mysteries Theater.

Nitsch aims to seek spirituality through primal baseness. He invokes ecstatic Dionysian cults, whose participants engaged in the practice of omophagia -- dismembering a sacrificial victim and eating its raw flesh. In films of Nitsch's performances, participants in white blood-spattered clothes greedily run their hands through vats of bloody animal organs; they carry each other, crucified on crosses or prone on litters and draped in bloody carcasses. That people will go to such extremes when they're part of a crowd is revealing in itself.

The work on view at the Station presents photographs, videos, objects and paintings. Austria is an intensely Catholic country, and the ritualistic, sacrificial blood cult aspects of religion are a huge part of Nitsch's work. Many of the paintings have monastic-looking white tunics attached to the center of the canvases, their sleeves outstretched, invoking crucifixion.

The paintings are steeped in abstract expressionism, their colors rudimentarily symbolic: Black is death, red is life force, yellow is resurrection. The dense swaths of oil paint are so thickly applied that marks from the artist's fingers are visible in it. Some of these paintings' gestural expressiveness succeeds, in the black ones in particular. But overall they feel repetitive and self-indulgent. In front of them are displays of priests' vestments and medical instruments. Also on view are litters from past performances, brown with dried blood. Ultimately, the performances themselves are the most powerful works -- without them, the paintings wouldn't garner much attention.

The spectacle of the artist's performances comes across best in a wall projection of rapidly changing images accompanied by an anarchic, oompah-pah, processional score composed by Nitsch. Sound is a big, and effective, part of the artist's work. The gory images move in time with the music, in such quick succession that you separate from what they actually are and instead focus on the spectacle.

Images from a six-day performance, called The Orgies Mysteries Theater, are among the color photographs displayed in grids around the gallery. One grid in the back shows three blood-drenched figures hung from crosses. Behind them is a soaring white wall. Figures at the top dump streams of bright red blood -- paint? -- down it. It makes a visually dramatic backdrop. You imagine the Aztecs creating similar gory spectacles in their ritualistic theater of sacrifice.

But the intensely disturbing nature of the work ultimately overwhelms the visual. World War II has a lot to do with the art that Nitsch and the other Actionists made. What they're trying to do, I suppose, is reject the calculated violence of the fascist state with primal, chaotic blood lust. Nitsch was born in 1938, the year of the Anschluss. His father was killed on the Russian front, and his family's home was destroyed by Allied bombing. He was a small child in the midst of war and came of age during the poverty and chaos of a post-war country coming to terms with its role in the Holocaust.

Some psychologists say people who self-mutilate do so as a way of releasing psychic pain. If that's true, then surely these Austrians, reared in the midst of Nazism, were somehow exorcising collective psychic pain and guilt. Cheering crowds greeted Hitler when he entered Vienna in 1938. Beginning with Kristallnacht, the country ultimately would kill 70,000 Austrian Jews in the Holocaust and contributed a disproportionate number of sons to the highest ranks of the Third Reich, including Hitler himself. Were the Actionists throwing themselves into the repulsive, the disgusting and the objectionable in order to channel the human impulse toward cruelty and violence into something ritualized and contained?

Artists make work out of what interests them. Some are interested in color theory and geometry; others, like Nitsch, have interests that are far more perverse. Because the work is shocking, art people often bend over backward to avoid any hint of right-wing censorship -- but they can end up being too artistically lenient with it. You can criticize without censoring. There's an obnoxious male ego to this work and in the cult of personality that Nitsch has created around himself, especially in the ways women are restrained and presented. Sometimes it's important for a work to provoke and disturb, but here it just feels generally disturbing. I've never felt catharsis after seeing a horror movie, I just feel psychically stained. Nitsch is provoking us in the service of a larger point, but he's also spending an inordinate amount of time digging around in the little icky crevices of his brain. If you're looking for icky crevices, the Internet has a much more bountiful and diverse supply.

 
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