Dark MOFO is facing controversy with a ritualistic performance by Hermann Nitsch but confronting blood is precisely the point.
A publicity image for Nitsch's work
Performance artist Hermann Nitsch has been to prison three times over his blood-drenched, ritualistic art, work which has been shocking audiences since the early 1960s, so a protest by animal rights activists could hardly come as a surprise.
The protesters are agitating for the banning of his Australian performance 150.Action, advertised as ‘a bloody, sacrificial ritual performed by the patriarch of Viennese Actionism, his devoted disciples and an orchestra’.
The event is scheduled for Dark MOFO in June but Animal Rights Tasmania is circulating a petition calling for the Hobart City Council to stop it. The petition, which already has 12,000 signatures, has the support of Mayor Sue Hickey, who is seeking the Premier’s intervention to prevent the piece going ahead. The Premier Will Hodgman has declined to comment.
Dark MOFO has made it clear the work will be confronting. A program note reads, ‘Please note: this work contains distressing imagery, nudity and strong adult themes, and is not suitable for children. Parental discretion is strongly advised.’
The specifics around the Dark MOFO event have been designed to minimise the concerns of the protesters. Although the activists are concerned that ‘a bull will be will be slaughtered specifically for usage in this bloody performance piece’, Dark MOFO director Leigh Carmichael has assured those concerned that the animal will be one destined for meat that would have been slaughtered anyway.
In fact, that is the point of Nitsch’s art. He doesn’t so much create bloody experiences as force audiences to see the reality of blood that is already being spilled.
Animal Rights Tasmania claims 150.Action ‘trivialises the slaughter of animals for human usage, and condemns a sentient being to death in the pursuit of artistic endeavour’.
Ironically, Nitsch’s art is designed to do just the opposite. Far from trivialising slaughter he is interested in the deep and intense reality of killing and in forcing audiences to confront directly the truth that slaughter is anything but trivial.
MONA founder David Walsh, an outspoken vegetarian, is responsible for bringing the work to Australia. He wants it to ‘spike a conversation’ about meat-eating and asks audiences to ‘ponder why meat for food is OK but meat for ritual or entertainment isn't.’
But Nitsch’s art is widely interpreted as having a wider message too – one which relates to our ability to ignore slaughter we don’t see. The artist was born in Vienna on the cusp of World War II and grew up in the post-war years in a political atmosphere characterised by Austria’s refusal to confront its culpability in the Nazi Holocaust. By creating work that uses the blood and bodies of animals he forces audiences to killing that can otherwise be denied or disguised.
Nitsch’s work is deeply primal, evocative of animalistic rituals of early religion. In the 1960s, he began creating Orgiastic Mystery Theatre, in which audiences were encouraged to join actors dressed in white as they disembowelled slaughtered animals and covered themselves in entrails, blood and semen. This work was designed to be celebratory and life-affirming, using the primitive passions aroused by blood rituals and creating moments of beauty, such as a swan swimming in a pool of blood. Authorities were unimpressed and the works were raided by police, resulting in short prison sentences.
In First Holy Communion he used menstrual blood as paint. He was again imprisoned for obscenity and subsequently left Austria for Germany, where he continued to create ever more confronting work, pushing the boundaries of pain and our reactions to slaughter.
In 2005 he created a work in which a blindfolded man was crucified in front of a bisected bull while several naked men stabbed him with giant spears as blood spewed from his mouth.
‘I wanted to make, in my theatre, only real happenings. For me, it was important to allow people to smell, to taste, to touch, to look, and to hear reality. I come to show reality. I want to celebrate reality. And what was really new was that I used the very concept of reality,’ he said in an interview with Vice.
Nitsch has always faced controversy but the growing power of petitions through social media has made public protest more of an issue for him. In 2015, the privately owned Museo Jumex in Mexico cancelled one of his exhibitions, after a petition reached more than 70,000 signatures. It was the first time an institution had cancelled an exhibition of his work.
Carmichael admits he finds Nitsch’s work personally confronting but the values the power art has to stimulate important conversations.
‘There is a role for work that confronts these issues. As hard and as difficult as it is, it’s important.’
150.Action isn’t for everyone but he reminds audiences that Dark MOFO contains lots of less confronting material for those who don’t want to confront the darkest parts of themselves.