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Hermann Nitsch performance art action

What is the relationship between performance art, ritual and catharsis? For body art artists, violence on the tormented body of the artist is never an end in itself. In this article we will name the main artists who have treated their bodies as a ritual space to be investigated through bloody actions, which still involve the public with particular emotional intensity.

Performance Art and Viennese Actionism

In 1962 the Viennese Actionism group exploded the artist’s body through a series of actions aimed at freeing human instincts from social conventions. The group of artists worked without constituting itself as a unitary movement, but was united by an interest in a raw and impetuous aesthetic, not by chance born in the cradle of psychoanalysis and secessionists during the post-war period.

Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl and Adolf Frohner walled themselves up for three days in a room during the Wiener Festwochen. Gunter Brus masturbated in a public place, staged sutures and mutilations, strolled through the streets of Vienna and had Muehl piss his pants. Schwarzkogler was wounded and blindfolded in sado-masochistic actions, Valie Export took Peter Weibel around Vienna on a leash and on all fours like a dog, Nitsch created the Theater of Orgies and Mysteries[1], with which he invited performers to perform rituals and sacrificial acts with slaughtered animals and crucifixions.

Members of Viennese Actionism use body, bodily fluids and action to exorcise the restrictions of society and the violence of war through the rediscovery of primitive rituals.

These artists walked the streets of Vienna with their actions and were arrested several times. Their ferocious actions were intended to strike at the sensibilities of an anaesthetised society and still continue to shock and repulse the public[2].

Rite and catharsis for the purification of art

Otto Muehl performance art action

Otto Muehl performance art action

The action is a mystical ritual during which the artist aims to awaken consciences and sensibilities. The interest in psychology, the violent use of the artist’s body and organic fluids, the unannounced action in public places and the interest in ancestral rituals are typical elements of the performance, which find for the first time an identity expression in Viennese Actionism.

From ritual to catharsis, the artist’s purifying intention is masked behind a violent, ostentatiously macabre, dangerous and perturbing aesthetic. Society is attacked through action, it is shaken and overwhelmingly confronted with aspects of itself that it denies or attempts to conceal. Since the tragedy of classical theatre, now the tragic is not performed on stage, it is experienced in public space.

The obscene and the scandal become media to shake up the conformist society and the dominant culture.

The rituality of Ana Mendieta and Gina Pane

Ana Mendieta performance art action

Ana Mendieta performance art action

The performance shows that its subversive character has a very close link with the need to dialogue with the public and, more generally, with society, as we will go into the dedicated paragraph. The Cuban artist Ana Mendieta re-established with her actions a connection with the nature and ancestral rites of her native culture[3], other times she performed through actions that reconstructed the rape of her partner raped and killed during her university period in Iowa, an episode that had deeply marked the artist. In 1973, the artist invited friends to his apartment on Moffit Street, who found the door ajar and in the half-light his body soaked in blood, stripped from the waist down and tied to the table. The direct repetition of rape is the direct way in which the artist relives and in her own way exorcises that traumatic experience, striking the viewer directly with the same image that had shocked her.

As in the case of Ana Mendieta, during the Seventies, rituality is investigated by performance from multiple points of view. Physical suffering and the challenge to human concentration and endurance, typically linked to rites of passage present in many cultures, become the means through which some artists purify reality. Gina Pane experienced physical pain, injuring herself in various ways and bleeding in a series of intimate actions in which the self-affliction of suffering became an opportunity for social criticism. In 1972, at her apartment in Paris, she presented herself to the guests dressed in white, subsequently injuring herself with a razor, interrupting herself to play with a ball, only to start cutting herself again in front of the public, which prevented her from continuing the action[4].

In addition to this performance entitled Le lait chaud, the French artist performed multiple actions, injuring herself with glass, rose thorns, razor blades, etc., reflecting, through the ritual, on the daily life of suffering and the relationship that everyone has with their own threshold of tolerance. Gina Pane’s performance is a sacrifice through which the artist gives expression to pain, which is also present in love. This is the case exemplified by the action of 1973, Sentimental Action, during which she held a bunch of roses in front of the mirror and stuck thorns in her arm. Some artists even expose themselves to the risk of death, challenging the voyeurism of the public and playing with the limits of human possibilities, through the self-control and awareness given by the artistic method.

Social Violence and Performance Art: Chris Burden, Paul McCahrthy and Vito Acconci

In 1971 Chris Burden in Shoot was shot, recalling not only the sound of war and the various public attacks on John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but also the dangerous streets of the American metropolises. In 1975 the Australian Stelarc hung himself from the ceiling of the Maki Gallery in Tokyo, stabbing his own skin with hooks and defying gravity through the endurance of pain.

Chris Burden performance art action

Chris Burden performance art action

Like Burden, so did Paul McCarthy, in 1974 during the Hot Dog action in his studio, in front of a group of guests, he put his life in danger, undressing himself, getting dirty with sauces, swallowing a large quantity of sandwiches and sealing his mouth with tape, fighting against the gagging. Unlike Gina Pane’s audience in the 1972 action, McCarthy’s audience strives to conceal their disgust in order not to encourage the artist to continue his action.

Challenging the threshold of human endurance, the performance is a ritual that aims to shock and overwhelm the spectators, but most of the time they intervene in the action in different ways.

Vito Acconci was particularly interested in the relationship between the extreme action carried out by the artist and the public. After training his body through extreme actions, such as putting his whole hand in his mouth or biting his body in as many places as possible, in 1969 the American artist started chasing people in the street in the action Following Piece, he annoyingly approached museum visitors in Proximity Piece in 1970, or in Seedbed he masturbated while people passed over his body thanks to a raised floor and heard the noises he made through loudspeakers.

With these actions, Vito Acconci approaches the bloody rituals of Viennese Actionism, provoking the audience and playing with the norm that makes the spectator of the performance passive because, recognizing an “artistic value” to the performance, he assumes the conventional contemplative attitude towards the “work of art”. If this attitude of the audience leads in some cases to the passive acceptance of the suffering experienced by the performer, in other cases it leads to a lively and moving participation.

Thus, the centrality of the artist in the performative action can cause an active or contemplative attitude on the part of the audience, testifying once again to the complexity of the performance and its reticence towards labels and definitions.

Mystic and Performance Art: Marina Abramovic and Joseph Beuys

Within the mystical rite of artistic practice, the performer establishes his or her presence in society, like a shaman. In this way his action is recognized as a “work of art” by the public. With the perfomers of the Seventies, the art world recognized this presence, which solidified in the following years. Some artists in particular dedicate themselves to their artistic practice defining a real method. Their performative actions become cathartic rituals, which involve the public thanks to the aura created around their figures. This is the case of Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovic, who with their presence in society found their own mysticism.


[1] Nitsch H., Orgien, Mysterien, Theater, Darmstadt, 1969.

[2] Think of the recent protests for Hermann Nitsch’s exhibitions in Mexico City and Palermo planned for 2015.

[3] In 1972, in Death of a Chicken, realized at the University of Iowa, he denounced the violence of society on women, reconstructing the Cuban purification ritual Santerìa, during which a chicken was sacrificed as a symbol of social initiation.

[4] It is interesting to note the role of the public who, in the domestic environment, reacted by stopping the artist’s action, when he usually does not intervene in the places dedicated to art.

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