The Action Art of Hermann Nitsch from Past to Present



An artist who has, and continues to inspire me, is Hermann Nitsch. A fascinatingly brutal artist belonging to the ‘Aktionen’, a group of Action-artists that rose to prominence within Austria during the 1960s- 1980s, under fascism. They pushed the boundaries of performance art to it’s extremes; use of the body for self mutilation, for brutality and for fear, they crafted perfect representations of their deepest, darkest wants and desires, and manifested them under this restrictive rule, pushing the realms of what was acceptable far further than ever before. This book was a must read for me, accompanied by a DVD that included every performance he has crafted, up until the 2000’s. His work is visceral, intending to shock those who watch it into a state of realisation; of reality, pushing them, forcing them, to accept the world that we live in.


Hermann Nitsch

Although he looks much like Santa, his world view is so much darker, so much more grounded. His work reflects a philosophy; he believes humanity lives in a dream-like state, walking around this earth, unable to understand the reality of their individual situations. His work intends to shock them; open their eyes to the world that they so ignorantly walk through. Raised as a firm Christian, Nitsch’s work reflects this closeness to faith, inherent within his lifestyle, and inherent within his work. He himself also was alive when the air raids dropped thousands of bombs upon Austria, Nitsch remembers sleeping underground as he heard the bombs fall above them; As he wandered out, he encountered an entirely different landscape. Craters, black smoke billowing out of the ruins of the buildings he so fondly remembered, houses and homes destroyed, as well as the stench of death all around. He would play in the craters, but would wake up screaming each and every night, as his dreams would put him there at the time of destruction, of the death. These dreams have plagued him ever since these days, and still continue to prompt him to awake in a cold sweat, screaming about the bombs that no longer fall around him.


His paintings reflect these darkness, they are experiments in a representation of the body; splatters of what appear to be blood, decaying matter and flesh, strewn across the canvas. The painting itself is a performance, it becomes a foray into a combination of the two mediums of performance, as well as of painting. His work seems to cover the ritualistic nature of religion as well, often involving some form of religious wafer, or a priest’s tunic. The juxtaposition of he dark, decaying, blood-like colours, against the pure, whiteness of the so called ‘holy’ robes and body, is a beautiful combination. It’s wonderful to behold, and as powerful as it is huge; these pieces often cover entire rooms, or entire floors, Nitsch not finishing until the entirety of the whiteness has been covered in the gore that he so aggressively casts around the space. There is a real passion here, whether it be for better or for worse, that indulges the senses; pushes the rooms to become bloody in colour, and metallic in scent.


Nitsch’s work often breaks the boundaries of what the body can do, utilising it as a vehicle for reflection; both of the viewer, and of the artists and performers involved. His ‘actions’, performances belonging to his ‘Theater of Orgies and Mysteries’, works which create rituals inspired by ancient Greek beliefs and ceremonies, mainly based on Dionysis, the god of joy and wine; one that was worshipped through the act of sacrifice and pleasure. His works are ruthless, often involving the corpses of animals, which are torn apart in a flurry of blood and bodily fluids. He uses berries, wine, blood, meat, flesh…all objects of distinctive red hues, to symbolise the gore and horrific beauty of sacrifice, of the things that we often shun, but so regularly accept in western belief systems. It’s fascinating to see this reflection, Nitsch holds a mirror to our own outdated belief systems, and showcases us the brutality that was born from our own misunderstandings of a higher being.


In this theme, Nitsch utilises the crucifixion as a recurring motif within his work; the sheer brutality of this single act, someone who deemed himself the lord’s son is betrayed by one of his closest followers, humiliated and forced to suffer, and then put through one of the single, worst deaths possible by human hands. He bleeds to death for three days, until his body finally gives in. Nitsch is fascinated by this concept, by this story, and utilises fake ‘crucifixions’ within his performances; the victims are blindfolded, so that they experience the taste, scent, touch and sound that surrounds them; that envelops them, and they are put on a podium, and for a moment, they are worshipped as if they were the saviour themselves. The audience watches them intently, sees how they have blood poured into their mouth, how they are hurt, exposed, destroyed; their body becomes a symbol, a metaphor, for concepts so ingrained within our culture, some would say that it has been imprinted on our very DNA. This obsession with death, with rituals, is something I share; although I feel that some of his work is far too powerful, and even I have had trouble watching him beat dead carcasses, which forced me to stop watching one performance. The rest of his work is interesting though, it is fascinating; and although I did stop watching that one performance, I realise the importance of this action; this brutality, it must be performed to allow the viewer to witness their own vicious nature.


His work is astounding, and somewhat terrifying; but therein, lies the wonder of these pieces of work. Nitsch’s whole philosophy, of death, of dreams, and of the reality that many choose to ignore, are as relevant now as they were when he first began his body of work. A contemporary artist who is not afraid to break the rules, he reminds me somewhat of Ai WeiWei, although their bodies of work are so vastly different; they both have worked under the constraints of a fascist government, and both create monumental, powerful bodies of work, that aim to drive home a rather deep, and often desolate, message.


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