Last October, Mike Weiss asked me if I would write an essay on the work of the seminal Austrian Actionist painter, Hermann Nitsch. Mike was in the process of planning an exhibition of Nitsch’s new work to be held at his gallery in February 2004. Since I had never actually met the artist, Mike arranged for a teleconference between Princenhorn, Austria and New York, so that Nitsch and I might get acquainted. Within minutes on the phone, I felt connected to Nitsch—not only as an artist whose work I had known for twenty-five years, but as a human being. The more we talked about his philosophy, his art, his influences, his life, and the invention of his Orgies Mysteries Theater (1960), the more I was convinced that, like it or not, Nitsch was a major artist, an artist to be reckoned with.
There are some who believe that critics are supposed to either make an endorsement or trash an artist. I would say that the real critic does neither. Criticism investigates an artist’s work and then makes a determination, hopefully with feeling, as to its value not just as visual culture, but as art. Hermann Nitsch is an artist worth listening to. He has been an established presence in Europe for over four decades, yet is lesser known among artists of a younger generation in the United States. Hopefully, this interview, conducted in early March 2004 at the Maritime Hotel, will spark both interest and controversy (much needed in our current market-driven art world), and perhaps it will indicate the inherent and sustaining power of Nitsch’s work and ideas.
Robert C. Morgan (Rail): Mr. Nitsch, you began doing the Orgies Mysteries Theatre as early as 1957?
Hermann Nitsch: Yes, this is when I worked out the first content, and I started to work on my score. Then in 1960, I had my first exhibition with action paintings, a very important part of my theater, and in 1962, I did the first actual live performance.
Rail: These early performances were not done at your Schloss [castle]?
Nitsch: No, no, at this time, I was very poor. This was not a possibility.
Rail: So you found buildings, or public places to do these events?
Nitsch: We did it everywhere, in cellars, in studios, wherever there was a possibility to make a performance. We didn’t need a theater, because this was the idea, not to need a theater. This was very close to happenings, very close.
Rail: I see your work as parallel to Allan Kaprow in some ways.
Nitsch: Yes, we know each other very well. My first performance in New York was in 1968 at the old cinemathèque on Wooster Street. It was for me a really great success. Of course, all the Americans were doing their own happenings, but they never saw a performance with so much expressionism. Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Carolee Schneemann, all saw my performance, and they liked it very, very much.
Rail: And that was in 1968.
Nitsch: Yes in 1968 and I had great success, I got the front page in the Village Voice, and also in other newspapers. It was for me, in America, my real first success.
Rail: You were part of the Actionist group at this time, with Gunter Brus, for example, and Arnulf Rainer?
Nitsch: It was not exactly a group, I would say. Some artists had the same feeling about art, and we all had our own direction in performance. We all tried to build up a new kind of theater. And it all became a kind of construct. Reality was very important to us, our own body and everything, and in reality, you have to use all your senses, you have to look, let’s say. If there is a real happening you have to look, you have to taste, you have to smell, you have to touch, you have to hear, and so it’s automatically a Gesamtkunstwerk.
Rail: And so it becomes a kind of trans-sensory experience as you navigate through the senses, the senses of the body and the mind, the touch, the smell.
Nitsch: Yes. When you think of the old poetry, where you have to remember the impressions of your senses, as in a poem by Rilke, you must remember how smell the roses, and how smells wine, and so on. But in my work, no! In my work, you have an empirical encounter. You no longer need to use language. Since I discovered what I wanted to do, I could no longer work with language. For me it was necessary to empirically use the senses, without language. In my theater it was important that you smell the flower, that you smell blood, that you smell meat and hot water, that you smell empirically—this was, I would say, the real beginning of my work.
Rail: So it is a direct empirical sensation. The language is after the fact.
Nitsch: For me it was not possible to use the language of art anymore. That was my situation.
Rail: So you wanted to get beyond language, or before language, something pre-linguistic, perhaps?
Nitsch: I would say, both. I think language lost a lot of its symbolism, because there was automatically always repeated “freedom, freedom,” and the church would repeat “blood” and “meat,” and you do not have the right meaning anymore. And so I wanted to go deeper, I wanted that you have to again, feel blood. That you have to again feel meat, touch meat, smell meat. And let’s say that it is also the future of language, then it is possible that somebody makes art, and art is reality, and that he works only with parts of the reality. By connecting the parts in different ways, then a new kind of art emerges. And if this is true, it means the future of language. I tried to lose the past of language.
Rail: You want to move through the experience, have art rejuvenate itself through the experience, through the direct sensation with the blood, with the flesh, with the wine, with the roses, with the smell of the fragrance, all of this becomes the essential point, rather than how you describe it, how you indicate it through a set of signs, for example?
Nitsch: When you have a novel from Flaubert or from Zola, they describe reality; you have wine, and they wash their hands, and they smell the food, and they taste the food. Flaubert describes it, say in Salambo, everything is a description of the old rituals, and the special foods they have in the Orient. I want to show this empirically. For my art, it is important that everything happens empirically. The people who are in my work are also in my life. They are part of my life.
Rail: So when you talk about the relationship between art and life, then, you are talking about an entire experience where art becomes life, life becomes art.
Nitsch: Ja, ja.
Rail: But on the other hand, when you are here in New York you seem to be very rational, very clear, you have a certain kind of demeanor, that seems to be quite different than what I see in the photographs of the events staged at your Schloss in Princenhorn.
Nitsch: Are you referring to my exhibition here in New York?
Rail: No, I am talking about you as a person, as an artist. I am trying to understand the problem of art and life, and exactly what you mean.
Nitsch: Well, did Freud go out in the streets with his erect penis? He was a very fine and sophisticated person. My life is, I hope, very normal. In other ways, I’m happy that I’m not normal. But, at the moment, I’m not crazy. I like to drink, I like to make feasts, I like everything that a human being can like. I like it intensely, that is important for me.
Rail: Let me just say that this is very close to what T. S. Eliot called the perfect artist, one who could see his art but at the same time remove himself from it.
Nitsch: You saw those yellow paintings with a robe like a priest’s robe? These yellow paintings are not very good as an example. But, in my older paintings, in the middle of the paintings there’s always a shirt. And with this shirt, and all of my assistants, I painted and repainted. We went down, into a very deep ground. We showed the audience deeper things, like Jesus Christ when he was taken to the Mount of Olives and he respirated blood.
Nitsch: These shirts are full of blood, and full of dirty things, let’s say also full of shit, excrement. Because we artists, we go deep down, into this ground. But we come back up and bring it to consciousness. But it is not necessary to go out in the street in such a shirt. If somebody wants to do it, he should do it. But I think if someone is an artist, it is not necessary that he absolutely cancel himself as a human being.
Rail: What I am trying to suggest is, and T. S. Eliot spoke about this very articulately, is that to be able to remove oneself is very important for the artist. That there is the moment when you are directly inside, and then there is the moment when you are removed from it and leave, lead the normal life.
Nitsch: There is a border. When I do a really big performance, for more than a thousand people, I have all these psychologists around me, and no one has a bad experience. It is very important that the artist constructs the possibility to go so deep down, and bring all the things in the consciousness, and nobody get ill, nobody get crazy. I would say that art is a kind of security or Mauer [wall]. I don’t know the English expression for it, if there is a lake and you use it for making electricity—what do you call this wall?
Nitsch: Yes, a dam. And we artists, we have to build up the dam. We can go down, the audience can go down, but it would be very bad if the dam were to break, very bad.
Rail: I understand, it is a great metaphor.
Nitsch: I’m not only working for a great politically correct human concept. I work in many ways, in many ways.
Rail: Let’s talk a bit about the Catholic aspect of your work, is this part of your upbringing?
Nitsch: I’m interested in all kinds of religions.
Rail: Your experience as a child?
Nitsch: Let me tell you the story, starting many years back. I’m interested in all kinds of religions. Since very early, I was interested in Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Taoism, and in Zen. And when I was very young, I was educated in the Catholic tradition, but not strongly, my parents were not very interested in religion. The Catholic symbols, let’s say, were the first step before going down into a kind of archaeology of religion. I’m very interested in Jung. You know he was a pupil of Freud, and Reich. And the theory of psychology, of the subconscious, and of archetypes, that interests me very much. And I don’t believe in a special religion, not in the Catholic religion.
Rail: So you’re not interested in the institution, you’re more interested in the consciousness?
Nitsch: In the archetypes, in the consciousness, in the collective stream of mythology. Death and resurrection are also represented symbolically in Egyptian religion. I am very interested in structures that are not only in one religion, but which are in many religions. Because it is all consciousness, and it is all collective dreams of human beings.
Rail: Your performances suggest a very intense experience with carnality, with the flesh, with the blood, with the animals, with nature. That suggests to me Zoroaster, some of the ancient, eccentric Catholic rites, and also the Gnostic faith. All of them were involved, shall we say, with direct experiential encounters—with nature and with animals and sacrificial rites. This was very important for the transformation process. It sounds like you want to see this transformation process happen between human beings and inside human beings. That you’re looking for a kind of significance that is particular to the human being.
Nitsch: I try to go back to totemism. I think of the mass where they eat the flesh of Jesus Christ, and drink the blood of Jesus Christ, and then they kill the totem animal, and were also drinking the blood and were eating the meat of this animal. It was a kind of communication. They wanted to get the power of this God. And so that is a special thing for the Catholic religion. It brings so much together. So much tradition is brought together, and you have the earliest ritual and the earliest forms of culture and we bring it up to a very late form of ritual, and say, “No, we have not really killed the animal, everything is a symbolic thing.” It has nothing to do with eating meat, it has nothing to do with drinking blood. The elements have been symbolically transformed. It is transubstantiation, it is a thing of logos, it is a mysterious thing.
Rail: The meaning is obtained through a symbolic process of transubstantiation, rather than as an empirical encounter?
Nitsch: But transubstantiation is a theological conception, it is a great concept. You have the basic carnality and you bring it up to a very high sublimation. The same is true with Jesus Christ. It is there every moment when the priests make a mass. They kill him again, but in an un-bloody way. That is the mysterious thing. And there it is, what interests me very, very much. I’m not only a painter who is painting, let’s say, the communication during a mass. I try to go empirically very deep and bring this all out of our subconscious and bring it into a consciousness that is higher than the mass. Don’t misunderstand me.
Rail: To lift the repression, in order to create the elevation of spirit through the process of transubstantiation.
Nitsch: I want it to become our nature and enter into our consciousness. Not repression; freedom from repression. For me, this is the beginning of a new kind of religion: the belief in the whole, the belief in everything, in the whole creation, the belief in being. A very mystic, intense feeling of being.
Rail: Mr. Nitsch, let me ask about the installation at the Mike Weiss Gallery. I noticed that in the room with the red paintings—which are extraordinarily powerful—you have this kind of altar situation with these two stained robes. I assume they are stained with blood and excrement, whatever, and then you have the sugar, and you have the napkins. This relates to Catholicism, does it not? The sugar and the napkins?
Nitsch: It refers to a very old mass. People ask, what symbol is that, what is that symbol? I try, always, to give the right answer—I say, that is what it is, the napkin, the sugar. When you use reality, each real substance, real object, you can feel with your senses, and then there is association, and the aura. And from that point, there is no explanation possible. I can try to do it, but it’s not exact. The sugar cubes are in the Greek Orthodox mass as is the bread cut into cubes. I remember when I was very young, we got a serum against polio, and that serum was brought on a sugar cube. Whenever you see photographs of my performances, there is always duality and nuance, all these things, and so on. And then the sweetness is there [taps his water glass with a spoon]. Sugar. There are other qualities; there’s pain, there’s sadism, masochism, and then there’s sugar—something that has to do with the erotic.
Rail: It is the element of the erotic tinged with violence—is that it?
Nitsch: Let’s say. But, I don’t say that it is so. It’s not allowed for me to say it is so. But you can feel it.
Rail: Yes, I was projecting Georges Bataille on you, which I didn’t mean to do.
Nitsch: Ja, ja. Between Georges Bataille and me, yes, there is a big difference, but I would say we are also very close, very close.
Rail: In Tears of Eros I would say you’re very close.
Nitsch: Very close. I’m not so interested in politics; I’m absolutely not interested.
Rail: In capitalism? This interested Bataille.
Nitsch: I am not interested in capitalism; I am not interested in communism. I’m not.
Rail: But he was French—and during the War, he was expected to take a position.
Nitsch: Ja ja, that is not my way to understand the world.
Rail: So, now where are you moving in the future with this idea? I noticed the paintings are very different now than they were twenty years ago, very different from the Malaktion. What are you moving toward?
Nitsch: That I’m able to realize my six-day plan, in the way I really want. Here I have the first big, let’s say, realization, but it’s only the first step. But I’m trying to, let’s say, to finish my work, step by step. And when I do the next thing, a six-day plan, I’ll be closer to the actual realization of my idea.
Rail: Well I look forward to that occasion. I hope I’m invited to attend.
Nitsch: You’re invited to come. All my friends can come.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.