VIENNESE ACTIONISM – ARTISTS, WRITERS AND FILMMAKERS REBEL

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Reality, the everyday and human bodies take on completely new and unexpected forms in the works of Viennese Actionism. New forms, new colours, disturbing images, animal entrails and organic substances express a new way of rebelling and conceiving art, mocking the consumerist and conservative society and that dangerous latent fascism that, despite the end of the war, still seems to be alive and pulsating.

Impressions and suggestions from the post-World War II period

Already since the end of the World War II – and specifically at the beginning of the 1950s – avant-garde cinema, which still today represents a large part of Austrian cinema, began to spread in Austria. And if it is true that this particular form of the seventh art primarily symbolises a deep desire for renewal, as well as a singular way of rebelling against a mentality that was still too closed and conservative, it is also true that it is closely connected, at least in part, to the controversial artistic movement of Viennese Actionism.

This movement, which developed from the late 1950s and saw its major years of activity between 1962 and 1970, aimed to rebel against state authority and the Church, literally shocking the audience initially through paintings, photographs, literary texts and live performances, and – closely associated with the Wiener Gruppe (a free association of Austrian literary exponents formed from 1954 and active until the late 1950s) – saw among its leading exponents artists like Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.

But what do we actually mean when we talk about the much-discussed Viennese Actionism? Viennese Actionism – the name of which was originally created by the artist and academic Peter Weibel – draws heavily from Expressionism, Central European Decadentism, as well as the theories of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, and sees, in his most prolific years, the creation of artworks – drawings, plays or installations – that were as irreverent and shocking as possible and involved the elaboration of issues of a psychological, sadomasochistic and self-destructive nature. It was not infrequent, then, that during theatrical performances or installations, violence on animals or, in any case, gestures involving the use of human blood or faeces (sometimes even used in the creation of some paintings) were performed. And if, in fact, these particular artistic expressions succeeded perfectly in their intention to shock anyone who had the opportunity to deal with them, it is also true that, precisely because of the nature of these works, many of the artists involved had quite a few personal and legal problems. If, in fact, Hermann Nitsch was sentenced to prison three times, Rudolf Schwarzkogler committed suicide in 1969, while Günther Brus continued to produce poems and illustrated literary texts on his own.

Desecrating, extreme, shocking, although, on the whole, Viennese Actionism only lasted a few years (in 1970 the group of artists officially disbanded), it nevertheless continues to exert its influence on Austrian and international artistic production to this day. And if, thinking of the world of contemporary art and its live action performances, a name like Marina Abramovich cannot fail to come to mind, in the film sphere the director VALIE EXPORT (Human Females, Invisible Adversaries) is still very active and prolific in Austria. Through her films and video installations, she has been able to turn the principles of Viennese Actionism into an effective feminist manifesto.

Impossible, then, that cinema was not influenced by such a non-conformist and expressive movement. And the founding artists themselves first lent their work to the seventh art. If, in fact, works such as Satisfaction (1968), Stille Nacht (1969), Sodom (1969) and Psychotic Party (1970) by Otto Muehl remain true symbols of Viennese Actionism in film, we cannot fail to mention among the most significant works Maria – Conception – Action – Hermann Nitsch (realised, by Hermann Nitsch in 1969) and all the works of the experimental filmmaker Kurt Kren (1929 – 1998), who, above all, represents the quintessence of this singular and overbearing artistic movement in film.

Reality, the everyday and human bodies take on completely new and unexpected forms in the works of Viennese Actionism. New forms, new colours, disturbing images, animal entrails and organic substances express a new way of rebelling and conceiving art, mocking the consumerist and conservative society and that dangerous latent fascism that, despite the end of the war, still seems to be alive and pulsating. The audience no longer know what to expect and, at times confused, at times disgusted, at times simply enthralled in front of what is being proposed to them, they are perfectly capable of perceiving loud and clear the message that the artists wanted to communicate to them. And it took only a few years for their work to go down in history, still influencing, even after many years, a good part of Austrian and world artistic production. Can it simply be said, then, that Viennese Actionism has come to an end? Probably, even if only by walking around the city we happen to come across some exhibitions and installations inspired by it, and by watching some experimental films, it will not infrequently happen that shocking images will remind us of these controversial and reactionary years after the Second World War in Austria.

Info: the page of Viennese Actionism on Artribune; the website of Kurt Kren; interview with Hermann Nitsch on Artribune; the website of Otto Muehl