Sunday, 19 May 2013

Rudolf Schwarzkogler

 3rd Aktion, 1965

Rudolf Schwarzkogler (13 November 1940 in Vienna – 20 June 1969) was an Austrian performance artist closely associated with the Viennese Actionism group that included artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, and Hermann Nitsch.

He is best known today for photographs depicting his series of closely controlled "Aktionen" featuring such iconography as a dead fish, a dead chicken, bare light bulbs, colored liquids, bound objects, and a man wrapped in gauze. The enduring themes of Schwarzkogler's works involved experience of pain and mutilation, often in an incongruous clinical context, such as 3rd Aktion (1965) in which a patient's head swathed in bandages is being pierced by what appears to be a corkscrew, producing a bloodstain under the bandages. They reflect a message of despair at the disappointments and hurtfulness of the world.

3rd Aktion, 1965

Schwarzkogler is one of four Viennese artists who grouped themselves under the title Wiener Aktionsgruppe, or the ‘Vienna Action Group’, in 1965. Hermann Nitsch (born 1938), Otto Mühl (born 1925) and Günter Brus (born 1938) created ritualistic performances or Actions aimed at releasing repressed desires and bringing about a state of cathartic awareness through acts which often subverted traditional authorities and broke taboos. The Actions were initially conceived in relation to the activity of painting. Paint and organic substitutes for paint, such as blood and food, are common materials used in combination with the artists’ and performers’ bodies. Despite individual differences, the members of the group frequently collaborated and performed in each others’ Actions. Ludwig Hoffenreich, a well known Viennese press photographer, documented Actions by all members of the group during the 1960s and 70s. Schwarzkogler was particularly attracted to the work of early Austrian Expressionists such as Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), the more recent French artist Yves Klein (1928-62) and the Viennese artist Arnulf Rainer (born 1929). He created a total of six Actions, five in 1965 and one in 1966. Although the first, Wedding, was performed in front of an audience, Schwarzkogler found it so distracting that he staged all subsequent actions purely for the camera. His use of a clinical white background and his careful arrangement of the constituents of each photograph distinguish his work from that of the other Actionists, for whom the experience of public performance was the principal goal. An extreme aesthetic simplicity, complemented by photographing in black and white rather than in colour, and the repetition of props and themes, confer a formal clarity on his images. Elements recurring in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th Actions include razor blades, fish, a white chicken, a black mirror, cosmetic utensils, white bandages - wrapped around a male body and covering a large white ball – and other medical equipment such as scissors, scalpels, glass bottles and plastic tubing.
Elizabeth Manchester  

 6th Aktion, 1966
Hermann Nitsch, one of his friends and a fellow artist, talked about a "febrile erotic sweetness" around the issues of creativity and death in Vienna, where both artists had worked. Nitsch quoted, as attendant intoxicants to this state of mind, the late works of a dying and diseased Schubert, and Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("the songs of dead children"). Both are examples of a heady, romanticised relationship between works of art and mortality.

Much of the fascination Schwarzkogler holds is due to the sheer lack of available information, and to the tragic brevity of his adult life. As is perhaps understandable in such a case -- at least in terms of journalism -- rumours about him abound. Most notable is that of his death itself. "Everyone seems to know by now that Rudolf Schwarzkogler did not actually kill himself by cutting off his penis in slices during an Action," Keith Seward wrote in Artforum in 1994. In fact, Rudolf either leapt or fell (most assume the former) from his apartment window after a long period of extreme depression. Yet the penis-slicing mutilation is a recurrent myth, reported as the apex of his creative oeuvre. Ironically, it was in previous issues of Artforum that I had first found the erroneous story. First in October 1972, and again in January 1978: "We must not forget that Rudolf Schwarzkogler went further than any other masochist body worker, for he proceeded inch by inch to amputate his penis whilst a photographer recorded this art event". The root of this myth is a rather wilful misinterpretation of Schwarzkogler's photographs, shown posthumously at Documenta in the 1970s.  
Philip Wincolmlee Barnes

6th Aktion, 1966

Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s 6th action was his last photographically documented performance before his death. After that he collaborated on projects with Otto Mühl and Günter Brus, presumably he held another three actions that he did not document, further actions of his were only conceptualised on paper.

From the 2nd action Schwarzkogler reduced the colour range and so adapted to the photographs that were taken on black and white film only. The image above shows him in white bandages in a white room, a square, black mirror is leaning on the wall and there are a big and a small white globe. During the performance a dead white chicken, as well as a light bulb and a black electrical cord are added.

He held his actions for the camera only, there was no dramaturgically structured course of events, as was the case with Mühl, Brus and Nitsch who acted in front of spectators and often got the audience involved in the process. His photographs are perfectly composed arrangements in space. In his drawings he predefined all elements that would be used. As no audience was present, the actions could be stopped as many times as needed to change camera angles or correct and improve the composition.

In spite of the important role that photography plays in Schwarzkogler’s oeuvre, there are only few existing prints of his work presumably due to his precarious financial situation at the time. There are only few prints that were made during the lifetime of the artist. The larger part of the photographs circulating today was commissioned by his girlfriend and the manager of his estate Edith Adam, Ludwig Hoffenreich or the Italian collector Francesco Conz. Hermann Nitsch, Ludwig Hoffenreich and Edith Adam often chose the picture detail of the image.

The actionist photographs of Schwarzkogler were never exhibited during his lifetime. In 1970 Günter Brus magazine Die Schastrommel first published a selection of photographs. They only reached wider acclaim when they were shown at the Documenta 5 in Kassel curated by Harald Szeemann in 1972.
Michaela Seiser 


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