On first viewing the work of Hermann Nitsch, the uninitiated may wonder whether he’s a murderous psychopath who conned the art world into funding satanic rites and blood-drenched bacchanalia.
Nov 1 2010, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY JONAS VOGT, PORTRAIT BY ALEXANDER NUSSBAUMER
On first viewing the work of Hermann Nitsch, the uninitiated may wonder whether he’s a murderous psychopath who conned the art world into funding satanic rites and blood-drenched bacchanalia. The reality is that Nitsch is the scraggly-bearded ringleader of the Orgy Mystery Theater, a performance-art group and ongoing project that staged nearly 100 ritualistic performances from the early 60s to the late 90s. The events were bizarre orgies of the senses replete with animal immolation, crucifixion, piles of fruit, entrails, white robes, nudity, gallons of vital fluids, and God knows what else. These irreverent celebrations culminated in the Six-Day Play, Nitsch’s take on the story of creation, which was held at a castle he has lived in for more than 40 years.
Nitsch received his formal artistic instruction as a painter at Wiener Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt in Austria. His large-scale canvases are drenched and splattered in reds, browns, and grays. They look as if he pulverized a large mammal in a giant blender and tossed the outcome haphazardly onto a wall. A closer examination reveals that great care and meticulous palette selection went into the finished pieces. He is frequently cited as a Vienna Actionist—a loosely affiliated group of off-kilter and confrontational Austrian artists that also includes Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—but Nitsch long ago transcended any identifiable “movement” and began honing a gory craft that is solely his own.
Of course, Nitsch’s work pisses off all sorts of religious and conservative folks, but they are completely missing the point. He is only holding up a mirror to his detractors’ own hang-ups with religion and the weird, antiquated ceremonies inherent to their beliefs. And besides, anyone who thinks that a fictitious six-day festival of naked people, mass intoxication, and stomping on animal intestines inside an ancient castle doesn’t sound like a good time is so boring that they might as well not exist. Still, lots of questions are raised by Nitsch’s work regardless of one’s faith. So we meekly asked for some answers after presenting him with a sacrificial offering of three eviscerated lambs and a big jug of mead.
Hermann Nitsch: Before we start, what’s your line of work?
Vice: I study political science.
That is bad.
Because politics are the world’s biggest nuisance. And politicians are a half-witted frustrated lot who try to administrate power.
Has that always been your feeling about politics?
Yes, always. And I can give you a good reason why: I had to greet peers with “Heil Hitler” when I was in elementary school around 1943. And then two years later, the country was liberated. After that, every occupying power—the Americans, the Russians, and so on—had their own newspaper. In those papers, the Americans badmouthed the Russians and the Russians badmouthed the Americans. It was then that I realized that all the politicians and whatever comes with being one—it’s all a big sham.
So, you are a nonpolitical person.
Hermann Nitsch surrounded by collaborators during his action 122 at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 2005.
Are there reflections of war experiences in your work?
You see, that is a question, which—in a best-case scenario—could only be answered by using depth psychology. I can’t really talk about which influences may have affected my own future life. Of course, there were traumatic incidents that nurtured my expressive disposition, but I don’t feel like a damaged man. I feel more like a man raised around two horrible world wars. My parents and grandparents lived through the first, and then I lived through the second. People always had to deal with war in some way or another—the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, et cetera—but not necessarily with two wars at once.
You started out quite conventionally, studying graphic design at the University of Vienna. What influenced you as a young man at that time?
I was lucky to have many good teachers, who always supported my artistic inclination—a career in advertising never interested me. I intensely studied the old masters: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dutch paintings, Rembrandt, and Rubens. They fascinated me.
And on a philosophical level?
At first I was rather detached from the world, ascetic, mostly influenced by Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was the turning point to a rather positive mental attitude for me.
What was Vienna like at the time of your first exhibition?
There wasn’t much going on. I remember a few people—Peter Kubelka the filmmaker, Karl Prantl the sculptor, and so on—but apart from them, Vienna seemed quite ignorant when it came to art.
How did you meet the other artists with whom you later came to be known collectively as the Vienna Actionists?
First I met Brus. After that I went to see exhibitions by Muehl, Frohner, and Niederbacher. Schwarzkogler was my colleague at university. I attended master classes while he was in his first year. It resulted in a likeminded network. I was working on my Orgy Mystery Theater project, without being very successful at first—meaning that I was arrested three times for it.
They found my work to be blasphemous, pornographic, and whatnot. On one occasion, it was an art-action performance in Muehl’s cellar. We had actually planned two sequential performances. A dead sheep was needed for mine, but the whole thing was broken off by the police after about 45 minutes. Muehl’s performance couldn’t even take place. Both of us had to stay in prison for three days, and then later on we got a 14-day sentence. Back then, I was kind of proud of that. My work agitated the people, and I saw myself in the same league as other great misunderstood artists.
Later you were sentenced to six months parole.
Yes, in 1966, for my menstruation painting Die erste heilige Kommunion (The First Holy Communion). That’s what led to me leaving my home country and going to Germany.
A blindfolded man was crucified in front of a bisected bull while several naked men stabbed him with giant spears as blood spewed from his mouth during action 122 at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 2005.
Was it as difficult in Bavaria as it was in Austria?
Germany was very good to me. I spent ten happy years there, found wonderful friends, and was able to accomplish a lot. Even if there were troubles and scandals in Munich now and then, there never was as much intrigue and scheming as in Vienna. After my wife’s tragic death in a car accident, I returned to Austria.
Had the country changed much?
We are now talking about the Kreisky administration. All of my colleagues—Artmann, Brus, and so on—had returned from exile. The climate was definitely friendlier.
You held a few of your performances in America as well.
Do you know who Peter Kubelka is?
Yes, the Austrian experimental filmmaker.
He was quite successful in America, and we were good friends. One day in 1967, I received a postcard from Kubelka saying, “The Americans are inviting you. Money’s available, you just have to give your consent.” I conducted two performances at the Cinematheque in New York and another at the University of Cincinnati. All in all, I have to say that I was a major success in the USA, and that was something I wouldn’t even have dared to dream of. There was immense feedback from the press. I was on the cover of the Village Voice.
Sometimes you conduct your art-action performances alone, and on other occasions it’s a big spectacle with almost 100 people. How much of it is staged, and what happens spontaneously?
Both are necessary, staged and spontaneous. The trick is to be able to calculate spontaneity and coincidence. To me, the number of performers is of no actual concern.
But more people means more logistical investment. Do you sometimes feel like a musical conductor or a dictator?
Please drop the political terms now. With that logic, every director would be a dictator. To me, it is the same artistic procedure as painting a picture. How many objects I use is not relevant.
A group of actors organized by Nitsch tore apart a calf carcass as a crucified and blindfolded man held still underneath during action 111 at Fondazione Morra in Naples in 2002.
Do you feel relief when a performance is over?
When the thing goes well, I feel great. The artistic act, the aesthetic process, that’s what makes me happy.
What’s it like to work with blood and flesh?
It is our flesh and blood I work with. People always ask me why I deal with blood, entrails, and so on. I say: Look, there are artists who are all about landscapes. For others it is portraits or still lifes. I am the artist who is into meat and blood, which is an incredibly interesting field. Also, there is more than one line of work that concerns itself with blood: physicians, for example, and huntsmen. And it’s an important theme in many religions. It’s just that for most people it’s hard to get used to because they don’t have to deal with it that much.
Have you ever considered working with something other than these materials? You could have created a similar intensity with feces, for example.
Some of my colleagues worked a lot with feces. I didn’t. Just like Monet didn’t paint many portraits.
What are your feelings regarding provocation?
I never intended to provoke. I always looked for intensity. The intensity in historical art always fascinated me. The tragic plays of antiquity, the Passion of Christ… intense art always had my love. If one of my actions provoked the people at one point, well, so be it. But provocations were never cooked up at the drawing board.
A man kneads a pile of entrails as a part of action 129 at the Galleria Officina Dell’Arte in Rome in 2002.
But breaking taboos is an essential element of your work, is it not?
I’m very interested in taboos, mostly in their origins. I’ve spent my whole life involved with depth psychology, and my work is consistent with psychological dramaturgy. Sophocles’s tragic plays, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece—do you know that? It’s brilliantly intense stuff. Again, I never meant to provoke. Maybe some of my colleagues did. But I also wasn’t stupid enough not to think: “This could provoke.”
Does it make a difference to you how this intensity is generated? Whether it’s somebody tied to a cross or you putting sheep entrails on a penis?
I follow certain shapes. It doesn’t matter what the main visual theme is, the intensity is crucial.
Where do you draw the line?
There are no limits in art. In my opinion, everything can be art. Although at some point you might have to face the penal code and your own conscience. Sometimes I think: “This I cannot account for, it could just cause too much distress.”
Where does your moral understanding come from?
I’m sure you have read Nietzsche. He may not have influenced humanity in the way he wanted to, but he longed for some kind of change in ethics through compassion and such—but you know all about that. Traditional ethics underwent a certain transition because of Nietzsche. It’s still my opinion that people should not be harmed and that there must be a fair distribution of goods produced by man, but I am against the notion that you have to define philosophy based on ethics. I think that scholars before Socrates philosophized more candidly and honestly than the followers of German Idealism.
How do you feel about religion?
I am fascinated with religion of every era and every culture. I respect them all, without belonging to any of them. I only have religious feelings for life, nature, the cosmos, and eternity.
Your work reflects that.
I am mainly a person who works with immediate materials and incidents. I try to produce real events in my theater, which can be experienced with all five senses, thus being an artistic synthesis. That’s my effort: to deal with immediate color, real flesh, real entrails, the human body. In addition, my work is also more or less a psychoanalytic realization of subconscious associations. I am a great admirer of Freud and Jung. Myths of all times play an important role in my work. It’s almost a philosophical event, an ontology, a search for one’s self—but not like Heidegger teaches. Though I hold him in high esteem while resenting his political views. Since early antiquity, many have dealt with the phenomena of existence. I do that too.
For whom are you writing your thick, theoretical books?
For those who already understand my work. It’s not some introduction on an academic level. Theory only makes sense to people who have already woken up and smelled the coffee.
What about the people who confront your work without any theoretical knowledge?
I would like for them to be touched by my work. They should know: This is where consciousness ends; we are entering deeper realms.
Are you a missionary?
I’ve been a missionary for art all my life.
And you want to be comprehended.
I would very much like that.