HONG KONG — Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of the visceral Viennese “Aktionismus,” or Actionism, of the 1960s, has resurfaced with a retrospective of his work at the CIA (Culture Industries Association) gallery, located in the gritty and remote industrial Kwai Hing neighborhood, as if to counter the glamor and frisson of Art Basel Hong Kong. The inscrutable and pseudonymous gallery directors, Juiz and Mr. Outside, curated the retrospective, a first for the city.
Nitsch’s “Orgy Mystery Theater” created, and continues to create, ritual events and ceremonies using nudity, blood, and the entrails and bodies of animals. The environment of the slaughterhouse, or abattoir, figures prominently in these performances, as do ritual vestments often soiled by blood and feces, evoking ancient archetypes, totems, and Christian rites. When Nitsch began his performances they were unspeakable, shocking, and faint-inducing events that led to his being charged with blasphemy, acts of violence, and pornography. He was arrested at least three times for displaying his bold, and some say disgusting, pleasures, with their themes of martyrdom, penance, crucifixion, the Eucharist, and cult-like sacraments. His later performances, staged around the world for thousands of people to join in and participate, now have psychologists on hand to cope with the rash of unforeseen reactions.
Nitsch, along with the explosive events of the 1960s and ‘70s, faded from the roster of the art world, though it is impossible to dismiss his influence on the dozens of artists who were taken by his daring exploits. In 1968 Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, and Carolee Schneemann witnessed his work in New York, Alan Kaprow befriended him, and his ritual slaughter of an animal made it all the way to the front page of the Village Voice. In recent years he has re-emerged to bring his explosive six-day long pageants to venues across the globe.
His work is a true sensorium, visceral and irrefutable, and a retrospective of objects, photos and videos, as opposed to a live ritual enactment can not do justice to the non-verbal gut wrenching smell and splatter of one of his blood and entrails soaked productions. It’s a calculated catharsis that seeks to liberate repressed social conventions by modulating fear, terror, and ultimately compassion and purification. It has also led to protest and a spate of death threats from animal rights activists.
The work on display at CIA was a combination of paintings, installations, ritual garments, and videos of performances. The blood was dried, sanitized, labelled and ultimately collectible, the memento mori that remained. As with most performance artists, only the vestiges and detritus of the event are witness to its existence. The palpable shock and outrage needs to be felt as a live experience. His truly immersive productions occur as part of his six-day Orgies Mysteries Theater that can have up to 180 musicians, and 100 actors belting out a 1600-page score. When the sun sets in the west, 5,000 torches illuminate the night and ten thousand meters of canvas are used for blood action paintings. He has even composed four different symphonies for a full orchestra to accompany his bacchanals.
I asked Nitsch, through his Foundation, why he chose to show specifically at CIA at a rather remote location in Hong Kong. He replied, “with my work I want my work stir up the audience, the participants of my performances. I want to arouse them by the means of sensual intensity and to bring them an understanding of their existence. Intensity is an awakening into being. My exhibition at CIA Hong Kong is not widespread but it hits the substance.”
Hermann Nitsch: Orgien Mysterien Theater continues at Culture Industries Association (CIA) (Unit 7, Block B, 8/F, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8 Wah Sing Street, Kwai Hing, Hong Kong) through June 29.