The Death of Otto Muehl Reminds Us That Austrian Art in the ’70s Was Radical, Gross, And Weird [NSFW]

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Otto Muehl, who died on Sunday at the age of 87, embodied everything that attracts and repulses us about contemporary Austrian art. A pioneer of the Viennese Actionism movement, which anticipated the rise of performance and body art in the 1970s and 1980s, Muehl dedicated his public persona — as well as several years’ prison time — to morbid psychology, radical politics, sex, and death. Most of the comments on his legacy have mentioned projects that would have tested the limits of acceptability — even if they took place today. And yet, in a lineup with other Austrian artists, he occasionally struggles to stand out.

[Image via Flickr]

Keep in mind that this is the very home of goth-y sculpture and performance. Years before he found a kindred mind among the Actionists, Hermann Nitsch was regularly making work out of skinned lambs and animal intestines.

Nitsch was closely followed by Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who cut up dead chicken and fish in his performances, including a piece of flesh that was used to cover his groin, which directed credence to the myth that Schwarzkogler had castrated himself to make a work of art.

Muehl also was not the only Viennese performance artist to be arrested for his work in the 1960s or 1970s. During the exhibition Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution), Muehl’s buddy Günter Brus reportedly urinated into a glass, drank it, covered his body in his own excrement, masturbated while singing the Austrian National Anthem, and induced vomiting.

Yeah. I know. At the same event, Muehl threw beer around, and was similarly arrested for obscenity. In the 1970s, Christian Ide Hintze was arrested for handing out leaflets and obstructing traffic while he read poetry into a megaphone. Hintz was briefly interrogated, Muehl was sentenced to a month in prison, and Brus to six. The difference among them may only be one of degree.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (above), who sought a return to the biomorphic forms and colors in his sculpture and architecture, fully believed his work would reverse the alienation from the old order that culminated in the severe, geometric marches and flags of the Nazi era. This return to nature, in his mind, included reviving the monarchy and reforming the country’s sewage system; for environmental reasons, he was an outspoken advocate of composting toilets, which he wrote about in his 1979 manifesto, “Scheme ißkultur” (“Holy shit”).

In other words, Muehl was hardly alone in the 1970s in his commitment to integrating art and life with an obscure strain of political philosophy.

In 1991, Muehl was convicted of illicit drug use and sex with minors while acting, for 20 years, as the autocratic governor of the Kommune Friedrichshof, a commune in the Burgenland province, east of Vienna, where behavior was governed by an eclectic theory of sexual and political liberation called Aktionsanalyse. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served six and a half.

While expressing deep regrets, he told the reporters that at the time, his involvement with the young ladies at the commune was inseparable from his political mission. “Why should the government dictate when you should have sex?” he asked a Frankfurt newspaper in 2004. “I’m not a child molester.” he told Die Zeit. “This is nonsense. The girls were all developed.”