The divided self

A spotlight on Günter Brus.

The pain show, a body that has almost disappeared: a spotlight on the Austrian artist Günter Brus, performer and film maker, one of the of the founders of Viennese Actionism.

Gunther Brus focused the attention of his artistic study on the “gesture of painting” by using his body as the subject as well as the object of his works. In his  performances we can find as a recurring theme: the mutilation, shown both on the canvas and on the body, hinting at it or performing it through body painting. The use of white paint in particular, implies a form of cleansing or purgation. “In Self-Painting – Self-Mutilation” pictures took by Ludwig Hoffenreich, Brus appears with all the body painted and many sharp objects in his proximity, and while he painted a black line down the center of his face keep adding layers until his expression is totally obscured. These performances aimed to convey the image of a divided body, a body that has almost disappeared that can be read as a splitting of the self, or as a gaping wound, one that was put on very public show in the center of Vienna, tracing a link to the Nazi annexation of Austria to Germany. Brus was greatly critical about the Austrian society and of the narrative of its fascist past. With his art, he reacts with skepticism to the official victim state of his country, putting it on stage with emphasis through the S&M performances, used to achieve some relief from a state of crisis and transgress social and cultural norms. His performances where he urinates, defecates and cuts himself with a razor, bringing to everyone’s eyes his pain, exhibited to the extreme in his last aktion: “Breaking Test” performed in East Berlin in 70, where he cuts himself repeatedly with a ritual tension and surgical precision, as if to prove that the actions are real, in contrast to the symbolic ‘cutting’ seen in previous works. In this performance Brus offered his body to the audience in a way that evoked the bleeding body of Christ but reversing all his sacred meaning, wearing women’s underwear fetishistically in particular stockings and suspenders. These feminine markers of eroticism have clear sexual connotations, but Brus simply cuts through them before slicing into his own skin. Brus challenged the accepted norms of masculinity, undermining the conventions even further with his display of vulnerability, conflating queer sexuality with pain and violence, leaving the audience to put up with the pain he shared.

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