Photo supplied by author.
“Abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.” – Julia Kristeva
“Looks like raspberries,” a guy next to me whispers. We’re both staring into this storage container that’s swimming with bull entrails. He’s not wrong – they do look a bit like raspberries. They don’t smell like raspberries though. They smell like what happens when you dive headfirst into a dead animal and rip the insides out.
We’re probably two-and-half hours into Hermann Nitsch’s ‘150.Action’. Two thirds of the crowd have left and minds are wandering. Even David Walsh seems to have disappeared. I saw him earlier dressed like the Great Gacked Gatsby in his blazer and Nikes. But he’s nowhere in sight now. The performers have spent the last half an hour or so strapping different people to a crucified, hollowed-out bull carcass. They then hoist the crucifixion platform and carry it around the massive old wharf shed we’re all standing in. Organ and brass band music (heavy on the devil’s interval) has been building tension the whole time. The instruments sustain a deep ominous drone that swells to a discordant crescendo when something new happens. The sound rattles the aluminium walls. But there’s been no jazz drama or disembowelling for a while. They’re dragging this occasion out. You can tell it’s going to be all repetition and brooding until the blood scrum finale that’s been promised to drench our senses and unleash the cosmos.
The performance began with the gutting of five big fish on a long white table. The fish were then turned inside-out and doused with blood and fake semen until they looked like shark spew. Hermann Nistch has been watching on from behind the table sipping white wine from a paper cup (could be a sacramental allusion but I get the feeling the guy just really likes white wine). He looks exactly like Santa Clause moonlighting as an undertaker with his big white beard and long black leather coat (real leather you’d have to assume).
I was standing behind someone with freshly shampooed hair when the fish were hacked apart so I inhaled this weird Pantene-and-fish-gut scent. At that point my girlfriend whispered a good joke about MasterChef getting weird this year. I wanted to laugh but stifled it. For hours now it’s like we’ve all been in a silent agreement to just furrow our brows and keep the quips to a murmur. Maybe it’s out of respect for all the animal rights protestors holding shame mirrors up at us on the way in. Maybe it’s because it’s goofy to laugh at something you’re not quite getting. Or maybe goofy is the wrong word. Because it’s my understanding that affecting art does one of two things (hopefully both): it helps you arrive at a new, sometimes life-changing, understanding of the world or it creates a transcendent space where understanding isn’t possible (but that’s okay because it’s nice not having to think).
So when Hermann orders two Jesus figures – who I find out later are a famous art historian and a famous curator – to be blindfolded, stripped, strung up and fed blood and cum until it drips down their bodies and congeals on their genitals, that could mean he’s trying to transport us to a dreamlike realm: a place where secular art is elevated to divinity; where the commoditised canon is slashed apart and fucked in order to restore its visceral instincts; where we can finally abandon logic, realise truth is nothing but a semi-useful illusion, and exist within the open wound of pure intensity. It could mean that. Or he could just be in the business of filling blood buckets with raspberries.
In any case people are getting distracted. Like this guy next to me in a hoodie who has smeared blood gridiron-style under his eyes. We’re not allowed to film or take photos in here. But, like me, this guy’s sneaked his own phone photo of the gore-filled storage container. He’s also tapped out an accompanying poem in gothic font. He can see I’m fascinated by the gore bin too so he’s shown me his blood poetry collage (something about ‘war’ and ‘killing floors’). And I can’t tell if this guy is deadly serious or just quietly entertaining himself.
At least Hermann’s wife doesn’t seem to care about the high art pomposity of it all. She’s been walking through the action filming on her phone, grinning like a proud stage mum. It strikes me as unfair that no one’s allowed to make Instagram stories about this but her – but I guess if I’d been witnessing the same performance for four decades I’d probably want my own set of rules too.
Forty years is a long time to be travelling around pissing people off with your art. Hermann says this performance is like a tree – that it started small and now it’s tall but the core structure always remains intact. Hermann and his Viennese Actionist friends wanted to create visceral experiences that couldn’t be framed, hung and sold. His old collaborators Günter Brus and Otto Mühl once wrote, “the consumer state drives a wave of ‘art’ before itself; it attempts to bribe the ‘artists’ and thus rehabilitate his revolutionising ‘art’ as an art that supports the state. But ‘art’ is not art. Art is politics that has created new styles of communication.”
These guys thought they could wake the pious middle classes out of their armchair stupor by flinging blood, cum, pus and faeces at them. Even though the middle classes can’t be lumped into a shockable entity anymore (never could) and the main people ‘150.Action’ seems to be upsetting are either vegans or people who think this is a pretentious waste of food. It might be true – Hermann might still be conjuring something of the old actionist bravado.
After all, this performance is free. There’s a stage-managed feeling to the controversy surrounding it, but it’s still palpable. The fact the action site was kept secret until last night adds to the drama. Hermann is seventy-nine years old and he’s still hobbling about the world, dedicated to an intensity most senior citizens only experience on their death beds. He’s watching on from his chair, very much in control. Occasionally calling his stepson (and right hand man) over to mutter some dream logic in his ear. The stepson confirms the action in a big office binder then whistles the performers into the next action like some kind of blood-splattered rugby coach. And, of course it’s the performers who you have to really admire – a dozen or more actors, dancers, theatre-makers and Next-Wave-true-believers. They’ve most likely delved into their savings to get here. And even after two-and-a-half hours of strenuous meat hoisting, they’re still marching in stoic circles towards the oncoming death frenzy – deeply prepared to mosh later in that carcass.
But the fact that this performance is free, fleeting and passionate doesn’t liberate it from commodification. The consumer state is still driving a wave of art before it. This big wharf shed has been marked for development. In a few years it will be apartments, hotel rooms and offices no artist can afford. Except maybe someone as rich as Hermann but he’ll almost certainly be dead – the final legacy of this Austrian weirdo could be nothing but an actionist ‘activation’ for the Macquarie Point Development Corporation. What’s the point of inventing “new forms of communication” when you use them to warm up space for developers? Splash them with violent art then wire them for central heating.
Which is the exact line of thinking which takes me out of intensity and into reason. I start dissecting the realities of Dark MOFO (the suffocating realisation that subversive-branded art can be such a powerful gentrifying force/how conflicted some locals are about getting their minds blown at a world-class festival while landlords cut short their friends’ leases – turf them out in exchange for an Air BnB cash injection) and it distracts me from transcendence.
Reason tends to form walls around ‘pure intensity’ and lock you out. The sound of an amplified tuba can shake this wharf shed, but if you think about it too hard, the performance is still contained – much in the same way the blood bin contains those entrails. Test the borders to their limit and you’ll reveal nothing but dry globalised facts. Like the sticker on the side of the blood bin, it says: ‘Multipurpose’, ‘Easy to Handle’, ‘Robust Design’, ‘Locked Lid’, ‘Item Number 2583860’. ‘Made in China’. ‘Montgomery’. So this bin was probably bought from Bunning’s Warehouse. It’s designed to store surplus consumption. Filling it with blood is an uncanny act. It wakes you up to the established order of things. It says: this could all be more malleable than you might believe. Maybe this is all just energy that can be channelled in any direction you like.
Which would be so cool if it were true. I’m totally with Moby when he says “We are all made of stars”. But a tiny fraction of a star ended up in a Chinese factory. It’s been moulded into a robust storage container. Brand name: Montgomery. And Montgomery seems like a very British brand name for a storage container. And Chairman Mao tried to completely eradicate colonialism from his country. And these days the Chinese are supposed to be economic colonisers. And Chinese investors probably own some of the land I’m standing on right now. They probably bought it off the Macquarie Point Development Corporation. And the fact I’m even making that observation turns my stomach harder than a bin full of gore. Because it means I might be letting the borders grow stronger and stronger. I’ve come to Dark MOFO to be a lightning rod for pure intensity, but I’m just another fucking tourist.
And so what if they build investment properties here once the blood’s all mopped up? So what if even the strangest dreams of the weirdest old Austrians can get sucked into capital – framed, hung and sold just like everything else? Some say money can save us. Maybe globalisation is the one thing that can stop those buttons getting pushed.
Hermann was seven years old when Truman dropped the bombs. Before that he was hailing Hitler at school. He was in his thirties during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. How many decades has it been since then? Can you really blame him for being sceptical of politicians – for wanting to gut symbols and hear them splat into buckets? He’s been repeating Cold War-era art over and over and over again. Can’t get it out of his system. Meanwhile the KGB is back in the news. The Paris Climate Accord and the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are looking like quaint fairy tales. There’s a power vacuum opening up. A mining magnate bought the Age and they’re running nuke headlines on the front page. It’s almost as if we dreamed all this vintage paranoia into existence. It’s as grim (and uncomfortably compelling) as a bin full of entrails.
And Tasmania at solstice time is where we’ve come to face the void – to breathe in the gore and expel our apocalyptic fantasies. Seems fitting. There’s just something about this island. Last time I was in Hobart a friend told me about an old Russian man living up the road from him here. This guy apparently dug an actual moat around his house. My friend says he broke ground back in the mid ’80s. Back when the Cold War was warm and Chernobyl gamma rays were swelling baby brains. He was convinced the Soviet Union was either going to melt itself down or get blown up. So he bought some land on the other side of the world, dug his moat and pointed a hose at it until he felt safe. True story.
Most of my life I would’ve filed this move under Eastern bloc eccentricity (the kind I first learnt about from Rocky and Bullwinkle reruns). But it’s 2017. These days I want my arts festivals to happen where the cheese is good, the crays are fat, the epiphanies are deep, and the moats are even deeper. I want extinction projected onto a dark corner of the city (safely trapped in two dimensions). I want the foreboding guarded by cold muddy water while helicopters float above me singing siren songs.
Or I want it buried deep in MONA’s ‘Museum of Everything’. There the unnameable dread isn’t fortified by water or safely contained in robust plastic. It’s packed way down with dirt on the bottom floor. It creeps up like a delusion – an underground patchwork of abuse, oppression and divine communication. Rooms unfold one after the other, next to you, and behind you with no traditional white wall space to let you catch your breath. And all this intensity is locked inside the art of road sweepers, tobacco rollers, schizophrenics, spiritualists, doily makers, and street preachers – for the majority of MONA visitors that means: ‘people from history who definitely aren’t me’. We can dip into their brilliant minds, appreciate their unique way of seeing, then get a Bond-style elevator the hell out of there, into the MONA courtyard where there’s a fresh plate of oysters waiting. And the wind is artic – it shoots right across Southern Ocean. You might even be catching a whiff of the ACT-sized iceberg that just broke away from Antarctica. And if you think about it: the Southern Ocean, Bass Straight and the Tasman Sea – they form their own sort of geographical moat around Tasmania. The land bridge to mainland drowned after the last ice age and it’s only going further down. It’s deeper under water now than ever before.
And I bet the old Russian guy spends winter by the fireplace wrapped in frayed blankets – safe behind his moat within a moat – feeling feeble and arthritic from all the digging. He’s probably been waiting there for years. Knowing in his heart that those antique binaries – East vs. West, light vs. dark, faithful vs. faithless, capitalist vs. communist, man vs. woman – would blast themselves into everlasting silence one day. If it all starts cracking open and swallowing us up I can always flee to this old Russian’s sanctuary. I’ll fetch him a plate of cider-braised lamb and some single malt whiskey from the Winter Feast (and maybe raspberries for dessert). Anyone would let the drawbridge down for that kind of mutually-assured deliciousness.
Until then I’ll just stand here next to the blood poet and smell the entrails. Two-and-half hours in and we’re getting desperate to experience some kind of collective transcendence. But we’re still here, shuffling our feet. Bulgarian-born philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva would say we’re staying put because “there looms within abjection one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.” In other words the bull’s innards captivate us partly because they represent our own bodily processes. We know, on some level, if you cut us open and strung us up over that Montgomery storage container there’d be similar shapes, colours and smells falling out of us. Knowing this helps us form consciousness because without gore we’re just touch, taste, hearing, smell and thought floating in space. And that’s scary as all hell.
There’s a paradox that plays out every second of every day: that we exist in a state of constant change and constant judgement. To feel sane we have to stop for a second and think of ourselves in a kind of stasis. Documenting (excessively sometimes) helps. But the stasis is only ever momentary. We’re still living and breathing and shedding however many trillions of cells each second. Julia says abjection forms a kind of “safeguard” against this feeling. It protects me from “something that I do not recognise as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.”
So abjection is essentially about the fantasy of self-creation. We either create ourselves (again and again), or cave into the nothingness, or decide to believe some kind of god or greater collective consciousness is willing us into being. But Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago that God had died. Secular identity is all a lot of us in this big wharf shed can cling to, and identity means having to keep creating yourself again and again – to define yourself against something else.
But the self-creation narrative gets snagged on the fact we were incubated inside bodies. Hermann is sitting there sipping white wine, and you can tell he just knows we trip up on this. If the psychoanalysts are to be believed then all the blood and screaming of birth plus the infantile need/want of being a baby gets pushed constantly down deep within ourselves. Bodies rule us our lives. But these desires first grew in our pre-language selves. According to Julia this pre-language phase is also supposed when poetry, music and art form their instinctual meaning. Which makes sense because babies just associate sounds, colours, inflections and feelings – they don’t yet grasp all the symbolic stuff we encounter once we recognise ourselves in the mirror and learn to speak.
That’s when unconscious yearnings start transforming into the filthy and disgusting scabs (we can’t help but pick at). It happens with language (and all the societal bullshit that comes with it). So we end up rejecting our mothers in order to form a separate identity. But we can’t ever fully reject the distant, primal longing of our infant selves. Julia says this happens on broader scale too: the maternal and feminine is rejected to strengthen the borders around the patriarchy. Misogyny starts in the dictionary and, in her words, “abject and abjection are the primers for my culture.”
But then that means the border’s self could be pliable on a mass scale. If you stare into a blood bin for long enough you end up faced with a very spooky “me that is not me” moment. And in that moment you can form a choice: you can harden yourself to the “threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside”; you can let the complexity of the world strengthen knots around your fear until, say, the patriarchy becomes a foregone conclusion, or arts festivals are nothing but gentrifying cogs in the neoliberal machine. Personally I could just keep twisting and tangling it all up into stronger and stronger knots until the Chinese investors/Russian spies/North Korean despots/Islamic terrorists/American psychos/icebergs become one big mass of faceless angst. And the safest place to hide is behind a Tasmanian moat. That’s the easy, default position.
The more difficult thing is opening my eyes to the threat “emanating from inside”, something I am always complicit in creating. Here I am in this wharf shed with no job, no savings and no rational reason to believe anything is going to get better. And there’s this old Austrian man sitting over there who’s lived through some of the worst things humans have ever done. And he’s saying intensity is everything. That we should stop trying to force so much meaning onto all of this. That the tools you’re using to build those meanings can be hacked apart and sprayed with cum. That we need to just shut up and accept that art is the only thing we have that’s even remotely equipped to communicate this fact. And this five-hour long blood frenzy won’t even come close to articulating a coherent message to your pre-language self – that place where we were all tiny specks of innocence and need, rocking out to disembodied vibrations, floating, 149.6 million kilometres from the sun, bleeding into the edges of shared liminal space.
If we can just accept that then maybe it’s possible to break it down and rebuild it from the best parts. Smash apart the symbolic order and redefine subjectivity. Enough redefinition and you can change everything. You can create genuinely new “styles of communication” instead of just repeating shit from the ’60s. I’d probably put a hundred bolts through the head of a hundred blameless bulls myself if I could believe in that. But, right now, it seems like we’re filling buckets up with raspberries just to keep ourselves sane.
Sam West writes fiction and non-fiction. Used to edit @threethousand. Flew it into the sun.