Primal Secretions-Gunter Brus at Slought


Post by Colette Copeland

Gunter Brus
Gunter Brus, documentation from a Vienna performance in the 1970s. Show now on view at Slought Foundation.

I spent an afternoon and evening at Slought last week with my two UPenn classes viewing the Gunter Brus Retrospective. Flashback to February 2005 when I brought my classes to see Herman Nitsch. Flash-forward 18 months–the students have almost identical experiences. Shell-shocked, they sat open-mouthed or hands covering their eyes, while watching video documentation of a 1970 Brus action Zerreissprobe, as he performs violent, self-mutilating gestures upon himself. Gallery Director Aaron Levy patiently explained the historical context surrounding the Viennese Actionists and their response to World War II atrocities and Austria’s denial of its involvement in the Holocaust. Most students were unable to move past the gruesome subject matter to respond with any type of critical analysis.

Later that night, Cecilia Novero astutely spoke about Brus’ work, analyzing some of his actions featured in the documentary film, BodyAnalysis by Peter Kasparak. As Novero stated, she was not interested in whether people considered the work art or not, but interested in the ideas that the work addresses. If we think about Brus’ work symbolically, he is re-claiming the ‘body’ that the Nazis tortured and killed by subjecting his own body to surgical analysis; the investigation of the body’s tolerance for pain and torture. Novero spoke of these investigations as a tool to test the limits of the body against the processes of socialization. These actions were a direct confrontation/provocation to the complacency of the bourgeois in Vienna during the 1960’s.

The actions certainly generated a lot of attention, resulting in arrests and prison for Brus and other artists. In one action called the Vienna Walk, Brus is arrested walking on his way to his gallery opening. Dressed in white with white-painted skin, a black line viciously segmented his body. This was enough to rile the police into making an arrest. Another action—Kunst & Revolution (1968), resulted in Brus’ receiving a 6-month prison sentence. He fled to Germany during that time. In our comfy middle class lives, we tend to look upon extreme gestures with skepticism—questioning one’s mental stability, especially when it comes to art. I will never enjoy watching someone piss then drink their own urine, vomit, cut open their leg and stitch it back together, but it is through this visceral discomfort that Brus asks us to confront our own history and mortality.

(Note: Zerreissprobe, 1970, —this was Brus’ last action. It is important to understand that his actions evolved over 6 years and after this action, he realized that the only way to push it further was death, so he stopped.)

Primal Secretions: A Gunter Brus Retrospective on exhibit at the Slought Gallery through December 23rd.

–Artist Colette Copeland is a regular contributor to Artblog.


colette copeland, gnter brus



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