Blood Orgies: Hermann Nitsch in America
Edited by Aaron Levy; Slought Books, 2008
This collection of essays, connected to a 2008 program on Hermann Nitsch’s works at Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation, represents a significant addition to critical literature in English on an artist who, by and large, has remained more infamous than well known in the United States. At the outset of his career, Nitsch sought to dissolve form through “informal” techniques of painting and, from the early 1960s on, to reincorporate this liberated expressiveness into increasingly complex performative actions. The violent character of his cultic mise en scène; his provocative use of blood, meat and offal as artistic materials; his obsessive iteration of crucifixion imagery within neo-paganistic sacrificial rites have all too often deflected critical response to his work onto the emotional reflexes of the viewer.
Whether this involves blithely echoing Nitsch’s claims for his rituals’ cathartic powers, venting righteous outrage over the performances’ blood-spattering perversity, or remaining urbanely unimpressed before overwrought sublimity is less important than what each of these typical reactions shares with the other. First, one must admit, each reveals a partial truth about Nitsch’s art. It is indeed, at once, cathartically intense, viscerally perverse and bathetically earnest on a megalomaniacal scale. Yet each isolated reaction of this sort, in failing to comprehend Nitsch’s systematic courting of precisely such contradictory emotions in his public, equally fails to think through his artistic practice as a whole and accepts, at face value, the artist’s own suggestions that the significance of his works is exhausted in their chaotic sensuality.
The essays in this collection take a serious stride forward from essentially anti-intellectual viewpoints to consider more fully the dialectics of Nitsch’s art. Dieter Ronte, for example, considers the curiously unstable “secondary” function of photography in relation to multisensory, temporally extended performances, which depend heavily on the spectator’s immediate presence for their intended effect. Photography at once represents and misrepresents, mediates and betrays Nitsch’s art, which can neither be reduced to documentation nor neatly disentangled from it.
Adrian Daub explores the largely unappreciated sonorous dimension of Nitsch’s performances and, more broadly, the relationship of the performances to elements of music such as sound, scoring and voice. Jean-Michel Rabaté focuses on yet another “margin” of Nitsch’s Gesamtkunstwerk-like performances, the “paintings” that eventuate from the contact of fabric with torrents of blood and fluids, which, he concludes, constitute the truly “Dionysian” expressions of Nitsch’s artistry. Michèle Richman follows the ethnographic strand of Nitsch’s practice in relation to broad twentieth-century theoretical concerns with festival, ritual and myth; while Susan Jarosi sets in parallel Nitsch’s iconography and that of Matthias Grünwald’s sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece, discerning in both artists’ works complementary psychic expressions of historical trauma. Blood Orgies is a thorough introduction to the dialectics at play in Nitsch’s art, which tends to disclose its most intriguing conceptual dimensions precisely where it seeks most vigorously to deny conceptuality in favor of pure intensities of experience.
Tyrus Miller is Professor of Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.