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Viennese Actionism was a short and violent movement in 20th-century art. It can be regarded as part of the many independent efforts of the 1960s to develop "performance art" (Fluxus, happening, action painting, body art, etc.). Its main participants were Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. As "actionists", they were active between 1960 and 1971. Most have continued their artistic work independently from the early 1970s onwards.
Documentation of the work of these four artists suggests that there was no consciously developed sense of a movement or any cultivation of membership status in an "actionist" group. Rather, this name was one applied to various collaborative configurations among these four artists. Malcolm Green has quoted Hermann Nitsch's comment, "Vienna Actionism never was a group. A number of artists reacted to particular situations that they all encountered, within a particular time period, and with similar means and results."
Art and the politics of transgression
The work of the Actionists developed concurrently with—but largely independently from—other avant garde movements of the era that shared an interest in rejecting object-based or otherwise commodifiable art practices. The practice of staging precisely scored "Actions" in controlled environments or before audiences bears similarities to the Fluxus concept of enacting an "event score" and is a forerunner to performance art.
The work of the Viennese Actionists is probably best remembered for the wilful transgressiveness of its naked bodies, destructiveness and violence. Often, brief jail terms were served by participants for violations of decency laws, and their works were targets of moral outrage. In June 1968 Günter Brus began serving a six-month prison sentence for the crime of "degrading symbols of the state" after an action in Vienna at which he simultaneously masturbated, covered his body with his own faeces and sang the Austrian national anthem, and later fled the country to avoid a second arrest. Otto Mühl served a one-month prison term after his participation in a public event, "Art and Revolution" in 1968. After his "Piss Action" before a Munich audience, Mühl became a fugitive from the West German police. Hermann Nitsch served a two-week prison term in 1965 after his participation with Rudolf Schwarzkogler in the Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism. The "Destruction in Art Symposium", held in London in 1966, marked the first encounter between members of Fluxus and Actionists. It was a landmark of international recognition for the work of Brus, Mühl and Nitsch.
While the nature and content of each artist's work differed, there are distinct aesthetic and thematic threads connecting the Actions of Brus, Mühl, Nitsch, and Schwarzkogler. Use of the body as both surface and site of art-making seems to have been a common point of origin for the Actionists in their earliest departures from conventional art practices in the late '50s and early '60s. Brus' "Hand Painting Head Painting" action of 1964, Mühl and Nitsch's "Degradation of a Female Body, Degradation of A Venus" of 1963 are characterized by their efforts to reconceive human bodies as surfaces for the production of art. The trajectories of the Actionists' work suggests more than just a precedent to later performance art and body art, rather, a drive toward a totalizing art-practice is inherent in their refusing to be confined within conventional ideas of painting, theatre and sculpture. Mühl's 1964 "Material Action Manifesto" offers some theoretical framework for understanding this:
...material action is painting that has spread beyond the picture surface. The human body, a laid table or a room becomes the picture surface. Time is added to the dimension of the body and space.
A 1967 revision of the same manifesto Mühl wrote:
... material action promises the direct pleasures of the table. Material action satiates. Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough-beating to the extreme.
Brus and Mühl participated in the Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution) event in Vienna, June 1968, issuing the following proclamation:
... our assimilatory democracy maintains art as a safety valve for enemies of the state ... the consumer state drives a wave of "art" before itself; it attempts to bribe the "artist" and thus to rehabilitate his revolutionising "art" as an art that supports the state. But "art" is not art. "Art" is politics that has created new styles of communication.
Actionists and experimental film in Vienna
Much of the existing moving-image documentation of Viennese Actionist work survives because of strong ties between the Actionists and art/experimental filmmaking of the 1960s. The Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren participated in the documentation of Actions as early as 1964, producing a body of Actionist related works that stand as historic avant-garde films in their own right for their use of rapid editing. As well, Otto Muehl produced a significant body of Actionist related film work that has been celebrated in Amos Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art. Films of and related to Actionist performance remain available through the Vienna-based Sixpack film distributor and the U.S. distribution cooperatives Canyon Cinema and The Film-makers' Coop. In 2005 the Actionist films of Kurt Kren were issued on video by the Austrian publisher INDEX DVD.
- Brus Mühl Nitsch Schwarzkogler. Writings of the Viennese Actionsts London, Atlas Press, 1999. Malcolm Green, ed.
- Malcolm Green
- Mechtild Widrich: "The Informative Public of Performance. A Case Study in Viennese Actionism" TDR. The Drama Review 57:1, no. 217, Spring 2013.
- Out of Actions. Actionism, Body Art & Performance 1949-1979 (Exhibition catalogue), Vienna-Stuttgart, MAK/Cantz, 1998.
- Brus Muehl Nitsch Schwarzkogler. Writings of the Vienna Actionists edited and translated by Malcolm Green in collaboration with the artists. London, Atlas Press, 1999
- Film as a Subversive Art Amos Vogel. New York, Random House, 1974.
- Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger. Out From The Shadows. (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1997
- Export, Valie (1989). "Aspects of Feminist Actionism". New German Critique. Duke University Press (47): 69–92. doi:10.2307/488108. ISSN 1558-1462. JSTOR 488108 – via JSTOR.
- Ubuweb: The Vienna Actionists Contains video files of Action films by Kurt Kren, Otto Mühl and others. Also contains the complete text of a 2002 interview with Otto Mühl.
- Hermann Nitsch’ ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’ – The artist as a high priest? About the relation between art, religion, ritual and reality.
- Bright Lights Film Journal Andrew Grossman, 2002 interview with Otto Mühl as it was originally published.
- Writings of the Vienna Actionists Atlas Press publication edited by Malcolm Green, still available.