Artworks and Artists of Viennese Actionism
Progression of Art
This 3-minute silent film is the first Aktion by Brus, in collaboration with his wife Anni, and filmed by Kurt Kren. Completed four years after he dropped out of his formal education at a time when he had become more interested in the act of the painting than in the finished product. In choppy, disorienting scenes, the viewer sees various shots of a female nude (his wife) and the face of a male figure (himself), scenes of an interior (possibly studio or house) that include a cluttered table and a bicycle. Paint is smeared and thrown in such a way as to suggest blood (though the film is black and white, so this is an impression as the color of the paint cannot be confirmed) and violence. Compared to some of their later work, this Aktion is fairly benign though the affect on the viewer would have been one of disorientation and shock because of the filming technique and the implied violence/chaos.
Muehl first performed his Piss Aktion, in which he stood naked and urinated into fellow actionist Gunter Brus's mouth live on stage, at the Hamburg Film Festival in 1969, and it is remembered for its intentional and extreme violation of society's norms. Piss Aktion is one of the most notorious demonstrations of art merging with life and breaking free of the walls of the art museum - a definition that was advocated by the Actionists and the other performance movements of the '60s and '70s (such as Happenings and Fluxus). In the obscene daring of Piss Aktion, Muehl was moving beyond what he referred to as the more 'bourgeois' Happenings into what he labeled 'direct art', in which he used bodily functions (such as urination) as tools for expressions of intense, pent-up energy and taboo-breaking.
Action Number Six: Vienna Walk
Vienna Walk was one of Brus's best-known aktions and his first completely public performance. It consisted of the artist walking through the center of Vienna dressed as what he called a 'living painting' with his body painted entirely white with crude black 'stitching' dividing it and his suit into two halves lengthways. It is particularly important to the history of performance art because the photographs that document it - taken by the artist's friends and collaborators - have created such a strong myth around what really happened on the day, and are considered some of the first records of performance art to have become artworks in their own right. Revealing the work to unsuspecting passers-by rather than to viewers who came intentionally to a gallery or performance space for a pre-advertised event also continued the Actionist ethic of liberating art from the traditional gallery or museum, as well as forcing ordinary members of the Austrian public to come face-to-face with highly controversial art they might otherwise have made an effort to avoid. The work paved the way for future artists to perform to an unsuspecting public on the street.
Black and white photographs - Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna
In the sixty eight images that make up Rudolf Schwarzkogler's 3rd Action, the viewer sees a bandaged, possibly dead figure in highly contorted positions lying on a creased white sheet. As with the rest of his work, viewers finds themselves inventing sinister narratives that could explain the disturbing scene. There are strong forms in the images such as white balls and rectangular mirrors that are very simple but have a huge aesthetic impact. The artist is also presenting us with an enigmatic depiction that involves both healing and pain: bandages look suffocating, fluids being injected look poisonous, and it seems the figure is being mutilated rather than treated.
Unlike the other Actionists, whose principal interest was in the experience of live performance, Schwarzkogler's aktions were all carefully staged purely for the camera, and he created just six of them before committing suicide in 1969. The castration theme in some of Schwarzkogler's other work inspired a myth that he had accidentally killed himself by cutting open his own penis in a performance-to-camera gone wrong whereas he actually died by falling or jumping from his third-story Vienna apartment.
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - The Tate
Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution)
The actionists' performances finally tipped into illegality on the night of June 7th, 1968, when Gunter Brus, Muehl, Peter Weibel and Oswald Wiener staged a violent and multiple taboo-breaking takeover of a student gathering at the University of Vienna. The participants broke into a lecture hall before whipping and mutilating themselves, urinating, covering themselves in their own excrement, masturbating, and making themselves vomit - all while singing the Austrian national anthem. The night is remembered by art historians as one of the most important of the Actionists' joint works; by acting so outrageously and flouting the law so rebelliously, they summed up everything that they had been expressing in previous performances in one intense artistic event. It marked the beginning of the end of Actionism, as key members left Vienna to avoid prosecution. Many Austrians still remember the event, called Uni-Ferkelei (university obscenity) by their national press, with revulsion. A few photographs and a two-minute film are the only surviving pieces of documentation of the seminal evening.
Poured Painting is just one of a series of two-dimensional works Hermann Nitsch created alongside his graphic and often violent performances. It was made by throwing and pouring red paint directly onto sacking material - the final framed piece is reminiscent of the aftermath of a bloody killing or crazed attack. Before, during, and after the Actionist era, Nitsch in particular has continued to be inspired by the energy of action painting in every aspect of his practice. He employs its techniques in his own unique way, using blood, milk, entrails, and other organic materials in his paintings to evoke the same themes of ritual, sacrifice, and redemption that he tackles in his performances. Nitsch's desire to use his art as a kind of catharsis, and to incorporate Christian symbols (crucifixion, communion) with pagan ones (drunken excess, the drinking of blood) have earned him a reputation as one of the most provocative and influential of all Actionists.
Oil paint on canvas - The Tate
Action Pants: Genital Panic
Action Pants: Genital Panic was a 1968 performance by feminist performance artist, Valie Export memorialized as a series of six identical posters. It took place in a Munich art cinema; Export walked among the audience wearing pants from which the crotch had been cut out, exposing her genitals to them. The artist was seeking to challenge existing notions of women in films as passive and without control of their own sexuality. Though she isn't generally considered a full-blown member of the Viennese Actionists, the Austrian performance artist is often associated with the movement because she was based in Vienna at the same time and her performances had a similarly brazen, anarchic tone. Like the Actionists, her work often involved using her body as a site; she regularly subjected herself to pain and potential humiliation in the name of art and to make strong, feminist statements against the conservative Austrian politics of the time.
6 screenprints on paper - The Tate
Blood Organ was the group's first performance together, and it's said to mark the movement's beginning - containing many of the hallmarks that would become associated with Nitsch's and Muehl's performance practices in particular, both materially and conceptually (the photo shown here is of a later, performance, not the original 1962 piece). The original performance took place over the course of three days in Muehl's basement studio, and culminated in the bloody crucifixion and disembowelment of a dead lamb, whose innards were then nailed down and drenched with hot water and more blood. It subverted the Christian (most pointedly Catholic) symbol of the Lamb of God by hanging the dead creature upside down, lending the piece an intense potency and signaling the group's desire to cause controversy among conservative, religious Austrians. It also explored what Actionist Adolf Frohner called 'the aesthetic of the ugly', which prioritized true representation over beauty in works of art. "I don't attempt to create a beautiful, aesthetic image of people," Frohner said, "I accept reality, which is still beautiful and true even when it is ugly." This action was especially influential for Nitsch, who wrote a 1964 manifesto based on it.
In early works by Brus, much of the violence was only implied. In this late work, Brus urinated into a vessel and drank, began frenzied action, then slashed his own shaven skull with a knife. Art historians have argued that in subjecting his own body to such brutality, Brus is symbolically reclaiming the body tortured and killed by the Nazis; he is investigating the body's tolerance for pain. The performance, like others by the group, was meant to shock the Viennese bourgeois out of their complacency. This was Brus's last Aktion (one year before the official end of the group); he realized that there was no further boundaries to push except with his own death.
Note: this image is not from this performance - just a rough representation of what transpired.