Performance art is potent because it is alive. A performance happens with real bodies in real space in real time. A photograph or a video document is not the same as the live event; a performance cannot be mechanically reproduced. Performance is only happening when it’s happening and then the work lives on in the often-unstable memories of both the artist and the audience.
Filmmaker Kurt Kren eschewed the pitfalls of documenting live performance by generating entirely unique cinematic works from the ritualistic enactments of the Viennese Actionists. A selection of these films is currently playing in Mubi’s online film festival. Kren began working with the Actionists in the 1960s and produced experimental films that captured the chaos and debauchery of their performances. Kren’s films are not documentations of the live events as is made clear through the manipulated temporal structures produced through quick cuts and repetition.
Leda and the Swan, a film produced from Otto Muehl’s 1964 performance, features a reclining nude woman who is doused in various liquids and coated in layers of white feathers that fall upon her body like snow. Muehl describes the performance action as follows:
Leonardo grates a large cucumber over Leda with a grater, squashes 10 tomatoes and cracks 5 eggs on her. He places a bottle containing a rose between her legs. He scatters breadcrumbs and coffee powder over her. Leda sets her upper body upright and draws in one leg. Leonardo places a large, uninflated plastic swan between her legs…
Kren captured the messy erotic nature of the work as he developed an odd dreamscape through his editing techniques. He shatters time by freezing the frame for seconds at a time or through rapid-fire flashes of repeated imagery. The result is a flickering, fragmented, surrealistic montage.
The Viennese Actionists are known for creating psychologically disturbing works that express the abject through ritual and symbolism. They simulate body fluids such as blood, piss, semen and excrement through use of food substances, though sometimes they used the real thing. The works are reliant on what I call “visceral substitution”, the act of using a material or substance to stand in for the body. In his novel, Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille interchanges eggs for eyes throughout the sexually explicit narrative. He relies on the tactile and visual similarities of the objects as a source for metaphor and substitution.
Otto Muehl, ACTIONISM Material Action Nr. 14 Cosinus Alpha
I once witnessed visceral substitution in action during a group dinner in a French restaurant. A whole cooked fish was placed in the center of the table and my friend plucked the black olive out of the eye socket and popped it into his mouth. Nearly all the guests gasped in disgust. They weren’t disturbed that he had eaten an olive, but that he had seemingly eaten a fish eye. For a split second, the eye and the olive were indistinguishable.
Primal human responses to symbols of the body, sex, and death are central to the works of both Kren and the Viennese Actionists. The film, Mama and Papa captures footage from another Muehl action. This work is more sexually charged with flashes of a female torso being covered in red sauce, milk, and flour, intercut with among other things, images of a hand cutting into boiled eggs, a couple kissing, and what appears to be a man urinating. The images repeat like bad memories moving between recognizable imagery and abstract piles of goo. The speed of the cuts mimics the rhythm of sex and near the end of the film, a couple enacts the movements of intercourse as they violently move to pop a large balloon that is trapped between them. The tension rises until the frenetic gyrations cause the balloon to burst and release a cloud of feathers.
One can see the legacy of Kren and the Actionists in the performances of the Kipper Kids and Paul McCarthy, as well Cindy Sherman’s untitled “vomit pictures”. McCarthy engages with disgust through Actionist strategies, as he smears his naked body with mayonnaise and ketchup. His flesh becomes the site of perverse ritual and bodily degradation. The body is absent from Sherman’s vomit-scapes, and instead we are left with the disembodied debris of gluttony and excess.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #175, 1987
The works of Kren and the Viennese Actionists retain their power to disturb and shock because they tap into our primitive knowledge about the fragile boundaries of the body. In sex and in death, there is always the threat of loosing corporeal integrity through dissolution or consumption.
...Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals... The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. They are simply a sign to remind us constantly that death, the rupture of the discontinuous individualities to which we cleave in terror, stands there before us more real than life itself.
Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality, 1957