Today we have posted in our Pages section essay number 17, The Orgiasts (Two), in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3).
Here it is in full.
The Orgiasts (Two)
Hermann Nitsch (1938 – ): Hell’s bells and buckets of blood
Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of the Action Art movement in Austria, publicly performed rituals with animal carcasses and their viscera, and naked human bodies deluged with blood, to the accompaniment of cacophonous music.
He also performed his rituals at private “festivals “ in the courtyard of his home, a baroque castle standing secluded near the Austrian-Czech border. His wife, a Jungian psychoanalyst, had bought it to provide the perfect venue for Hermann’s “Orgy Mystery Theater”. There, Nitsch intended his performances to rouse audiences to such excitement that an orgy would spontaneously erupt.
I witnessed a performance in an art gallery (where I was introduced to Nitsch as “the international press”, having credentials from a British newspaper), and was invited to the castle a few days later.
In preparation for his Action, the flayed and eviscerated carcasses of sheep, goats, oxen and pigs were hung by the stumps of their hind legs from rails and hooks, each against a backdrop of a stretched white sheet, their heads dangling, open-jawed, a few feet from the ground. (In a theater or gallery there would be up to three; but at the castle, ten or more.) Their viscera were heaped near their heads on a plastic sheet covering the ground.
The action began with Nitsch’s assistants bearing in a naked, blindfolded youth (in public these participants were more often boys, but sometimes girls took part too), lying supine on a white stretcher or a wooden cross, and setting him down with his face directly beneath the gaping mouth of a skinned beast beside the viscera.
Recorded music – mostly organ and brass – started plangent and reverberating but not loud. Then Nitsch entered, and strode purposefully towards the carcass in black rubber boots: a thick-set man of medium height with tonsured black hair, dressed all in black but for yellow rubber gloves. At the same time his assistants brought plastic buckets, blue, yellow, black and red, and set them down near the naked body. Nitsch took up a bucket and ladled red wine into the open rear of the dead beast so that it trickled down through its mouth on to the face below. The trickle was followed by a splash, and another, and another, until Nitsch flung the ladle aside and – the music growing louder – sent all that was left gushing through the carcass. He seized another bucket, and poured all it contained through the carcass on to the body. The next bucket that he emptied in the same way was full of blood. Bucket after bucket was brought and emptied, faster and faster. A bucket of wine alternated with a bucket of blood. The downpour became a deluge, now the shining wine, now the viscous blood. The music grew very loud. Whistles and rattles, pipes and drums were distributed to members of the audience so they could swell the noise. Many of the watchers began to stamp, clap, shout as the spirit moved them. Nitsch heaved up the buckets in a kind of frenzy, and flung their contents randomly at the carcass, the backdrop sheet, and the boy below. Bits of raw flesh were now in the blood. The music rose to a deafening pitch, and could be felt rumbling underfoot. The naked body was so drenched that not an inch of white flesh showed through the red. A slippery pool formed on the ground, with the bits of flesh floating in the mess, and as Nitsch continued to swing the buckets, gouts and gobs spattered the spectators. Some of them slithered in the pool of blood and wine. At last Nitsch gathered the slimy viscera in his arms, and reaching up, struggled to stuff them into the stiff cadaver, poking, punching, wrestling with them as they bulged out of his grasp. Some long pieces of intestines tore away and fell over his face while he struggled on blindly. He slipped and fell, letting go the guts to flop where they may. The recorded music stopped abruptly. The whistles and rattles, pipes and drums, clapping and stamping subsided. When Nitsch rose and gestured to his assistants, the blood-dyed, gore-smeared body was taken up and borne away. In the sudden silence, the spectators contemplated for a moment the bloodstained white sheet and the dripping carcass, and then another naked white blindfolded youth was carried in and set down beneath the next beast, the music started again, and the ritual was repeated.
Originally Nitsch slaughtered the animals himself as part of his Action, but the Authorities had objected that his method was cruel. They permitted him to carry on with his performances, but only if he bought dead beasts from licensed wholesale butchers. At the castle, the rites would go on for hours, sometimes through the greater part of a day or night. The spectator-participants would be intoxicated with drugs and wine – some of it from the castle’s own vineyard. (Nitsch told me that he himself preferred wine to the drugs his acolytes brought to the castle – the cannabis, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and hallucinogens – because he found that drugs “discouraged eroticism”.) They would be further entranced by the corybantic music. Their nostrils would be filled with the raw fetor of blood and guts, augmented by both incense and its counter-smell of animal excreta sprayed from cans. They were expected to be participants in the rite “like any congregation at a religious ceremony”, Nitsch explained to me. “But participating more intimately than co-worshipers. More even than communicants. Like the members of ecstatic cults, they should achieve a kind of trance – which is a proof of therapeutic response.” The ceremonies would be brought to a climax with “copulation, all kinds of sex, including sado-masochistic interactions”. (But, he assured me, my presence at the castle as “the international press” precluded an orgy.)
His performances, he said, were “catharsis-therapy, comparable to psychoanalysis”. He gave me a book, a very thick volume, in which he describes dozens of his actual and imaginary Actions. An example: “Hundreds of Popes, crucified, having a poem read to them while the Emperor Nero, 40 castrated boys, and 3,200 pigs help make up the orchestration.”
And this also is in the book: “Classical psychoanalysis is replaced by sensations which disinhibit and intoxicate: actions with raw meat, damp body-heated guts, bloody excreta, blood warm from slaughter, tepid water, the pleasure of splashing, squirting, pouring, sullying is heightened to intense joy by tearing raw flesh, stamping into guts. The shredded abreactions-god drops into the association-field. The dramatic burrows its way into the excitement of cruelty. Chaos, orgiastic drunkenness, breaks upon us. The intensity of the experience allows a mysticism of aggression and cruelty to develop.”
“The ultimate purpose of the artist,” Nitsch said, “is self-liberation. He needs to break through to the essential, strongly felt experience of existence. Calls to bliss are mixed with the pain of overcoming. That is why it is a form of therapy.”
In many chambers of his castle, crosses were displayed, upside-down or draped in used menstrual bandages. There were monstrances and censers. Blood-stained priestly vestments were hung in rows along a wall. In a long shed, rows of meathooks dangled from overhead rails. And there was a once-consecrated chapel, painted white and gold, with wooden pews carved and polished, and an altar. On the ceiling were frescoes of chubby cherubs with rosy flesh among diaphanous white veils and whipped-cream clouds, holding Christian symbols. Blasphemous rites, Nitsch said, were celebrated there.
Yet Nitsch vigorously denied that Catholicism had anything worth mentioning to do with his work for self-liberation. “My art is Dionysian”, he said. “There is both creation and destruction in our existence. All flows together in the River of Life. So in one festival I must represent all aspects of existence. My work contains cruelty but the opposite of cruelty too. People come here to eat, drink, wander in my garden, my orchard, my vineyards, and enjoy it all. That is important. But the shock of the performances is important. Cathartic, like the old Greek tragedies.”
Nitsch himself seemed a generous and even gentle person, not cruel. He denied that to stage performances with carcasses, guts, and blood-drenched people, was to feed an appetite for the sight of suffering. “On the contrary,” he said, “it channels such desires into art actions which might otherwise require sadistic expression in real life. Here the Opfers [the ‘victims” or “sacrificies” – the German word has both meanings) are all volunteers and none of them is ever hurt.” Not even psychologically? None had said so. “They understood that this too was part of the Heraclitean river of Life containing all things good and evil.”
1. I was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to write about a festival of Performance Art held in Vienna from the 21st to the 30th April, 1978. A Magnum photographer was sent with me. My story was duly printed, with photographs. The cover of the magazine displayed one of the pictures of a Nitsch ritual. Two days before it was to be distributed with the newspaper, the editor became anxious about the pictures. He submitted the whole issue to the editor-in-chief, who apparently said: “You cannot put a picture of all that blood on the Sunday morning breakfast tables of the nation.” So the whole thing was spiked.
2. Nitsch’s performances were indeed modeled on the rituals of the cult of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. In those rituals, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire. The name for this sacrament was an “orgion” – an orgy. An appendix to these essays will describe the cult, and its reformed version in the cult of Orpheus; and how the Orphic Mysteries contributed to the dogma and rites of both Christianity and Christian Gnosticism.
3. The (3rd century?) Greek biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, summarizes the philosophy of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) thus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.” And: “Of the opposites, that which tends to birth or creation is called war and strife, and that which tends to destruction by fire is called concord and peace.” An echo of these ideas is sounded in the “dialectical idealism” of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), one of the most culpable philosophers in the flowing stream of European – especially German – thought, right up to the thinkers of the New Left.