Hermann Nitsch: Das Orgien Mysterien Theater

For those unfamiliar with the work of Hermann Nitsch, Summerhall’s current exhibition provides a great and thought-provoking introduction to the work of this infamous and highly controversial artist. Nitsch’s art draws heavily on both medical and religious practices and associations, as the human body is being used both as the means and ends of art itself.

The exhibition aims to give an overview of the artist’s work, from the birth of the original Das Orgien Mysterien Theater in the 1960s to its more current interpretations. The exhibition includes both paintings and performance pieces, and it is probably the latter category that makes the greatest impression on guests as they enter the rooms. However, the splatter paintings and the installations surrounding them are nevertheless well worth your time; beneath huge paintings with unmistakable associations of blood you find alter-like tables draped with religious clothing, flowers, and religious artefacts. It is a room that very much encourages individual association and interpretation, and the strong resemblance to altars inevitably makes you reflect upon the gruesome things that have been carried out in the name of religion throughout history.

From the moment you enter the exhibition space you become aware of epic church music playing in the background. In the second room, the volume is increased, which makes its contents even more disturbing. On one wall there is a series of black-and-white photographs, representing some of Nitsch’s earliest work. The images were of naked men, portrayed only from the chest down, with infected wounds, animal intestines, bandages, and blood used for added effect.

It should at this point be noted that perhaps the most obvious thing about Nitsch’s work is that it’s not for the squeamish or faint hearted. The use of blood, puss, animal guts, and cadavers, together with huge amounts of nudity, makes his pieces controversial to say the least. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the third room of the exhibition. Upon entry, you are met with an entire wall filled with colour photographs of naked individuals covered in animal intestines, men being trapped inside cadavers, and blindfolded individuals on the cross covered in blood. It turns out that these are stills from stage performances put on by Nitsch himself, which are shown in the next room. They feature a dead animal being stripped of its intestines before these are being pushed back in while a blindfolded person is lying on a cross underneath. 

Now, from the taster given at Summerhall it is not hard to see why Nitsch is controversial, and over the years he has been accused of glorifying violence and touching upon taboos like nudity and more. As such, it is easy to see how this exhibition can be both loved and hated amongst its audience. However, arguably this is what makes it interesting.

Provocation for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily make good or successfull art; however, by challenging pre-determined connotations and questioning taboos, Nitsch has created an exhibition that doesn’t leave you unaffected, for better or for worse.

Image courtesy of Flickr – De Luca Augusto

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