Rare or Unreleased 23: Hermann Nitsch

Hermann Nitsch: «Stierschlachtung/Ausweldung» [mp3]

For many of us, the ever-looming, impending inevitability of our existence—which is the end of it—is scrupulously hidden from us. Covered in newspaper, as it were, since even the morbid images in the world news section transform violence and death into an abstraction. Intimation of death is avoided in the everyday through such mechanisms as anonymously presented, bloodless supermarket meat products, resembling a plastic that leaves no trace of the life lost in a brutality that's perfectly mundane and ordinary, however distant and alien it seems to the modern mind. The more we increase our consumption of blood, the more we hide our thirst for it. To complete our denial we lobby for animal rights and try to extend the political correctness that gives us our false sense of security to the natural world. We try to defeat death, not through the vicarious, cathartic and brutally honest rituals of old, but through sheer willful unawareness.

Other predators kill their prey without thought, whereas for us who are aware of our own mortality, murder—at least initially (before we're inured to it)—leads to thoughts of our own death. And the more we hypocritically get others to do the dirty work for us, the more we're shocked—equally hypocritically—when we're confronted with the acts we're paying specialists (butchers, soldiers, executioners) to perform, so that we may indulge in our silly and insipid romanticisms.

The fruits of the Enlightenment—of secularity, rationality, science—is sterilising humanity by erasing all rites and ceremonies that connect with unreasonable desires and unconscious grapplings with reality, such as the way we deal—often irrationally—with the capacity we've been cruelly equipped with to reflect on our own demise. Man's laws abolish those things that confront our morality but cannot be clearly and easily rationalised by the pragmatic mind. (Thus war, which serves a series of obvious purposes, is legal, whereas certain violent religious rituals, often confusing, are being forbidden, one by one, until all that remains are habitual church ceremonies full of crackers and a sip of wine, the real significance of which is lost on us.)

This is all connected with our futile attempts at denying the existence of the chaos that we're made from, and which inevitably defeats every one of us. Reason can only deal with it by psychologically denying and lawfully forbidding it, whereas certain cosmologies and religions—knowing we're at its mercy—interact with it. And so Hermann Nitsch—the infamous Actionist painter and performance artist, formerly transgressive and a criminal, but by now the toast of the Austrian cultural elite—tries to inject with his art some way of dealing with the chaos that reason cannot order.

In 2004, from 30 July to 2 August, Nitsch staged one of his Orgies-Mysteries Theatre plays at his castle in Prinzendorf, Austria. Although, being a painter, Nitsch directed his «play» to consist of a series of elaborately arranged and rather repetitive, symbolically laden tableaux (rather than a dramatic play, with plot and dialogue), the photos from the performance don't do the experience justice. The overwhelming smell of blood, as the Freudian anal expulsive, pagan retro quasi-rites were performed from dawn 'til dusk—below a merciless sun, intestines eviscerated in marinades of blood and sperm, over and over again—did something to the repressed and spoilt modern mind, so used to indulging in fantasies devoid of all the little things that awaken our baser nature, thought of as «ugly» or terrifying.

And then there's the music, performed by scores of choristers, symphonic string and brass players, organists and percussionists, hired for the occasion (and seemingly surprised at the spectacle, some bewildered and disbelieving, others slightly tickled). The music never stopped, nor were there usually any discernible melodies as such. It only varied in intensity, and its atonal nature—reminiscent of horror scores—provided the proceedings with the integral atmosphere of transgressing taboos, without which we'd have been quickly inured to the repetitive acts of violence (which, after all, is in our nature). Perhaps the perfect image of Nitsch's intention—not captured on camera—was the sight of the virgin white swans patrolling the courtyard, oblivious to what we experience as «shocking», drinking matter-of-factly from the pools of blood that had collected during the course of the day. The more horrific, the more beautiful; the more beautiful, the more doomed. As all the insides are taken out and mixed, crushed, jumbled, kneaded and finally eaten, life and death intermingle indistinguishably. It's that banal, but it doesn't get more basic than that—or more poignant, to mortal beings like ourselves.

So, to convey something more than mere images (so easily abstract), here's a rare piece of music, performed at Nitsch's 1984 staging of the Orgies-Mysteries Theatre during the climactic slaughtering of the bull. It's after this that the terror of death is replaced with a celebration of life, with everyone eating the sacrificed pigs and bulls and getting into the wine, the atonal classical music replaced by that of a local umpapa band. Rumour has it that after every staging of the play at Nitsch's castle the artist has to pay local farmers compensation for the damage done to their fields, as people high on the fumes of blood and drunk on the free-flowing wine finally take to the corn, to celebrate life in a way about as objectively ugly as the brutal meditation on death only a few hours before…

For those shocked or provoked by Nitsch's imagery, please take a look at Georges Franju's classic documentary, Le Sang des bêtes (1949), before you let your knee jerk:

Worse things are done, every day, on an industrial scale infinitely more cold and calculating than a feast that explores what is happening and what we're doing, as we're doing it. Only a cowardly hypocrite looks away or turns to vegetables—or cheese:
In our time… the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship. Now, the victims of this curse are neither butchers nor beasts, but those same good folk who countenance, by now, only their own unseemliness, an unseemliness commensurate with an unhealthy need of cleanliness, with irascible meanness, and boredom. The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese. (Georges Bataille, «Abbatoir», Documents 6, 1929)
Not to end on a down note, here's another piece of music that seems quite fitting—«Calvary Scars» (live) [mp3] by Deerhunter:
Crucified on a cross in front of all my closest friends
Crucified on a cross (in front)
Crucified by my hero who supplies the cross and nails
Crucified with backstage passes


  1. I am constantly searching for rituals as powerful as this one. true to the baccanal, stringing humanitys purest desires up for the world to see. I felt relief as I read this text, although I might not agree with every factor. Check out Christoph Schlingesief, he also ponders about what lurks beneath. thanks.

  2. Thanks for that. For anyone who wants to join, the next Toilet Guppies Tours trip will be Malir, Pakistan, for the matam during the Mourning of Muharram/Day of Ashura on 26-27 December! (If we can't make it in 2009, then join us on 16 December, 2010 instead. And if the political situation in Pakistan is too crazy, we'll just head down to India and track down some aghori!)