Hermann Nitsch: Cathartic Aversion | ABC-ARTE

I’d been avidly touring churches in Genoa for a couple of days, before viewing this exhibition. It functioned as a kind of “waffer-theen mint” to finish off all the godly excesses: those huge, lofty, stone spaces, representing the transmutation of centuries of rich merchants’ ill-gotten gains into something supposedly spiritually improving. While I recognise that it’s basically historical money laundering, I still stuffed myself silly on all the incredible art and architecture, Mr Creosote style.

I’m sure Hermann Nitsch would have disapproved, though. The Austrian artist, who died in 2022, made it his business to critique Catholic imagery and symbolism. The title of the Genoa exhibition, Cathartic Aversion, makes the process clear: we are disgusted by what we see, and find eventual relief as a result.

Hermann Nitsch ‘Cathartic Aversion’ (installation view)

Nitsch’s paintings and collages, a range of which are featured in the gallery, are strictly supporting acts to the main event. His life’s work was a series of deliberately disgusting performances that evoked religious rituals - which he called Das Orgien Mysterien Theatre (Orgies Mysteries Theatre).

Over the years - they began in 1975 - the “actions” featured animal slaughter, blood and shit. (A filmed performance I caught in London in 2018 featured volunteers being pelted with cow intestines.) The artistic inspiration was made unsubtly clear by Nitsch, with his consistent decision to feature crucifixes and priestly robes in his performances.

In Genoa, a video of an action from 2020 lends context to the artworks elsewhere in the gallery. It’s a bit tamer than the one I saw in London: this time, a robed woman and a naked man are hoisted up on crosses and basted in a blood-coloured substance. They’re backed up by a droning orchestra and watched over by Nitsch who sits at the foot of the cross in a folding chair.

While I appreciate Nitsch’s importance in the movement towards performance art in the 60s and 70s - he was working at around the same time as Beuys and the Fluxus group - I have to say I found the whole scene a bit ridiculous. The blood is poured on the volunteers out of a pyrex jug, and the artist seems bored and distracted, sipping water and whispering instructions to assistants.

Which isn’t really the kind of aversion Nitsch likely had in mind. Then again, I had seen this video off the back of two days of solid churchgoing, so perhaps I was just sick of it all, and ready to purge.

Hermann Nitsch: Cathartic Aversion is at ABC-ARTE (Genoa). 26 May - 30 September 2023