Vi­enna show­cases city’s shock ‘Ac­tion­ist’ art move­ment


As artists, they pushed the lim­its, bathing in blood, mud and urine. Vi­enna’s famed “Ac­tion­ists,” whose avant-garde move­ment may be the most rad­i­cal in con­tem­po­rary art, are the fo­cus of a new ex­hi­bi­tion in their home city.

The move­ment emerged in the 1960s as part of the new per­for­mance-based art, which broke with the con­fines of tra­di­tional paint­ing and used the body as both sur­face and site of art-mak­ing.

“Vi­enna Ac­tion­ism” shied away from lit­tle — and some­times landed the artists in jail.

“They sought a di­rect con­fronta­tion with re­al­ity, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, to lim­its that were very dif­fi­cult to tol­er­ate,” said Eva Badura-Triska, cu­ra­tor of “My Body is the Event” at Vi­enna’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art (Mumok).

The move­ment’s main mem­bers were Otto Muehl, Her­mann Nitsch, Guenter Brus and Ru­dolf Sch­warzkogler, who skinned an­i­mal car­casses, tied up hu­man bod­ies or mixed them up with vis­cus, gore or mud.

Muehl, in par­tic­u­lar, cre­ated a se­ries of “still lifes” with body parts stick­ing out through planks, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of a dis­mem­bered corpse.

Brus once criss­crossed Vi­enna with his body painted white and bi­sected by a jagged black line be­fore be­ing ar­rested by the po­lice. His other per­for­mances in­volved sca­tol­ogy or verged on pornog­ra­phy.

Artists also Suf­fered

“Ac­tion­ism broke away from tra­di­tional val­ues. But it re­mains art. It is well-thought out, has a pre­cise form and ref­er­ences,” said Badura-Triska. “It’s an ex­ten­sion of the field of paint­ing, even though it is one of the most rad­i­cal.

“They over­turned the rules by con­sid­er­ing as aes­thetic things which were deemed ugly ac­cord­ing to so­cial norms,” the cu­ra­tor added, con­ced­ing that the ex­hi­bi­tion would be dif­fi­cult to hold in cer­tain coun­tries.

The city of Sig­mund Freud and other rad­i­cal thinkers, Vi­enna al­ready saw taboos bro­ken in the early 20th cen­tury when artists like Gus­tav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele shocked the world with sex­u­ally ex­plicit art­works.

If the Vi­enna “Ac­tion­ists” fol­low this spirit, a source for their non-con­form­ity was also World War II, said Badura-Triska.

They lived “in a coun­try where, un­like Ger­many, the Nazi past was pushed away, lit­er­ally hid­den in bour­geois nor­mal­ity, which helps ex­plain their ex­treme re­ac­tion.

“In this re­spect, ‘Ac­tion­ism’ had a cathar­tic ef­fect. It al­lowed sup­pressed drives to be re­leased in con­trolled fash­ion, in the con­text of artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence,” the cu­ra­tor said.

The ex­hi­bi­tion com­pares the Vi­enna move­ment with other de­vel­op­ments in per­for­mance-based and ac­tion art, fea­tur­ing a wide range of in­ter­na­tional artists from Yoko Ono to Ma­rina Abramovic.

The move­ment at times took a heavy toll. Dur­ing a filmed per­for­mance which also fea­tured her hus­band, a nude and bound Ana Brus had a ner­vous break­down.

Guenter Brus, who pub­licly uri­nated, defe­cated and cut him­self with a ra­zor blade, held his last live per­for­mance in 1970 in which he ap­peared nude and drank his own urine.

But Her­mann Nitsch, 76, is still per­form­ing and has at least three mu­se­ums de­voted to his work in Aus­tria and in Naples, Italy.

Otto Muehl died in 2013 at the age of 87 af­ter be­ing sen­tenced to seven years in jail on charges of sex­ual of­fences with mi­nors and rapes com­mit­ted in a com­mune he had founded.

The move­ment, which was lit­tle known in the 1960s, re­ceived a boost two decades later with a se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tions in Cologne, Vi­enna, Paris and Los An­ge­les.

The ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mumok runs through Aug. 23.


Aus­trian “Ac­tion­ist” Her­mann Ni­etsch, seated at right, and vis­i­tors ob­serve a per­for­mance of Ni­etsch’s work dur­ing the open­ing of his ex­hi­bi­tion at Theater Mu­seum in Vi­enna, Aus­tria on March 25.

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