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Student on Brus at Slought


We selected this excellent student post on Gunter Brus from several provided by Colette Copeland from her art writing and visual studies classes. Colette, too, posted on the Viennese Actionist, whose work is currently on exhibit at Slought Foundation.–r&l

Post by Audrey Menco.

I do not want to be writing this. Writing acknowledges that I had to sit through that “exhibit.” It forces me to think about those images again, the ones that have stayed with me and are not so nice to remember. Writing about Gunter Brus’ “art” almost makes him seem like an artist. In my eyes, he is not. His creative “blank canvas” platform that he stood on and soiled with his blood and refuse is appalling, not stimulating or thought-provoking. The only thought I keep having is, who on earth would call this art and dedicate space to it, time to it, and analysis to it.

Valie Export
Unable to torture you with another photograph of a Gunter Brus performance, and in respect for the points this post makes, we at Artblog decided to put up a couple of pictures of performances by Valie Export, another Viennese Actionist, who manages to be transgressive at the same time that no one gets hurt. This image is of Export’s Tap and Touch Cinema, a street performance in which she allowed people to feel under the curtain.

These are the attempts of analysis I was fed: Brus was a Viennese actionist; he wants to “rupture comfort;” he wants to depict his self-mutilation as a metaphor for the violence that ensued in the persecution and genocide of World War II. In the words of the Slought Foundation’s executive director [Aaron Levy], Brus’ aggressive, provocative, and disgusting performance “art” is a “humble protest against suffering,” an apology for Austria’s compliance with Germany in the war.

I sat through at least five minutes of Brus, crouched on his “canvas,” cutting and bleeding and thrashing. With the time allotted to remain in the gallery after the barrage of mutilation and self-deprecation being equated to a representation of the violence of World War II, I gravitated to the curatorial essay posted on the wall of the gallery. I was thinking, firstly, that the text would be an escape from the confrontational images and the caustic soundtracks of screams in the background. Secondly, maybe I could find something in this text to justify what this man is doing, to make this really be art, as it is claimed to be.

Valie Export
Another piece by Valie Export, Action Pants (the crotch is cut out).

I found more horror in reading the curator’s words than I thought was possible. Osvaldo Romberg announces Brus to be “a new pathway for the next generations of artists and intellectuals to come.” God help us if that’s true. Romberg marvels at Brus’ insight when he painted himself white in exhibitions, resembling the “corpses from the concentration camps in Germany, painted white with chlorine to avoid rapid putrefaction…” This is a marvel; it is morbid and despicable. Romberg reasons how Brus’s performances represent both a “cultural animal” and a “natural animal,” with his “tools having specific meaning.” Yes, Gunter Brus is just so deep and symbolic. The only thing he symbolizes to me is an uncivilized ape, neglectful and unmindful of where boundaries are not meant to be crossed.

I shared the facts of this exhibit with my parents. I shared my opinions, my disgust, my utter confusion as to how the word “human” could be associated with Brus much less the word “artist.” My parents are both children of Holocaust survivors. They are disgusted as well. My father said the exhibit:

…serves only as self-aggrandizement of the creator in his own mind in believing that he has a greater understanding than did the victims, their descendants, and any human being possessing reasonable intellect…[there is] the superior yet unsaid suggestion that if the viewer cannot comprehend the work’s meaning, then it is the viewer who is inferior and inhumane, rather than the creator. If the creator had any real understanding the disgrace perpetrated and truly wanted to represent the wrongness of it, he would not have exposed his ignorance in conveying that message in a way that is the antithesis of what one should learn from the events of the Holocaust (and genocide). Moreover, that body mutilation is forbidden under Jewish law and to suggest that such acts ought to be considered self-punishing is not the mechanism by which one atones… The real shock is not the work itself, but that the University of Pennsylvania supports such base refuse it calls “art” for the renaissance minds it seeks to cultivate for our future.

Dani Shoshan
Landscape, a construction by Israeli artist Dani Shoshan

It does not end there. I went to the Slought Foundation website to give this whole thing even more of a chance, to do some research, to make sure I had all of the facts. To my further disgust, I discovered that there is an exhibit at the gallery that is being shown alongside this one (to which the executive director of the gallery did not alert our attention): “In Search of An Israeli Art,” a show by Dani Shoshan–a show of mutilation performance “art” by Viennese actionist Gunter Brus, being shown alongside an Israeli’s work, a victim of the genocide Brus aims to “speak out for.” Shoshan’s work is said to be trying to establish a “real” Israeli art.

So Gunter Brus’ work is not questioned as art, but Dani Shoshan’s is.

The contradiction of hanging a show trying to replicate the pain of the Holocaust (a show which cannot fully understand that pain anyway) alongside an artist whose ancestors endured the actual pain is unbelievable. For the curatorial essay based on Shoshan’s work, Romberg finally concludes that yes, maybe Shoshan has produced something genuinely Israeli after all. Maybe that can be considered praise, but it is nothing in comparison to the reverent tone Romsberg takes when extolling Brus’s work. The word “disgust” just keeps resurfacing in my mind…

Gunter Brus did performance art for 10 years, and then went back to drawing and writing books. He is still remembered and acknowledged today, and he is considered historical, and important. How sad for history.

–Audrey Menco is a student of Colette Copeland at Penn