Over the past few days i’ve had my stomach turned, my definition of what’s acceptable tipped over and my mind stimulated often enough to be willing to blog about it. I visited 3 exhibitions in Berlin that all deal with blood, guts and anything natural or not that you might find inside the human body. The most innocent was by far the Medical Historical Museum, only prosthetics and implants such as pace makers that date back to the ’60s, artificial limbs and a splendid 1955 iron lung. Images.
Telephone hearing aids and artificial hands
Things got more intense at the Martin-Gropius-Bau with the retrospective of Hermann Nitsch‘s Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. These pagan-like ceremonies started back in the early ’60s and haven’t lost much of their power to shock. Each of them involves processions in religious robes, symbolic crucifixion, drunken excess, nudity, lambs and bulls sacrified, hung on crosses and disembowelled, the drinking of blood, and the ritualistic incorporation of viscera and entrails.
Images of the exhibition.
The content of the third exhibition has much in common with Viennese Actionism, the movement headed by the like of Nitsch. Into Me / Out of Me, currently running at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, gathers in one building as many art works susceptible to disturb as possible.
The exhibition displays the way 132 artists have used the human body (including any substance it expels) as a raw material and subject over the past 40 years. The selection focuses on three primordial relationships between the internal and the external: metabolism (eating, drinking, excreting…), reproduction (having sex, giving birth…), and any kind of pain people might inflict to others or to themselves (shooting, impaling, perforating…). The images of laceration, self-mutilation, fist-fucking, decay and birth-giving moments you’ll see there might be utterly repulsive, compellingly beautiful, crude, magical, abject, poetical, shocking, but never dull.
Many of the works that involve scandalous actions and blood date back to the ’70s. In her famous 1975 performance based on her research into “vulvic space”, Carolee Schneemann pulled a feminist tract out of her naked vagina during menstruation, and then she read it aloud.
Just as notoriously, Chris Burden, a master in the art of self-injury, had himself crucified on a VW Beatle in 1974 (Transfixed). There’s also video documentation of the artist’s extreme exploration of personal danger and physical risk. For that performance, Chris Burden had invited a crowd of people in an empty gallery. One of his friend shot him in the arm while another one was filming the scene. It was 1971, the performance was an artistic statement on the Vietnam war.
A few steps away from these old documents, Sigalit Landau is standing on a beach of her native Israel hoola hooping with a barbed wire ring. If it weren’t for the marks the wire leaves on her skin on would think that the experience is pleasant. She never flinches, never pauses, her moves are reproduced in slow motion, the images are silent. The video can of course be interpreted as a metaphor for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It could also refer to the sacrificial practices dating back to the origins of religions: stigmata, propitiations, indelible markings.
I’m not going to list all those voluntary martyrs. Let’s not delve any longer on blood. Let’s proceed because there’s so much more to the human body. In part two of this report, you will get vomit, urine, semen, etc.
The exhibition was previously shown at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York and runs at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin through February, 2007.
For good measure: Art Critical not overwhelmingly enthusiastic review of the exhibition.