Otto Mühl

Sammlung Falckenberg/Phoenix Kulturstiftung

Last year MAK Vienna presented its comprehensive Otto Mühl retrospective as an emphatically painting-heavy show, though his work as a performance artist filled a good portion of the accompanying catalogue. In Hamburg, whence the retrospective traveled at the instigation of collector Harald Falckenberg, the overall appearance of the exhibition was considerably changed. Here the half-darkened rooms were dominated by eighteen large screens showing what was only peripherally present in Vienna: documentation of Mühl’s concrete actions of the ’60s. The paintings were exiled to dimly lit walls, where they were joined by stills of the actions, some of them in large formats. One was meant to enter Mühl’s unconscious, not to enjoy oneself in front of the bright surfaces of paintings. The intent, to quote Falckenberg, was to reclaim “the psychoanalytical origin of Viennese Actionism.”

This was partly successful, partly not. At times this supposedly radical exposure could no longer credibly function. The films, intended as documents, are to some degree aesthetically constructed—not by Mühl but by their editors, who have transformed them into video-clip-like sequences, series of short, staccato images evoking the explosive climate of disaffection and change prevalent in ’60s Vienna. Mixed in is the occasional silliness of the protagonists, their almost teenagerly giggles robbing the performances of some of their intended purifying effect.

The paint fights, pissing, copulation, and general provocation of the audience derive from Mühl’s aggressive dissatisfaction with conventional image production and his attempts to free himself from them. “Through the destruction of the picture as such, I found my way to junk sculpture,” Mühl reminisced in 2001, and from there to “the human body as a structuring object.” Structuring, in the context of Viennese Actionism, means first and foremost exposure—nakedness among pigments and edible produce, laden with sex and brutality, with repression challenged to the point where a temporary catharsis is joyfully welcomed: the violent reaction of the public and the intervention by the police and justice system the instant the actions no longer took place in private. It’s the instant, too, when the perpetrators realize they have become the victims of society.

In the catalogue Falckenberg attributes Mühl’s actions to the “realm of the pre-.” Mühl, according to the author, seems never to have gotten over his “prepubescent, pregenital, in some ways even prenatal stage.” Using Mühl as a case in point, he seems quite overtly to want to work up the profile of a dominant type of artist in the twentieth century—a type strongly represented in his own collection. Artists like Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, Bjarne Melgaard, Jonathan Meese, even Joseph Beuys and Martin Kippenberger are said to operate to some extent in the same realm. Their artistic energy derives from an infantile attitude—not from innocence and purity but rather from a polymorphous-perverse essence. This forces these artists into a game in which they constantly change from the role of perpetrator to victim and back again. Never growing up means constantly showing others that you have no boundaries yet never being able to master this boundlessness. One is condemned to be a child forever, just as the Wandering Jew of legend was damned to life without death.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.