I didn’t realise how Catholic a country Austria is until I arrived in the centre of Vienna on All Saint’s Day last year and couldn’t find a single supermarket open. Wandering past wedding-cake Baroque churches, with their over-ornate interiors, I finally found a tiny Turkish corner shop – packed, of course. Anyway, that's a memory triggered by wandering around a very different type of Austrian Catholic dysfunction, currently on show at Massimo de Carlo.
Hermann Nitsch, as is obvious from what’s on show, is a performance artist who hit it big in the post-war years. There's a whiff of 60s anarchy in these works, though many are new. He primarily uses Catholic imagery and paraphernalia, mixed in with some very deliberate provocations. For example altars, surrounded by huge canvases spattered with blood and mud, and surrounded by dead flowers in metal buckets.
Luckily for the artist, the very genteel surroundings in this smart Mayfair gallery set his provocations off wonderfully.
On the top floor of the show, there are cabinets with neatly folded priests’ cassocks, surgical instruments and sugar cubes. To up the ante on the Jesus-tweaking, an icon is thoughtfully placed on the wall next to a sanitary towel.
If that wasn’t on-the-nose enough, the lower floor features archive footage of Nitsch’s performances, letting us know how the blood got on some of these canvases. Naked volunteers, hung on crucifixes, are showered with cow viscera (fresh, too, with the animal having been cut open then and there). Ominous organ music amps up the dread as the bloody sacrificial rituals are played out, in front of an audience of impassive onlookers with sensible footwear, looking like they wandered in on their Sunday stroll.
The show notes emphasise Nitsch’s “mysticism”, though I have to admit I caught a bit more of a Hammer Horror vibe – minus the humour of those 60s movies. The title of the show translates as ‘Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries’. There have been 100 performances over the years.
Hermann Nitsch - Das Orgien Mysterien Theater is at Massimo de Carlo (London). 11 April - 25 May 2018.