New York

“Altered”

Austrian Cultural Forum New York

Everyone seems to know by now that Rudolf Schwarzkogler did not actually kill himself by cutting his penis off in slices during an Aktion, and yet you will read no text about the Austrian artist that does not relish in either reporting or debunking the castration myth. Perhaps this is because, while manifestly untrue (Schwarzkogler died in 1969 when he leapt or fell from a window), the myth nevertheless expresses in nuce certain truths about the products of his all-too-brief career. Not only does it condense the automutilative forces generally rampant in his work into a picture of the ultimate act of self-damage, but it portrays this act as the epitome of calm, cool execution: the myth is not that Schwarzkogler lopped off his penis in some mad outburst of artistic frenzy, but, rather, that he sliced it off bit by deliberate bit.

As the photographs and texts in this show attest, it is precisely this deliberate quality that makes Schwarzkogler’s work so chilling and beautiful, something that is especialy apparent in contrast to the messy, manic performances of the brilliant Paul McCarthy. (Although “Altered” presented the two artists side by side, the rarity with which one is able to see Schwarzkogler’s work made him the dominant figure of the exhibition.) Unlike the silly pseudo-Dionysianism of Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgies mysteries theater) (where the big thing was to sacrifice animals and frolic around naked in their blood and guts in some nutty pagan interpretation of Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty), Schwarzkogler’s actions seemed to proceed with maddeningly Apollonian reason and composure. In a series of photographs depicting his first action, Hochzeit (Wedding, 1965), the artist can be seen cutting open small fish, disemboweling them, stuffing pink flowers and injecting blue liquids into their splayed bellies (this performance, apparently the only one documented in color, captures Schwarzkogler’s schematic palette, especially the Yves Klein–esque blue that so fascinated him). Carried out methodically at a small table covered with tumblers filled with liquids, dead fish (lying neatly in rows), a hot plate, and an enigmatic roll of tape, this series of actions finally leads up to the marriage: the bride, one breast exposed, gown splashed with blue, standing against the wall as Schwarzkogler appears to place a little skull on top of her head.

Instructions that Schwarzkogler wrote for 4. Aktion, 1965—seemingly depicting a nightmare clinic where gauze-wrapped men are poked and prodded with razor blades and electrical wires—convey the elegant, sadomasochistic precision that infused his actions: “Head leaning on a lump of suet. Black liquid drips from the bandage above the eye onto the suet. A hand with black-painted fingernails is lying on the head.” The stunningly beautiful black and white photos that document these later performances don’t culminate in a climax of any sort, rather they simply enlarge the picture of a central atrocity. This is what is most disturbing about Schwarzkogler’s work: for all of its Apollonian deliberateness, it seems to lead nowhere in particular, like a set of stairs in a dream. As is perhaps embodied in the myth of Schwarzkogler’s calculated self-castration, madness lay at the end of his method.

Keith Seward