February 2011 Archives

Hermann Nitsch Talks at MCA Denver

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Artist Hermann Nitsch photographed by Steuart Bremner in the elevator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver February 24, 2011February 24, 2011
A massive body clad in black circled with a mane of a white beard, Hermann Nitsch is more than 70 years old, and the audience listened to him talk Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver treating him with reverence.

The audience jibed familiarly with MCA director Adam Lerner as he introduced Nitsch, whose half dozen paintings and dozen religious vestments are on exhibit in the museum. Warmly, but casually, they greeted the team of interviewers: Patrick Greanley, a European literature scholar, and curator Simon Zalkind. The audience hushed to hear the artist speak.

The Austrian started in English and when he got rolling switched to German, and Greanley peddled hard to deliver the translation quickly and unobtrusively.

Artist Hermann Nitsch speaks with Curator Simon Zalkind at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver February 24, 2011Artist Hermann Nitsch speaks with Curator Simon Zalkind at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver February 24, 2011Zalkind asked questions I wanted to ask and with an intelligence I wished I had. My repetition of these questions is such a weak approximation: How did Nitsch get the idea to use performance so early, in the'60s? How was Nitsch influenced by Abstract Expressionism (a largely American movement important in the 1950s)?

It wasn't so much what Nitsch said -- he listed influences like Mallarme, Pollack, deKooning, many names that most audience members could pick out from the man's German with a good amount of effort -- it was the way he barely moved as he delivered the answers. And was rewarded with an odd reverence and hush. When he said Freud and Jung and John Cage, we felt we could lighten up. He'd sounded so ethereal, eclectic, and then it was obvious, performance comes from John Cage. This guy was part of the ordinary consciousness of his time. Then he names his special influence -- spirit. Not the kind bound to any religion, but the spirit that drives action. Then Zalkind pressed him on the weird nature of his form of self expression and Nitsch talked more about the all-encompassing power in humans and how it is bound too tightly by civilization. He's about unleashing all that human power.

Zalkind asks about Catholicism. Nitsch answers 'I was educated as a Catholic, but maybe not so well.' The audience laughed. Were allowed, by this point, to laugh with him.

Zalkind asked if intensity is necessary? And Nitsch light on fire. Yes. The intensity of smearing feces - he invokes Freud -- not that this act is not actually part of Nitsch's work -- but intensity is absolutely important. His intensity is making a ritual for six days where the participants act animalistically smearing blood and paint over themselves and the canvas on the floors and walls, or so it appeared from photographs. The theatre if a Mystery Orgy theatre, after all.

He goes on about: the intensity of Tao. The intensity of grass growing. The guy is bi-polar intellectually: earthly and ethereal. And we've all got our ears peaked up to try to make out what really is the answer.

A moped and Chrysler, he said, when asked if the paintings are art on their own, or does a viewer really need to be a participant in one of the Orgy Mystery Theater performances. The paintings are merely documentations of the act of the theater. And the theater is just a release of some human power, a diversion from how it could be released violently with worse effects to humanity, but instead is a release that empowers each participant. How does it do this? We don't get the answer.

Does the exhibition do this?  The flowers in the room smell. The blood in the paintings has dried brown on the canvas, been layered under red paint and been stamped with foot prints. You'll have to add the intensity yourself. I want to taste the blood. I want to see the theatre.

The paintings are the moped, Nitsch finally said. The event is the Chrysler, and we're all invited to participate in his next event in the summer of 2013 in Austria.
Hermann Nitsch signs the catalog of his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

Bloodlines - Herman Nitsch - MCA

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Required reading - exhibition notes -- Feb 4, 2011

Photoshopd-Nitsch.pngGlasses pile up lonely on small tables - half drunk, some empty, rings of wine at the bottom, inches left in some of red, some of urine yellow - abandoned outside the big gallery rooms.

It's a three-show opening and there are plenty of people at the Museum of Contemporary Art tonight. As I head off to the quieter side, I feel I'm sneaking into the bedroom to get some space from the party. In one big gallery is the work of Hermann Nitsch. The show is called Bloodlines.

Paintings on the wall are big, covered with red from edge to edge with drips - streams of red - and red footprints. Vestments - priests' garb - are displayed like saddles over saw horses, like Indian blankets at a flea market. This isn't craft elevated to the wall like a famous tapestry; the robes are folded to look like the priest is still in them, kneeling before the altar. There are several, maybe a dozen bold, multi-colored robes lying there in a much more intimate and ordinary way than I've ever seen vestments. They are not protected by a sanctuary or even a docent. No one advises me not to touch. And coming so close, I can see that each one took someone a long time to make and has suffered some wear over time.
Flowers are in the room - bright ones - like the robes - but I'm not sure it feels festive. More like an after-the-fest feeling. Religious images are pasted on some of the paintings, but no pang of sacrilege hits me. I'm reminded instead of the bad aesthetics of many an American church.

I grab the exhibition notes and proceed into a little hallway, jag around alone like I've found a secret passage. The nearby gallery is dim, and quiet like the one I just left. In the passage between them, a view opens to the main level: people drinking, laughing. Someone is running overhead and I can see the feet through the ceiling windows. 

Bloodlines - I read in the exhibition brochure - are paintings Nitsch made with blood (and mostly paint) in his studio and at a certain kind of happening the artist has directed since the early '60s, happenings called Orgy Mystery Theater.

When I arrive in the dim, next gallery, I'm oddly alone, like I've just missed something again. I can always feel regret when I think of having missed all the important art happenings, sit-ins and Woodstock. There are flowers and music and lots of red dominating the gallery space. Another priest's robe, painted with thick green paint, is stuck on the largest painting.

Not taking sacrilegious offense, I feel some Catholic guilt, the same guilt I feel being a tourist in a famous church and not doing the holy water routine. It's the guilt of not being a member. I don't dwell on this, I read the exhibition notes.

Nitsch, the brochure says, creates events where he makes these paintings. People get drunk, start smearing blood around and do who knows what else. Like the society in Lord of the Flies, the Orgy Mystery Theater drags in the participants, gets their hands dirty, makes them part of the pack.  I imagine that Nitsch creates a ritual that would be like one I could have had at Woodstock.

The notes tell me Nitsch means the event to be a cleansing ritual, a renewal, with blood that doesn't just cleanse, but also stains - hands and canvas. I get it. You get to be part of the mob, but the next morning, there is the guilt. The remo's.

I don't know if you need to have once been Catholic to know this guilt; it was certainly part of my catechism. It's a guilt that comes from having enjoyed something you know was wrong, or at least, you were told it was wrong: Rock&Roll, not wearing the burqa, drinking alcohol before your 21st birthday. And of course kids are busy doing the later because there is pleasure in guilt. And there are so few things a modern person needs to feel guilt about. So few that we, often, go out looking for them. 

I own the guilt of enjoying being Catholic and participating in the meaningless rituals to the point that I can still sing songs like the Gloria or that my arm knows how to make the sign of the cross although it quit doing that when I was 16. I can understand the satisfaction of guilt from being part of the pack, my pack that feeds on fears and offers illogical solutions. A pack that is one of the major causes of overpopulation.

Since the memory of being one with the mob, a conformist, a reciter of Latin gibberish can still give me a thrill: the big space, the meditation, the inspiration for rebirth, the passion, the mystery, I can easily imagine an orgy mystery theater, and how it might be rich with emotional food. 

When I look back up at the paintings, the blood-red is nothing like the red blood of Christ whipped up in my memory. The paintings are not vivid red as I had imagined, but more akin to faded abstract expressionism. 

An ordinary viewer can add too much. Or this show works to give a small glimpse to all the emotion and a big load of the remos.

Bloodlines, an exhibition of the work of Hermann Nitsch opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Feb 4, 2011. The artist will speak at the MCA on February 24. 

An Instinct Toward Life - MCA Denver

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by Terry Talty
February 6, 2011

I'm a freelancer and - as my friend delicately put it - there's a gap in my schedule. Nobody loves you when you're down and out, so I hate to mention how down my financial future seemed to me last night. It could just have been the weather.  Snowing for a week, no sun and frigid. So unDenver like. Snow, sure, but never without sun in between.

Instinct001.jpgAnyway last night, I'm worrying about worldly things and I'm at an opening at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. Tons of people mill around me to see the three new shows. In retrospect, I can name the three by the method of getting in your face: Bones, Blood and War.

On the entry level is the work of Dario Robleto in an exhibition called "An Instinct toward Life." I'm standing in the white, big gallery surrounded by small things, spaced far apart. Bone and other human parts went into the art objects - that's the buzz in the room. Such a provocative theme should provoke me to gush with ideas, but the few thought bubbles arising are my same old ideas.
The boxing gloves (pictured) are titled The Melancholic Refuses to Surrender and reminds me why I hate boxing movies - the unnecessary pain of some sports. Broken male hand bones are just one of the listed ingredients in this piece and The Hustler. 

A wine jug, called The Skeleton Wine has a materials list that includes 'cast and carved bone, bone dust from every bone in the body, ground wisdom teeth.' And 'homemade wine'.

Next to the wine jug are a collection of little pitchers the white card says were used to feed invalids - apparently a while ago before the invention of the IV - with the title, "A Ghost Nurse Still Needs to Care." 

'Made out of bone,' my friend, a sociologist says.  Like bone china, I say.

I nearly trip over a pile of dinosaur and human bone dust on the floor as I dash off to a quiet corner to look out the window and take a phone call from my son. He's in traffic and I'm in a crowd and we can hardly hear each other. This happens more often than I want to remember and I promise to call him back. He promises to do the same and who knows what audio quality chance will give us next time.

Instinct002.jpgI step back over the dinosaur and human dust. I do think, at that moment, about how my body might decompose and rejoin the earth after I'm dead. I've never been a fan of a niche in a cemetery. I want my dust to be spread on the garden just like my grandfather-in-law was added to his bean trench. I mentally follow my future remains through the ground, into Denver sewer system, down the Platte into the Gulf of Mexico, possibly reincorporated into fly, then fowl, into New Orleans chef. I feel disappointed, however, because these ideas were not new ones to me. I'd already used them for a short story.

When you get old, my uncle once said, you never have a new thought. You just recycle the old ones. Uhg.

Instinct003.jpgIn another corner, a pair of boots is standing in a pile of dust. Human bone dust, I guess. Inside each boot is a wooden leg. Carved by soldiers - amputees - my friend says - from the Civil War. I couldn't get close enough to the wall to read the card. 

The curator, Nora Burnett Abrams, associate curator of the MCA, says the cards on the wall are poetry and invites everyone to read them. My sociologist friend says the artist told her he writes the cards first, then conceptualizes the physical work. He's into metal detectors, she says, he finds lead bullets and wedding rings on battlefields. Human ring finger bones are in the next room covered with some of this lead.

Are you cringing yet? Or are you feeling as ho, hum as I'm feeling?

Whether it's fair criticism or not, this show has failed to seize my brain, and get me out of my funk.

Look at the world I'm living in. A place that needs Payday Loan shops. Not that I have a payday in my future. If I go to work at McDonalds I'd have to work more than 62.5 hours per week to make $2000 which, cut by an immediate minimum 15% for taxes, would barely cover my half of the mortgage, my ever-rising health insurance, food and bills. And I couldn't work at McDonald's alone, I'd have to get another minimum wage job at Wal-mart because they won't let you work full-time. They'd have to pay your health insurance.

Imagine a mom and dad having to work this much. No way they could take care of their own kids or ever cook a meal. Or go to an art museum.

Sure, tonight was an opening, so it was free, but I still had to rifle through the change drawer to get the train fare. And have the time.  And a couple of brain cells that aren't overloaded by responsibility and money trouble. When you're worried about your next job, or if you can ever settle your Pay-Day loan, you can't think about art or anything like it. You'd be lucky if you could hear a full sentence on one of the TVs that are constantly blaring at your workplaces.

Robleto-Defiant-Gardens.jpgI'm not criticizing the craft of the work. The artist has contrived each piece into a form that is a pleasing design. The ceramic jug doesn't look as strong as Wedgewood, but it doesn't need to be. It isn't intended to be functional.  Nor am I sure I want to criticize the shock value he's going after by using human bone, hair samples and love letters. That artwork reaches to get someone's attention is not a crime. We're all required to do some marketing.

I'm just saying that a concept can't generate feelings that the artwork doesn't corroborate.

Because each of Robleto's handmade objects is small, each has a natural intimacy. I should start to have a connection to the humans that might have used such a thing, but he add the same distance a history museum can't quite eliminate. He lines up the invalid feeders on rows of shelves, has a kaleidoscope pointing to the man/dinosaur dust, hides braided human hair flowers in a giant nest of craft-project paper flowers.

And then, there's the poetry. On the jug in The Skeleton Wine is an inscription "Scrubbing Your Soul Won't Make it Clean,"  and the following materials list:

Materials: cast and carved bone, bone dust from every bone in the body, ground wisdom teeth, homemade wine (water, sugar, fermented grapes, black cherries, plums, red raspberries, yeast, gelatin, tartaric acid, pectinase, sulfur dioxide, oak flavoring) fortified with calcium, potassium, creatine, zinc, iron, nickel, tin, copper, boron, vitamin K, crushed amino acids, glutamine, chromium, sodium, magnesium, colostrum, phosphorus, iodine, microcrystalline cellulose, quartz, rust, water extendable resin, typeset, driftwood shelf.)

What difference does it make if there is wine in this jug or not? We can't see it. We have to trust the artist that he has actually used any of the listed materials. It's a leap of faith and I'm not sure why I'm being asked to take this leap so that I can look at these materials in the new forms that this artist has made. Am I to scrub my soul with homemade wine and the blood of Christ, and still have to grab for the Comet?

If the artist is trying to inform me - explain what it takes to make wine - it's a self-serving attempt to gain my trust.

If the objects are made to deliver poetry in cleaver titles, then does that work? 

The piece, A Defeated Soldier Wants to Walk his Daughter up the Aisle - the boot - is made with wooden legs that Civil War amputee soldiers carved for themselves, the card verifies when I finally have a chance to read it. And the boots are World War I standard issue. I'm not trying to be a stickler for accuracy but when things don't fit logically they lend themselves to comedy. According to philosopher, Noël Carroll, incongruity is at the heart of all jokes. The titles makes the campy object a joke. Like a fraternity trophy used as a beer stein.
What gives me the most outrage is that Robleto has somehow sucked the ink off soldiers letters home and made them into dye for one of the pieces shown here. Maybe the soldier was a bad writer, but if I was his/her kid, I'd want the letter.

The arrogance of the artist, thinking that someone would wish their bone or their ink anonymously included in his ceramics or paper-making projects, is glaring.

I'm usually as willing to laugh at campy stuff as the next Post Modernist. Tonight, however, I feel like such an ordinary Joe, weighed down by real or imagined financial worries, that I'm not sure I'm the most open observer. Like an ordinary observer, I feel outside. And from here, it looks like too much of contemporary art is an inside joke.   

Terry Talty, who writes this blog, pleas for forgiveness for being a downer: Please do read the next installment, which is sure to be more optimistic. Sign up for the RSS feed, if you can spare the time.

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