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Aktion 135

Aktion 135

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The almost bucolic atmosphere of the campus of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana witnessed on the evening of Monday, May 14, 2012, a disturbing event: the controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch and a group of students of the University of the Arts staged performance number 135, by one who is considered one of the “fathers” of this manifestation, and founder, along with Otto Muehl and Rudolf Schwartzkogler, of the “Viennese Actionism.”

Jesus against the Universe is the name of this action, in which a pig and a fish were gutted and the blood smeared on the student/artists, who were completely involved and focused on what they did. Those of us present who managed to overcome the violence of the event couldn’t help going back to archaic stages of human development when men believed they could decipher the future in the entrails of animals, or were sacrificed and offered to the gods.

The students, wrapped in white robes that soon became stained with the unmistakable red of blood, also reminded us of the virgins who were sacrificed to appease divine wrath, although the naked bodies tied to a tree referred us to the crucifixion of Christ, explicitly put forward in the title of the performance. However, the music performed by the University’s Symphony Orchestra, the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro and several musicians from Síntesis, plus the tropical fruit used in the action, forced a quick relocation in space and time, directing the viewer to certain ritual ceremonies of Afro-Cuban religions. An evocation of Homage to Ana Mendieta and The Burden of Guilt, by the also controversial Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, was also inevitable.

The acrid smell of blood, spilled, smeared on, drunk; the jumble of viscera; the red that stained bodies and clothes; but most of all the obvious enthusiasm of the officiants made us acknowledge certain truths in William Golding’s novel “The Lord of the Flies” with its allegory of human society and the unpredictable extent of instincts out of control. Are we so far as we believe we are from atavistic fears, from the “primitive” uncertainties and behaviors of our ancestors? Do cruelty and violence as well as noble sentiments unite us with all human beings?

With the terrifying beauty of the contrast between the hackneyed purity of white in clothes and panels and the symbolism of red, the brief nudity of bodies, the dramatic staging of the ritual and the invasion of all the senses of the viewers, Nitsch—who the next day received an honorary doctorate at the University of the Arts—and his Cuban collaborators hoped to produce in the audience a cathartic reaction that would release them from the stresses produced by a chaotic world. From what I saw, they did, as well as other side effects that they possibly never suspected could happen. The friend who accompanied me, who gulped more than once during the entire performance, yearning for the Ship of Tolerance and its message of hope, confessed to me that he was seriously thinking of going vegetarian. Perhaps environmentalists and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, who have both criticized the practices of the famous Austrian artist, will thank my friend for his sudden conversion. Hermann Nitsch at the Biennial Aktion 135 by Ricardo Alberto Pérez
The 11th Havana Art Biennial has confirmed its willingness to open its spaces to different aesthetics however extreme and controversial some may seem. Along those lines, the performance by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch at the University of the Arts (ISA) has had a profound impact on the Biennial’s fervent followers. Hermann Nitsch has performed over 100 actions, which are closely linked to his creative outlook and that he himself has baptized as “Theater of orgies and mysteries” within the movement known as Viennese Actionism. His premise, as well as that of artists Günter Brus, Otto Muehl and Rudolf Schwartzkogler who also belonged to the movement, was based on the visible rejection of traditional static art, manifesting itself through orgiastic rituals, apparently bleeding sexual practices, such as the simulation of genital mutilation, or rape.

Nitsch’s performance in Havana seems to acquire a special connotation given that since 1998 he had performed no new actions. That year he gave his 100th performance, which took place for six consecutive days in a Baroque-style castle in northwestern Austria. Now, at the age of 74, he is back with his devastating transgressive force on a public stage, surprisingly, I could say, given that the stage is a Cuban educational institution, which makes the circumstances in which the performance took place more attractive and complex, advocating from within a de-territorialization on top of which an expressive freedom seemed to progress as in a frenzy. The radical character of the event is also expressed in the protagonists of Nitsch’s performance, all of whom are students of the University of the Arts.

The action began with the sacrifice of a huge swine and the collection of its blood, a part to be spread over the participants and another to be drunk together with a nutritious liquid, in this case, milk. Thus, one could see at both ends of the mouth of an actress the cursed and pleasant copula between two elements that rarely appear together—blood and milk. Also, nipples and flies are details that connected by the ramifications of what was happening discourse on a latent intensity and great desire to express.

An intense theatricality seems to have permeated the story as the different stages of their representation occurred, almost always dominated by ritualistic motions responsible for keeping alive the thread of the experience. The pig was joined by a fish that was eviscerated over a tray placed on the thighs and legs of the actress at the exact moment when she was being offered more milk to drink.

It is important to note that one of the objectives of Nitsch and other exponents of Viennese Actionism is to show the intolerance of different expressions of power when creators cross certain limits that are secretly fixed by control structures. In this manner, the hypocritical content of the relationships that such powers often establish with art are laid bare.

The theoretical and conceptual arsenal with which Nitsch works is firmly sedimented, and appears to be part of a sensitivity cultivated during the 20th century, and whose principal source of inspiration was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought, especially when he called upon the human beings of the future to “begin to live dangerously.” Nitsch’s proposals are undoubtedly connected with anthropological studies performed by brilliant thinkers, as was the case of the French writer George Bataille, who linked themes as ancient as that of sacrifice, eroticism and death, using the model of certain types of rituals such as Voodoo. In my view, Nitsch brings into play an aesthetic of visual composition capable of tolerating as legitimate, scenes that most often seem aberrant or cruel. Other artists, such as filmmakers Peter Greenaway and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and photographer Andrés Serrano, have adopted the ability to hoard emotion from scenes that have plenty of existential violence and in which bodily fluids or waste matter from organisms are usually involved.

In many ways, Nitsch’s performance is not totally alien to us Cubans, as killing a pig is customary during the holidays and pork has practically become a staple food. In addition, the sacrifice of animals does not scare us given that it is a common practice in the widespread religion of Santeria. However, the manner in which the Austrian artist handled things during his performance in Havana was quite overwhelming for many of those present. Jun / 2012 Home (The 2012 Havana Biennial Art Exhibition )   

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