Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Jesuitenkirche, 20 November 2013

At the age of 75, Hermann Nitsch shows no signs of slowing down. Last year saw a slew of activity for the man from Prinzendorf, including a six-hour action in Leipzig, his longest action for some years, which of course I missed. And he rounded off his 75th year with a couple of events in Vienna – a short teaching action at the Nitsch Foundation, followed the next day by an organ concert in one of Vienna’s most magnificent Baroque churches, the Jesuitenkirche.

Last time Nitsch played the organ in Vienna, at the Donaucitykirche in 2012, it was a rather anticlimactic affair – only half-an-hour long, and played on a very modest instrument indeed. This occasion was everything that one wasn’t – long, involving and massively impressive. With Nitsch himself out of sight at the organ, the evening seemed less like a recital and more like a live sound environment. Having nothing to look at but the splendour of their surroundings, audience members would have been hard pushed not to sense the religious intensity that underpins all of Nitsch’s work.

Over the course of two movements, the organist created a constantly shifting soundworld of deep, spectral rumbles and radiant, overlapping harmonies. More than once I was struck by the parallels with Nitsch’s live actions, emphasizing how his art is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which music, painting and performance all complement and reinforce each other. Like the actions, this music is entirely wordless and proceeds with a kind of monumental inevitability; it reaches for notions of aesthetic purity and totality; and it inspires, in this viewer/listener at least, something approaching awe and wonderment. As such it amply fulfils Nitsch’s belief, quoted before in these pages, that “art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity”, a worthy criterion if ever there was one.

Animals, art and death: Hermann Nitsch’s Six-Day Play

April 2022 update: RIP to the great man.  A shame he didn’t live to see the Six-Day Play performed again, stymied first by his tax affairs and then by COVID-19.

March 2022 update: it’s still going ahead, but only days 1 and 2 will be performed.

April 2021 update: the performance has now been postponed to July 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This post is linked in the Wikipedia article on Hermann Nitsch, and for that reason alone gets more hits than the usual pitiful hit count for posts on this blog. So I thought it might be useful to update it briefly, since Nitsch is finally getting around to his long-promised re-run of the Six-Day Play, which is now planned to take part in Prinzendorf in July 2021.

I wrote the post below in 2013, when my fascination with Nitsch was at its height. Since then, I’ve pretty much lost interest in Nitsch, for two main reasons. First, I left Vienna in 2017 and moved to Geneva. No longer living in the home of Viennese Actionism, and thus no longer being able to visit Nitsch’s castle in Prinzendorf or the Nitsch museum in Mistelbach, my interest in the whole scene naturally began to wane. What’s more, by then I had amassed sufficient Nitsch screenprints (original paintings were, of course, way out of my price range), signed books and LPs to last me a lifetime.

Secondly, and more importantly, I gradually became fed up with the loud and persistent way in which Nitsch’s staff were announcing his presence on social media. There were far too many events, Facebook posts and Instagram stories for my liking, all of which had the effect of demystifying an artist who had always relied on a certain amount of mystery for his impact. The first time I visited Prinzendorf for the annual Pfingstfest (Pentecost feast), it was hardly advertised at all save for a short notice buried deep in Nitsch’s website and the annual newsletter mailed out to subscribers. I suspect that Nitsch’s well publicized brush with the Austrian tax authorities, and the need to raise funds for the restaging of the Six-Day Play, made it necessary to start rattling the collection jar – which is something Nitsch, or rather his people, have been doing loudly ever since. As a result, the Pfingstfest has become uncomfortably overcrowded in recent years, which is not something I ever thought would happen at a Nitsch action. Anyway, it was time for me to bow out, and all things considered, I won’t be at Prinzendorf next summer.

Original 2013 post follows:

There seems to be a bit of a storm brewing over Hermann Nitsch‘s Three-Day Play in Leipzig next month. An online petition protesting at the planned killing of a cow and some pigs during the play has gathered over 6,000 signatures in just a few days. I can see this thing reaching the mainstream media any day now, so I’d like to use my little corner of the internet to inject some much-needed corrective thinking.

I have no idea whether any animals will be slaughtered as part of this play, although it wouldn’t surprise me. We went through all this in 1998, when Nitsch performed his Six-Day Play in Prinzendorf (a re-run of which is planned for 2020). Animals were killed there, to predictable howls of outrage and demonstrations outside the castle as the action took place. What those people didn’t understand, and the Leipzig protesters are also failing to grasp, is that the animals killed during Nitsch’s actions are due for the chop anyway. If they hadn’t been killed there, they would have been killed in the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, their meat is cooked and eaten by participants in the action, just as surely as it would be if they had met their end in the abattoir. This idea of animals being killed “in the name of art” is, therefore, entirely spurious.

As for me, I’m still seething over the fact that I’m not going to be able to make it over to Leipzig for this, Nitsch’s first major action in eight years.

Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Donaucitykirche, 25 January 2012

Not really a concert, but still an event worthy of note, this was the first time I had seen Hermann Nitsch play the organ and the first time he had done so in Vienna for many years. Although I’ve made a couple of passing references to Nitsch on this blog, the man’s importance to my way of thinking has never been properly acknowledged here. This review is not the place to rectify that, except to note that in the six years I’ve been living in Vienna, the life and work of the Viennese Actionists, and Nitsch (the only one of the four still active) in particular, has become increasingly central to me. I was, though, an admirer of Nitsch’s work before I came here, and attended his 2002 action at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Since moving to Austria, I’ve made three pilgrimages to his castle at Prinzendorf, as well as attending CD and DVD presentations at which he was present. I arrived just a couple of months too late to witness his stunning eight-hour action at the Burgtheater in 2005, but he’s planning another six-day action at Prinzendorf in 2014 and I fully intend to be there.

In the meantime, this was a fairly bizarre event for Nitsch – a launch event for a new book on the subject of the Catholic Holy Mass, Die Heilige Messe: Kultisch, Szenisch, Sinnlich, Mystisch, to which he had made a written contribution. Having participated in a lengthy panel discussion with the other co-authors (which of course went completely over my head), and having politely sat through seemingly endless iterations of a short choral piece composed by the book’s publisher Peter Jan Marthé and sung by the church choir, the Actionist stationed himself at the Donaucitykirche’s, let’s face it, rather small organ, and improvised on it for half an hour or so. Two assistants stood either side of him and presumably (since it was impossible to see what they were doing) helped him to play the thing.

It was also an unusual event for me, in that it was the first time I had been to the Donaucitykirche for several years. A stone’s throw from my former workplace at the UN, this unassuming place of worship was also the venue for a number of winter concerts organized by my son’s former kindergarten, at which he was a vocal and enthusiastic participant.

My only previous exposure to Nitsch’s organ playing was the magnificent Die Geburt des Dionysos Christos box set, with its 1986 audio and video recordings of him playing the massive Brucknerhaus organ in Linz. Given the vast scale of that performance, I was rather taken aback by how puny the Donaucitykirche’s instrument looked and sounded. Of course there was no comparison between the two, although I still found Nitsch’s layered durational tones in this brief performance to be celestial and inspiring. At around the twenty-minute mark the volume increased markedly, causing Nitsch’s exquisite drones to hover and drift mesmerisingly to the end.