Put down your copies of Wreckers, it's time for a blast from the Blood Organ. Atlas Press has finally released its collection of texts by Gunter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the seventh in its fantastic "documents of the avant-garde" series.
These last few years the actionists have seemed to be name-checked everywhere without any clear idea of what they were up to. In 1998, Bridget Bardot flew to Austria to protest Nitsch's six day Orgies Mysteries Theater Play, calling it a "satanic spectacle." Strangely enough, this put her in agreement with Jorg Haider, Austria's far-right Freedom Party leader (and, quellecoincidence, an acquaintance of Giuliani's), who seems to think better of Hitler than of Nitsch. Since then, there have been exhibitions of their films and photographs in New York, but Nitsch is the only one of the bunch whose theories have become widely distributed in English (naturlich he has his own website auf Deutsch, www.nitsch.org). Well, folks can't claim excuses for ignorance much longer, Writings covers each of the artists in detail, providing scripts for actions, manifestoes, remembrances, court appearances, and programmes with exhaustive thoroughness, and it doesn't cost much for an art book either. Not that the collection will endear Brus and co. to every artlover's heart.

The collection works best in pointing out the great differences between the actionists, something which displays of the photographs and films can blur in a wash of bodies, gauze, and blood. It quickly tosses out the old Schwarzkogler myth that he died for the sake of art after lopping off his own penis, but that story does speak to the distorting haze around these artists. It's the painful acts that people remember: Brus slicing open his thigh then peeing down it to colorful effect. But Muehl's humor or Nitsch's delicacy, his wafting tea rose scents about his carcasses, are unsettlingly civilized. Schwarzkogler, far from cutting his dick off, was the most fastidious of the four, avoiding performing in Muehl's actions after he found his first experience "very dirty."

While having similar interests in getting art off the easel and into life, they hardly agreed about theory or method. Nitsch and Schwarzkogler seem the most highminded of the bunch; Nitsch constantly reformulated his ideas about the O.M. Theater, moving from a heavy-handed Freudianism to a sort of anthropological free-for-all, in which Christian sacrifice finds its equivalents in other religions. Schwarzkogler intended to turn every moment into synaesthetic reverie, or as he also says, "art will be reduced to a purgatory of the senses." For him, rather than paint, the artist's purpose is to create those tableaux which paintings represent, to incarnate that world of the senses, then photograph it. Gunter Brus more than any of the others worked with his own body, humiliating and paining himself and his audience in a challenge of taboos against public shitting, urinating, and masturbating. For his troubles he was arrested several times and ultimately sentenced to 6 month's imprisonment which he avoided by fleeing to Germany. Otto Muehl's pieces degraded his oddly willing models rather than himself, but he remains the funniest of the bunch, his Zock manifesto pushing an Ubuesque revolution: "Stage 1 [...] the planet is leveled and sprayed with a coat of synthetic foam." His actionist days ended in 1972 with the establishment of the Actions-Analytical commune devoted to free love, developing artistic abilities, and undoing the harms of family life. Eventually he breached the last great taboo, and in 1991 was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment on pedophilia and other charges.

Other works on the actionists have included better-printed photographs, but none have presented in English so many texts by the artists themselves. Buy the book, then find a library with From Action Painting to Actionism, Viennese Actionism 1960-1971, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, all works which show how the photographs should actually look. As for Writings of the Vienna Actionists, it will remain one of the best sources on these artists for a long time.