Wiener Aktionismus or Viennese Actionism

Oh yes, just what we want to see: Blood, death and a bit of sex. All for the sake of art.

The „Wiener Aktionismus" or „Vienna Actionism" is a school in post-modern art that developed in the 1960ies in - you guessed it - Vienna. At this time, young artists dealt more directly with the disillusionment of society with respect to traditional values, ideologies and schools of thinking. The Wiener Aktionisten picked up influences from US "Happening Art" and Fluxus art and developed their own, often extremely violent and controversial style.

What is remarkable about the Wiener Aktionisten (many of whom were extremely left-wing or anarchists) is that they form a relatively small group of people when the Austrian mainstream was (actually still is) predominantly moderately left-wing in terms of politics and conservative in terms of values. Not all of the Actionists defined themselves as "anti", but the failure of Austria to critically evaluate its Nazi-past and the domestic and decadent nature of the Austrian middle-class certainly fuelled the development in the Viennese Actionism over-all.

So what does Viennese Actionism involve? Firstly, the attempt to merge performing and fine arts in events or "actions". Secondly, the usually violent, provocative, sexual or simply disgusting images they used to trigger a reaction in the observers. This included public self-mutilations, actions using dead animals or parts of them, such as blood or organs, public defecation and public masturbation or other sexual acts. Supplementing the actions, the Wiener Aktionisten developed different means by which they documented their actions: They published posters announcing then, did photography and films, gathered newspaper clippings.

Blood, faeces & nudity: Aktionismus today

The key figures in the Wiener Aktionismus were Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. The most legendary event was an Aktion later dubbed "Uni-Ferkelei" ("University Mess") by the tabloids: The artists had performed the techniques described above in the main lecture theatre of Vienna University and were legally persecuted. Some even left the country to work from Berlin, but returned soon afterwards. For some reason, anti-artist Austria still bans public masturbation…

After 1970, the importance of the Wiener Aktionismus faded. Some of the key protagonists moved on using different media. Others, such as Hermann Nitsch (who works on religion and religious symbolism using gutted bulls and alike) or Otto Mühl (who was later sentenced for child abuse) continued to do art performances individually. Both of them still rank among Austria′s most important artists.

With some artists, such as Valie Export and her performances dealing with feminist ideas and the role of women (and their bodies) in society, some experts are having issues regarding them as Wiener Aktionisten in the real sense (I guess Export′s work lacks the dead animals). To learn more about the Vienna Actionism and see the documents of their work, go to the MUMOK in the MuseumsQuartier, where an entire gallery is dedicated to them.

Back to "background"

Further Reading

Wikipedia on Viennese Actionism / Wiener Aktionismus

Official Website of Hermann Nitsch

Website on Otto Mühl