Hermann Nitsch: The Sense Of Sight in O.M. Theater

Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998

Hermann Nitsch

“Das Orgien Mysterien Theater” manifesto, 1990

Text translation from German toı English: Micha O. Goebig

1

My theater is visual theater, and learning by seeing is a particularly important concern of my work. Throughout the history of the theater, the visible, that which can be grasped with the eye, has never been as important as it is in O.M. Theater. When I realised that language alone no longer had the power to express what I wished to realise, I turned my back on spoken and representative theater and attempted to stage real occurrences in my theater. All the five senses of the audiences were to be tasked directly. A real occurrence can be registered with all five senses. I construct occurrences in which the audience is invited to smell, look, hear, feel in­tensely.

Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998
Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998
Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998

2

I demand a different way of seeing. I am not interested in that way of seeing which registers the everyday, blank, aseptic things for the purpose of differentiation, which merely registers ready-made linguistic objects; rather, I am interested in that lost way of seeing that fully sensually per­ceives the object to be seen. Our black-topped roads and mo­torways with their unambiguous signage reveal themselves to the observer only in their functional clarity. Our roads fa­vouring speed show little of the original landscape.

Everything is different when a traffic accident occurs; in such a case, the lanes are soiled with blood, with injured or dead bodies, or they are blocked by destroyed vehicles. We are suddenly required and obliged to employ a terrible, terrified, intense way of seeing even into the abyss of death. All our senses look, inevitably, greedy for the thrill. The frustrated drives (energies) of the curious want to be thrilled, even at the price of death. Suddenly, we are confronted with the other side of our sensual reality. All lust for sensation is the uncon­ditional will to be thrilled, beyond morals.

The daily offering of goods presented by our supermar­kets is appetizing, aseptic, hygienically and pleasantly pack­aged for the superficial glance.

You only have to travel to Italy, to a regular market, to view a broader palette. It reeks. Meat, offal, fish and squishy seafood cover the trestle tables, raw, gaudy and voluptuous. Entire and chopped-up, skinned, slaughtered animals hang from the stalls, their original shape still recognisable. To­matoes, fruit and grapes are frequently overripe with wasps buzzing about, the fruit is often soft and beginning to fer-mentingly rot, they sometimes seem unsightly, but you know that if you take a bite of one, its flesh will be of nurturing soft­ness and the most intense sweetness. Liquids are spilt, milk, wine, oil. The stench of fish suggesting the smell of the sea, the smells, from raw meat and offal to the fermenting smell of overripe fruit and spilt wine, intensify the optical impression of these markets, which are not yet determined by exploit-atively organised mass consumption. I think it is clear what is important to me. We should realise a full, sensual (sensually intense) way of seeing, which transmits that which we see to us not according to its surface, but according to its inner substance, that is almost to say, the substance of its taste. The general present way of seeing is blunted and has become an almost non-sensual perception of the superficially functional which does not make use of the full depth of the senses.

All that which the order of civilization almost prohibits us from registering should stimulate us to register existence most intensely. Spilt milk, a smashed bird’s egg, smeared yolk, squashed fruit, smeared grease, raw meat, offal, intes­tines, faeces, sprayed blood, sperm, spilt red paint, puddles of rainwater etc. require us to register intensely; they register deeply and give free rein to our need to feel deeply. A fully sensual way of seeing must not banish the tragic, death, de­composition, rot; it must draw us into the process of creation.

Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998
Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998

3

Whenever I talk of SEEING, here, I mean to say that what is true of seeing is also true of our other senses. Seeing is embedded into the realm of all senses and only functions properly and according to its essence in combina­tion with the other senses. A synesthetic concatenation of the senses is necessary. Intense seeing requires us to smell, taste and feel more intensely; and all the other senses reinforce each other in the same way. Each individual sense works for us together with the other senses. Hence, reduction to a sin­gle sense is equal to isolation, and it is wrong that a particu­lar sense should be better developed for the lack of another. There have been almost no significant composers who were blind from birth; there are even almost no great blind singers.

To elaborate yet further: Smelling and tasting must equally not be prescribed to us by what is offered to us for consumption. It must be intensified and sensitised accord­ing to the richness offered by our interior and exterior nature, not least according to the unspoilt specific wealth of edible substances. The same holds true for feeling and listening; we want to feel our way deeply into the things, open ourselves to sounds which are beyond our listening conventions and which reach into the abysses of screaming. Animals as a rule are furnished with a greater depth and acuity of sensory per­ception than is the case with humans. Why shouldn’t we bear the essential positive abilities of animals within our human­ity, or why don’t we develop and cultivate them?

The one does not exclude the other. Our development has often been too rash and too one-sided. We thought we could do without certain areas of experience, especially as far as our sensory experience is concerned, in favour of whetting our intellect. Today it is precisely our sharp intellect which tells us that this is just what we cannot do. I don’t mean to return to the animal, no resuscitation of things past, but to further develop something presents within us which has been ne­glected over the course of certain stages of development. The basic energies of our drives determined by our human nature demand more than intellectual sleepwalking. If this funda­mental desire is not fulfilled, repression and neuroses follow.

Views from 6 Day Play at Prizendorf Castle August 3-9,1998

4

Why do all things slimy, fleshy, soft, gelatinous, liquid require bring forth feeling? I have often tried to answer this question. But I have never fully succeeded. Still some more thoughts on the question posed, which extend beyond Freud’s anal theories. All things slimy, moist bring forth associations with our bodily existence, especially with our bodies’ flesh, soft-moist organs, the liquidness of blood, the secretions and substances which course through the body and with those which are evacuated, such as faeces, menstrual blood, urine, sperm, saliva, sweat, vomit etc. also, things eat­en, incorporated, chewed up, coated in saliva, half-digested and digested foodstuffs can come to mind. We are born cov­ered in slime. All the substances named produce disgust in the average normal observer. All the things listed register in­tensely, but cause disgust, raise a threshold of disgust. Only the doctor, the butcher, the hunter, the farmer, the cook, the cooking woman and the artist deal with the substances on our list.

Often it is the aggression, the injury perpetrated on an­other being, the killing, which directly confronts us with the inner substances of fleshly bodily existence. Blood sprays and runs from an injury, a wound renders the bare flesh visible. Only in its killing does the flesh and blood of the hunted animal become apparent. It’s gutting reveals the slimy-soft organs and the fluids coursing through our bodies. The colour red is among the most intense that we know. It is imbued with the most intense signal value, shocking our psycho-physical organisation. Whenever an injury occurs, mortal danger exists, garishly red blood spurts. Maybe red, the colour of blood, became such a beautiful intense colour because it is connected to attack, to mortal danger. The stone age aggressor and hunter gave in to the intensity of his feel­ing, which was determined by a predatory lust for killing, which meant survival and food up to wallowing satiety. For early man seeing, touching and feeling interior organs, the victim’s moist intestines was connected to a natural, sensual realisation of feeling concerning murderous predatory behav­iour, which has’ phylogenetic roots deep within us. For us, it is a grave trauma to (have to) kill and eat our animal broth­ers. The as yet indecipherable hygiene prescriptions, which practically prohibit normal contemporary man from feeling things moist and slimy, signify fear of death and destruction, of the very real insight that the desire to hunt and to kill is deeply rooted within us. Similarly, there is a fear of realising that we actually satisfy our hunger for killing almost uncon­sciously by eating meat. We deny this fact by paying butch­ers, removed from society, to kill for us. The meat proffered to us has been dismembered and packaged beyond recogni­tion and allows us to forget that animals have to die for our sustenance. The commandment not to kill is a sham for all of us, for killing is an everyday occurrence. But we KEEP OUR FINGERS CLEAN. The fear of being killed and of the fun­damental desire to kill is so strong that we protect ourselves from it even on merely seeing the moist and the slimy. We refuse to have anything to do with the display of the bare bodily organic. The slimy, abdominally moist draws us into the domain of death. But precisely this sensual intensity with which all things moist and slimy communicate their being to us is driven by the predatory drive of which we unaware at first and by the initially unconscious desire to kill. We are the strongest, most insatiable and ruthless murderous predator. This insight is part and parcel of the tragic reality of our ex­istence. Our culture, too, is a culture of predators. All myths centre on the trauma of the victim, on killing.

5

We have heard much now about the predatory need to kill lying within us. To think that I would want to glorify killing or even to invite killing or demand that all of us should kill in order to satisfy the desire would be completely to misunderstand me. Killing should be recognised as a tragic given in our being. We must accept the fact that we need to kill in order to be able to actuate our lives as a tragic funda­mental. It is necessary if you wish to fulfil creation. A restric­tion to vegetarian fare would rob us of our fundamental cre­ative drives. It would not be true to our nature.

The wish to kill should be taken out of its state of repres­sion and recognised in accordance with its real nature. The need for the intensity of the act of killing must be obviated by fundamentally intensive living and the most sensitive and intensive sensual incorporation and by unrestrained love of creation, by ecstatic, drunken seeing, tasting, smelling, hear­ing and feeling. The state of intensive living, drunk on exist­ing, the state of LOVE liberates from repressed, unadmitted, archaic needs.

6

Substances which intensely signal our predatory nature become visible in my actions. They plumb the depths of our psycho-physical being. Only if the threshold of dis­gust, which makes us forget our predatory nature, is removed will we understand how important flesh and blood are for analytical theatre which aims at revealing the Tragic reality of our humanity down to the tragic fundamental condition of our creation. Tragic is here not to be understood as des­peration and resignation; it is rather death in creation. Failure or self-transformation in and beyond death must occur, so that a consciousness wide awake for all eternity, ecstatically happily perceived, can come about. The tragic is overcome through a deep, everlasting yes to being alive.

7

Artists with their instinctive analytical approach to all aesthetic phenomena are fascinated by that world of the slimily, fleshily wet, beyond good and evil. They are fas­cinated by the challenge to our sensuality. They discover the “beautiful” beyond the disgust threshold. I am thinking of Renaissance artists who dissected bodies at the risk of their own deaths, of Rembrandt, who painted several anatomies of slaughtered bulls, just as the dutch in general represented gutted carcasses, fresh, moistly shimmering meaty fish and seafood again and again in their exuberant still lifes. I am furthermore thinking of Delacroix, who went to the slaugh­terhouse in the morning to study the glorious colours of the goings-on there. The interest in slaughtered animals and en­trails can be traced further through Lovis Corinth, Oskar Ko­koschka, Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon and the surrealists. We must not forget that at the centre of Christian painting are the passion and killing of a god, whose sacrificial flesh and blood is then offered to all as food and drink. In poetry, too, the sketched area of interest can be traced from homer through Greek tragedy to modernism.

“his axe the tendons severed
above the neck: the victim fell.”
“the black blood had drained.”
“the thighs burnt duly,
The inwards tasted, all the rest in pieces
They sliced” [1]…

KASSANDRA:
look there—see those creatures, young ones, sitting by the house, dark shapes, like something from a dream? They’re like children murdered by their loved ones … Their hands are full, clenching chunks of their own flesh as food, their guts and inner organs [2]…

MESSENGER: …from her clothes he ripped the golden brooches she wore as ornaments, raised them high, and drove them deep into his eyeballs…

with these words he raised his hand and struck, not once, but many times, right in the sockets, with every blow blood spurted from his eyes down on his beard, and not in single drops, but showers of dark blood spattered like hail. [3]

its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, burning and dripping with poisons, displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way its belly, swollen with gases the blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly, from which came forth black bat­talions of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid all along those living tatters. [4]

Rubens, river of oblivion, garden of indolence, pillow of cool flesh where one cannot love. [5]

you see blood-spattered flesh, nothing else, he who was a man just now, is one no more; you only see disgusting pale bloody flesh, help me! he’s choking me! my innards vomit up through my throat, I dealt a blow! hit with the axe! hit, blindly, not like felling a tree in the forest, with the edge, no: like bashing in the head of the ox. o, this sound, horrible, when his crown broke, his, the demigods!
he died no different from a common beast wheezing away its life!
by my hand? but no: he lives and I am dead. [6]

intestines wound round her arms, yellow-green snakes, and faeces oozed over their coats, a warm rotting liquid, they lanced the bladder, cold urine glimmered within like yellow wine, they poured it into wide bowls, it reeked sharp and bit­ing like ammonia.
his belly turned white like that of an eel under the doctors greedy fingers, who bathed their arms up to their elbows in the moist flesh. [7]

blood-quenched, blood-drenched, blood-wrenched,
chopped, minced, mauled,
shredded,
pounded, mashed,
smashed,
brain-spattered, brain-bared,skull-uncapped.[8]

bloods felt tricklemarks fleshes slime sucking nuts to decay murdersmurder [9]

the purple snails creep from broken bowls
and spew blood into thorny threads rigid and grey[10]

the blind strew suppurating wounds with incense red-gold gowns; torches; singing psalms.[11]

in baskets, woman carry innards. [12]

and suddenly a canal spews rich blood from the
slaughterhouse down into the calm river. [13]

at night his mouth broke open like a read fruit. [14]

beneath a hazel bush, the green hunter disembowels a deer and his hands smoke with blood. [15]

you, a blue animal quietly shivering; you, a pale priest slaugh­tering it on the black altar. [16]

green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth, crushed straw­berries! come, let us feast our eyes. [17]

once, i had to lie down on my stomach while he danced on my back with his feet, i didn’t feel his feet but only the pressures of my bowels against the floor. This languorous, heavy, sweet, exhausting pressure. [18]

8

It was only informal painting which demonstrated, above and beyond the purely representative, a joy in colour substances, colour liquids and colour pastes. Thus, the connection to my theatre is made. Starting from the sensual intensity raised by substances and liquids I devel­oped a type of action painting intended to satisfy the desire to feel intensely. I poured red paint on horizontal and ver­tical planes. In doing so, I entered into ecstatic excitement. Precisely that full sensual feeling which we talked about, prevented by civilisation, repressed, was supposed to come about. I called my then act of painting “letting off steam”. Re­pressed energies were supposed to rise to the surface and to be made conscious by acting out. The surface of the painting was soon outrun. The excitement brought forth by the act of painting demanded a still more intense, sensual experience.

Squashed pulp, oozing yolk, raw, wet meat, blood, serum, slaughtered sheep were used for actions which left the two-dimensional plane and happened in space. During eviscera­tion, the bloodily wet, gaping, skinned sheep carcass vomited and gave birth to bloodily moist guts, shining in a light red, colourful. Bowels bursting with faeces were explored through touch and torn out. The process of action painting was el­evated to theatre, to a dramatic process. The conclusion of the dionysian acting out which had been set in motion analyti­cally was achieved by the sadomasochistic fundamental expe­rience of excess, the dismemberment of a sheep. The mythical given of the torn dionysus, of the torn animal taking his place in ritual acts is cited. The repressed desire for acting out as in­tensely as possible, which mixed the passion for procreation with the desire to kill with every ecstatic experience, shows itself as a theatrical, dramatic event. The suppressed desire to kill is worked out, revealed and made conscious. The paint­ing of O.M. Theatre became an introductory ritual of a new theatre which uncovers the fundamental ill of deficient sen­sual experiencing, of not living out. The catastrophe of drama brings our actual sensual intensity to its conclusion. Our re­pressed intentions burst forth from us in a frenzy, in ecstasy, transform into sadomasochist excess (excess turns into the destruction of death), a fundamental current of (restrained) vitality becomes apparent, which can only fulfil us at the greatest of moments (unless it destroys us), which tran­scends life and death, which signifies the eternal transforma­tion of being. Once more: The passion for procreation and the desire to kill fuse into one. Incorporation, metabolisa-tion occur. The presence of death make the living sink into a murderous embrace. Victim and murderer are one. Death and life are but a current of voluptuous transformation, forces are cited and released, forces which go beyond us, which, if they fulfil us consciously, effect an intense state of being which seemingly removes us from the causality of birth and death. A being extending beyond individual life can be sensed. The universe comes booming through us, almost destroying us. Escape from normal, average, humdrum everyday life causes an abundance of energies to spring forth. The erupting ener­gies turn into destructive forces, attract death, want to return to renewed unfolding of force.

Breaking out of the constricting norm takes all our power and vitality. Energy otherwise restrained bursts from us, puts us deeply into the centre of our existence, our audacity, our prometheus-like extreme creative position which fears nei­ther life nor death (an identity with creation, with the pro­cess of creation and the rhythm of creation comes into be­ing). You become creation itself. Not (only) the preservation of life, the transformation of the world desiring more than death and life, metaphysics becomes a (consciously) lived ne­cessity. Intensely lived (creative) life brings us close to death. That which is intensely occurring is the transformation of the world which signifies more than life or death. Life and death are mere intermediate stages for the entire process of creation.

To perceive the mysticism of being, to affirm and recog­nise the transformation of the world, is to bring about meta­physics as an actual occurrence.

9

Seeing is most intimately connected with what has been said up to now, intensely seeing perception of the world surrounding us draws us into the depths of being. Let us imagine the occurrence to be seen beyond the tragedy of the dramatic action happening, let us attempt to perceive the aesthetic impression without the meaning content, if this is possible. That which is seen is just beautiful, deeply touching. An animal being skinned, what glory is revealed. Floral flesh, softly rose-coloured moistly warm muscle flesh appears, of­ten glimmering like mother-of-pearl, body-warm, excitingly, garishly screaming, shrilly scarlet BLOOD sprays and flows onto white sheets. The animal body is chopped open. The lay­ers of muscle holding in the mesentery are carefully cut with sharp knives. A FLOWER IS BEING DISEMBOWELLED; TEA ROSE PETAL FLESH reveals itself. Tea rose flesh, yolky-slimy, pollen-yellow, honey-slimy yolky substances. The stomach bag becomes visible, the intestines wobble warmly steaming, gelatinous, like twitching muscles, vulnerable like the skin on a viscous liquid which you drizzle with lemon juice. Nerve-twitching, carnation-coloured. From red, the rose tones of women’s lingerie through bluish, violet and cyclamen all the way to green tones, everything is contained within this bouquet of flesh. The faeces-heavy, faeces-filled intestines fall moistly, softly to the floor while the slaugh­tered bull is being pulled up. Brightly moist light-red lung flesh, pumped full of oxygenated arterial blood, is torn out of the body. It is as though heavy clumps of red tulips, gladi­oli and rose flesh were falling to the ground from the gaping body. All the colours of flowers fall to the ground as meat and intestines. The colours radiate from within the substances. The seeing participant in the play perceives everything, down to that which is contained within the innermost centre of the substance. The essence of substance is its transforma­tion, realising itself in its becoming and passing. It is simply beautiful to see our internal organs, lung, heart, kidneys, liv­er, stomach, intestines, the lines of the bloodvessels and the LIFEBLOOD. Again and again, it is the colour which renders the internal organs radiant, even though they are normally hidden from light. It is similar with deep sea fish, which in the midst of the deepest, darkest seas are painted in the most glorious colours. Might the colours have a further function which goes beyond merely being seen?

O.M. Theatre is a great feast for the eyes.

“Communal eating is a symbolic act of union… All enjoyment, appropriation, and assimilation is eating, or rather, eating is nothing but assimilation. All spiritual enjoyment can therefore be expressed through eating. – In friendship, one does indeed eat of one’s friend or live off him. It is a real trope to substitute the body for the spirit and when partaking of a memorial dinner for a friend to enjoy with keen, transcendental imagination, his flesh in every bite and his blood in ev­ery sip. The mushy taste of our times finds this barbaric, of course – but who is to think of raw, perishable blood andflesh?….And are blood and flesh really something so disgusting and ignoble? Truly, here is more than gold and diamond, and the time draws near in when people will have a higher understanding of the organic body.

Who knows what sublime symbol blood is? Precisely that we are feel disgusted of the organic components allows us to conclude that it contains something most sublime. We shy from them like children from ghosts and with childish dread anticipate in this strange mixture a mysterious world, which is probably an old acquaintance.” [19]

But to return to the memorial feast – is it inconceivable that our friend could now be a being whose flesh was bread and whose blood was wine?”

This incorporation, however, bears the mark of tragedy, it ends in the death of what is to be incorporated. Metabolism occurs ruthlessly, tragically, throughout our bodies. The mur­der of god is connected to the necessity of eating his flesh, and our resurrection is only effected, according to the myth, by incorporation. Our own death is incorporation into the environment and the world, into creation which surrounds us. The fully functioning senses, differentiated and controlled by thought, draw us into the surrounding world, into our creative happening, into our mystical being at one with the world. They drive us towards incorporation of the world so that the interior and exterior world become one physically, too. This is the root of the greatness of the shared meal, the timelessness of the celebration of the eucharist, where the god, symbol of all creation, which is exterior to the faithful for the time being, freely offers his body to be incorporated, so that the exalted subject can penetrate into the self of the faithful, which in turn is absorbed into god in creation.

Seeing, and the proper use of the senses in general means wanting to incorporate the surrounding world. We want to incorporate (in the truest sense of the world) the flesh of the exterior world and don’t want to merely function through time and space without living in a world of real experience, in other words, we don’t want to sleepwalk joylessly through life.

[1] Homeros – Odysseia
[2] Aeschylus – Oresteia
[3] Sophoikles – Oedipus Rex
[4], [5] Baudelaire – Les Fleurs du mal
[6] Gerhart Hauptmann -Atrides Tetralogy
[7] Georg Heym – Collected Prose
[8] Arno Holz – Phantasus
[9] August Stramm – Poetry
[10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] Georg Trakl – Poetry
[17] Ezra Pound – Collected Works
[18] Hanns Henny Jahn – Plays
[19] Novalis – Encyclopedia


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