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The edge of reason: why artists need protest art

DTF Magazine begins a series of essays on contemporary art, focusing on actionism and protest art. In each of the six texts, researcher and journalist Kateryna Iakovlenko will tell us about what has been happening in global and Ukrainian art from the 1960s to the present day. She will tell us about the key phenomena, movements, personalities and works of art. In the first essay we will talk about the origins of actionism, mainly in Europe (and more about Ukraine in the following articles)


Hungry, cold and angry

Ruben Östlund’s acclaimed film «The Square», which mocks the modern art world, has a scene in a restaurant: an artist portraying a wild animal begins to attack people. The episode is taken from real art history — it is an homage to Oleg Kulik’s work «The Mad Dog, or Last Taboo Guarded by Alone Cerberus». On November 23, 1994, at the Marat Guelman Gallery in Moscow, Alexander Brener brought in a completely naked Kulik, who was on a chain, portraying an angry dog attacking passersby.

The press at the time were furious: «This is what the people have been reduced to, people running naked through the streets and attacking passersby!», — and mayor Luzhkov promised to remove naked people from the streets of the city.

Kulik’s gesture was shocking. An intelligent boy from Kyiv, a representative of the «golden Soviet youth», was instantly transformed into one of the most famous artist-actionist and a symbol of the 1990s. Kulik thought that his show at the Guelman Gallery would be his first and last. But then he was immediately invited to European museums and galleries. This is how the artist created a cycle of «dog works». He was even arrested during one of the actions in Zurich.

The project ended when the artist realized that he was being speculated on. He was increasingly invited to clubs and places where the image of the man-dog was no longer perceived as partisan or unexpected. The obvious things were demanded and expected of him, and the essence of the work was lost.

«It’s not like I was going to be a dog. I wanted to leave art, but to leave as an artist. And I make up this gesture, namely a subconscious being that has no culture, turns into an animal and can only live by its reflexes, its instincts. I did not want to make a portrait of the time, it was my personal tragedy as an artist, I failed. And when I made it, everyone suddenly saw … Who? Did they see me?»,

Oleg Kulik said in an interview with Halyna Hleba, KORYDOR, on August 23, 2018.

The time of perestroika and the first years of independence was so dynamic and brutal that artists could not help but react to it. They were literally fighting for their place in the history of art by staying in Moscow, which only yesterday was the capital of a vast state, which had been shaken by political transformations, they were literally gnawing out their place in the history of art. In this situation, actionism became the only form of self-expression that allowed authors to simultaneously express their position, provoke and fool around.

Oleg Kulik / «The Mad Dog, or Last Taboo Guarded by Alone Cerberus»
Oleg Kulik / «The Mad Dog, or Last Taboo Guarded by Alone Cerberus» (Moscow, 1994)

Provocation is perhaps the most accurate word to describe the artistic projects of the 1990s. Kulik’s «The Mad Dog, or Last Taboo Guarded by Alone Cerberus» was also both a provocation and a reaction to the hungry 1990s.

Politics, sex, faith, money, spiritual and cultural values became the subjects of works where the human intertwined with the animal.

Literally the insides of social life were intertwined with physically unpleasant things for the viewer: for example, Kulik slaughtered a pig in a gallery, artist Alexander Brener masturbated on the diving board of the swimming pool called «Moscow», artist Oleg Mavromati «crucified» himself. But all these «horrors» cannot be compared to what raged in Europe in the 1960s.

The art of action

Actionism as an art form emerged in Europe in the 1960s, and took its most radical form in Austria. Specifically, Viennese Actionism went down in art history as more brutal, with elements of violence, nudity and blood.

This aggressive manner of artists was provoked by the socio-political situation. At that time there were student strikes all over the world, appealing to human freedoms and criticizing the war in Vietnam. In the U.S., the hippie movement was emerging, declaring its love of peace and nonviolence. For Europe, the 1960s is a time of rethinking the postwar legacy. Artists who grew up on the memory of World War II believed that the state had the wrong policy of remembrance.

The work of Günter Brus

But why, in the 1960s, when the whole world was going crazy about The Beatles and calling for love, were there public artistic orgies and literally rivers of blood pouring out in Vienna?

«I am a work of art»

The Viennese artists organized themselves into a group called the «Institut für direkte Kunst» (Institute for Direct Art) and began their work by denying the past and rejecting all previous art history.

Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Peter Weibel joined the Institute for Direct Art. Their first works were connected precisely with painting. Inspired by Jackson Pollock, the artists actually carried out the expansion of Vienna with their works. But the particular emphasis on theatricality and the use of the artist’s body was present even in those almost harmless performances. Very soon the actionists abandoned painting altogether in favor of shock and direct impact on the viewer.

The work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1964)

Each of the authors has his own story of how he came to this aestheticization of cruelty. For example, the artist Günter Brus was conscripted into the army in 1961, from which he returned a year later with a psychological trauma. His views on art quickly changed – he moved from expressionism and abstractionism to works about sacrifice, self-harm, and other kinds of cruelty and violence.

Brus’ colleague Otto Muehl also served in the army, and after graduating from the pedagogical department of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, he spent about ten years in art therapy with children diagnosed with mental disorders. The war experiences of both artists were one of the main preconditions that influenced their interpretation of reality and their choice of values. They harshly criticized the war, calling it a mass repression of the body.

Günter Brus stopped using brushes and canvas as early as the early 1960s. His whole body became a canvas and he used it in the most inappropriate way. In this way he manifested the cruelty of all humanity, the thirst for blood, revenge and death. «I am a work of art», he said through his work «Wiener Spaziergang» (Vienna Walk) to the police who noticed a man covered in white paint. The artist was not detained, but was sent home. So an innocent walk in post-Nazi Austria turned into a big scandal in the media, after which the police were accused of double standards.

«Wiener Spaziergang» (Vienna Walk) by Günter Brus

Perhaps one of the most famous works of Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Gerhard Rühm, Peter Weibel, Oswald Wiener and others was the action held at the University of Vienna on June 7, 1968. It was part of a series of events called «Art and Revolution».

The artists drank their own piss, masturbated, defecated and smeared their own bodies and the Austrian flag with their own defecation during the «Action 33» (33.Aktion). All the actions were accompanied by the singing of the Austrian anthem.

This time, the police were unceremonious and immediately arrested the artists. They spent two months in jail. But the artists’ art did not become any less violent after that incident.

In 1980, Muehl was accused of drug trafficking and sexual harassment, and exactly ten years later he was accused of rape and child molestation. The artist spent seven years in prison.

«I have been making art for 50 years and have never allowed myself to be corrupted. On the contrary, I was locked in»,

Otto Muehl said in an interview with Andrew Grossman, Bright Lights Film Journal, on November 1, 2002

Otto Muehl / 1978

The works of the Viennese actionists were often on the border between life and death. They seemed to purposely torture themselves in order to die in public and prove the impossibility of life at the time. Something similar happened to Rudolf Schwarzkogler. In his works, he showed how one person could be cruel to another. However, it was Schwarzkogler in the role of this another.

There is a legend that he died right in front of the audience after one of his actions. According to one version, he bled to death after cutting off a piece of his penis; according to another, he committed suicide by jumping out of a window just after the action. The artist’s death led to the disintegration of the circle of Viennese actionists, they all focused on their own practice, many ceased to engage in radical art.

The art of actionism was once practiced by Marina Abramović, Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Mariko Mori, Bruce Nauman, Jackson Pollock and many others.

The Ukrainian 1990s: this is not life, but provocation

The «Masoch Fund» and the «Rapid Response Group» were prominent representatives of actionism in Ukraine. Both groups emerged in the 1990s and worked with social and political provocation. The first was in Lviv, the second in Kharkiv. They worked exclusively with local contexts such as social politics, memory politics, identity politics, and the political situation.

The «Masoch Fund» was founded by artists Ihor Podolchak, Ihor Dyurych and director Roman Viktyuk in April 1991. They define their artistic practice within the framework of the «aesthetics of interaction» by Nicolas Bourriot and refer to the famous Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The artists turned to the flamboyant, marginal and provocative following the writer’s style. Media publicity was an important component of their work.

«We were just having fun implementing some of the ideas that lend themselves to implementation»,

Ihor Dyurych said in an interview with Tetyana Kochubynska, KORYDOR, on September 5, 2016.

One of the group’s important projects was «Art in Space» (1993). Small graphic works by the artists were actually given to the cosmonauts at the «Mir» station, where a symbolic exhibition took place.

The story of art flying into space appeared later in artist Vasyl Tsagolov’s work «TV news» (1997), in which he creates a space with truthful and fake news using the aesthetics of television. The «Happy Victory Day, Herr Müller» action was held by the group on May 8, 1995. The artists created matching postcards (a red Soviet flag hangs on the German Reichstag) and sent them to addresses where the Müllers lived. There turned out to be 5,500 of them in Germany. The artists declared that they were making sense of the politics of memory by appealing to accepted concepts of victors and vanquished. But the theme of World War II remained traumatic and painful for the newly unified Germany.

A similar theme was raised by the «Rapid Response Group» in 1993. Artists such as Serhiy Bratkov, Borys Mykhailov, and Serhiy Solonskyj, with the participation of Vita Mykhailova, created the project «If I Were a German», as if they were trying on the role of Germans during the Second World War. They staged funny and often hyperbolized images in which they acted out national stereotypes.

«If I Were a German», 1994. / Rapid Response Group (Serhiy Bratkov, Borys Mykhailov, Serhiy Solonskyj). Photo: exhibition at the PinchukArtCentre

The two German projects are also about local viewers, brought up on the heroic series «Seventeen Moments of Spring», who view the world through an ideological Soviet lens.

«The twentieth century is a century that radically changed everything in art. The subject has changed, the object has changed, the relationship between the subject and the object has changed, the relationship between society and the artist has changed. And society’s relationship to the artistic object has also changed. New genres and new technologies emerged. That is, everything has changed. Today everything is possible. And everything is art. And everyone is an artist»,

Ihor Podolchak («Masoch Fund») said in an interview with Natalia Kosmolynska, «Postup».

What to do with actionism today?

Today, both «If I Were a German» and «Happy Victory Day, Herr Müller» find themselves in a situation of active memory politics and can cause bewilderment and criticism from viewers and the professional community working with a complex and traumatic story.

They were shown at the exhibition «Guilt» (curated by Tetyana Kochubynska) at the PinchukArtCentre in 2016. However, these themes and works turn out to be taboo for many museums and galleries. Actually, the same thing happens with the works of the Viennese actionists; today they cause a lot of controversy and bans.

For example, Hermann Nitsch’s three-hour performance 150.Action at the Museum of Modern Art called Jumex, later in Palermo and at the Hobart Festival of Contemporary Art was criticized. 150.Action was a kind of ritual action of crucifying a bull and pouring bull’s blood on the audience to the music of an orchestra. What is the meaning of this today? Can art be so violent?

«If I Were a German», 1994. / Rapid Response Group (Serhiy Bratkov, Borys Mykhailov, Serhiy Solonskyj). Photo: exhibition at the PinchukArtCentre

Actionism as an art of direct impact on the viewer can often provoke such questions, because it is designed to shock and provoke reactions. For artists, it is society’s indifference that is the enemy. It seemed that world cataclysms, wars, and violence had led to no other way to speak of the brutal modernity in the aesthetic field than the brutality itself. However, actionism can take many forms. In carrying out their artistic work, actionists check society every time: is it still alive or already dead?

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