Interview: Hermann Nitsch


Hermann Nitsch photographed in his castle in Prinzendorf, a short drive outside Vienna. Photo by Peter-Pawel Kraljic

Alexandros Stavrakas: Are you working at the moment?

Hermann Nitsch: I’m always working.

A.S.: Painting?

H.N.: Also. But, mainly, I’m supervising a project: we’ve opened a museum in Naples with a big installation of relics from my work, photographs, artworks. It’s something for the future; so that students can go, study and be informed.

A.S.: Andy (Nitsch’s assistant) said you have a play planned in two years.

H.N.: Maybe, I hope so.

A.S.: Here?

H.N.: Here.

A.S.: Our issue’s theme is ‘Human and Divine’. It is in this context that we are interested in your work; because, it seems that you make reference to rituals, the human/animal distinction, the divine. Your work seems to have a lot to do with the enactment of faith, belief.

H.N.: I want to show with my work everything that is. I want to show the whole creation process, to start a creation, to show that everything is movement. There is an entire philosophical tradition I’m interested in: from the very important ancient Greeks (pre-Socratics and others), to the mystics, the Eastern philosophies.

A.S.: There is something very ridiculous though about this spiritual tourism we see nowadays…

H.N.: I agree. I don’t take things, I hate that. I think about these things.

A.S.: Are you religious?

H.N.: Yes, but not in any particular way; not in the way of believing in one religion. I believe in life, I enjoy nature. My ‘religion’ is the whole idea of creation, not a particular dogma, maybe a new religion. There was Buddha, there was Jesus Christ, there was also Nietszche; he was also a religious figure.

A.S.: In a sense he definitelly was: he never managed to escape his Christianity. His attempts only confirmed it at the end.

H.N.: Of course. There was a war; he fought the war against Christianity. I would say he was also a mystic in the traditional sense. He said ‘yes’ to all of life and this is a kind of mysticism. This is, precisely, the mysticism of ‘yes’, not the mysticism of ‘no’. Zarathustra was a mystic.

A.S.: Where do you find purpose?

H.N.: The only purpose is that things are. Working towards something, the purpose is found in being, in everything. You mentioned the divine. People ask me if I believe in God. I cannot answer this question. And, I would say, we have more interesting questions to think about than whether God exists. Everything exists in a way. The most important thing is that there is creation. Philosophy that goes back to Schelling and other early philosophers asks all these questions: ‘why is there something rather than nothing’. And that is, for me, the important thing. And in this sense of being, everything for me is important, all Gods, all religions, everything matters to me.

A.S.: Yes, but it’s one thing to say there is being and another to know what to do with it.

H.N.: I’ll tell you what to do with it: don’t lose your time, live, move, don’t worry about tomorrow. Celebrate creation.

A.S.: A very well known pre-Christian maxim which Christianity took away: carpe diem.

H.N.: Exactly. But, remember, Christianity is only one of many religions. And I have worked a lot with Christianity, especially some of its symbolisms for which I have great respect: the cross, the resurrection, the wishing for eternity. But there are so many things that are problematic for me: the abstinence from pleasure, this great border between immanence and transcendence, its opposition to life, which it considers no more than a mere compromise before heaven. As you can see, I have some problems with Christianity. Another thing that seems very bewildering to me is the idea that you have to love the other more than yourself. Well, love has nothing to do with a commandment, a law. To be in love is a state of being, not a demand, not a command; you are in it, there is no love out there to command yourself towards.

A.S.: Everything appears to be for you a state of life that does not seem to have beginning or end, a constant movement. What motivates this movement?

H.N.: My answer is: Don’t look for a purpose in everything. Don’t ask ‘is it good?’, ‘is it bad?’, ‘what is the meaning?’ I know only one thing: that I am here and I have to make the most of this time, there is no other possibility. To ‘make’ means to say ‘yes’ to the fact that I am here, not to stop and try to find a purpose. That’s all.

A.S.: In a sense, you are saying that there is only contingency, accident, chance, no deeper purpose, only a constant negotiation of our condition.

H.N.: Absolutely. When you look at any creation, be it plants, birds, animals or humans, their common characteristic is a movement towards the direction of existence. This development is meaning as such, nothing more. The only motivation in nature is life. Everything is built and is working towards this direction.

A.S.: So why do people always try to find a truth?

H.N.: I don’t know – but there is one line by Wittgenstein that I can relate to very much: “Not how the world is is the interesting thing. That the world is is the interesting thing.” How it is, is the problem of science; interesting, maybe, but a final answer can never be reached. Science cannot give you all the answers. This idea was a 19th century fable: it’s called Positivism…

A.S.: And Psychology, the exploration of human nature.

H.N.: Yes, but as you see, science has limits. I’m not against science, don’t get me wrong, you can do alot with it; but not everything.

A.S.: And science also depends a lot on the cultural values of the world in which it operates.

H.N.: Absolutely.

A.S.: To go back to Christianity, you perform rituals that are refferential to the Christian religion…

H.N.: We have to be very accurate here. When we speak about the ritual, to what degree does the ritual belong to religion? Is not ritual a thing that, maybe, equally belongs to art? You have rituals in music: Wagner. Or Monet, when he painted cathedrals in the morning, at noon, in the evening, his haystacks, using the same method: this is also a kind of ritual. Church does not have a monopoly on rituals. Rituals are everywhere: people eating their food for example…

A.S.: The rituals you enact engage the person fully. You try to break some consciousness boundaries, aesthetic, moral, without applying judgment.

H.N.: Exactly. Let’s not forget that one very important thing in the structure of life is the aesthetic. When I use blood, it is beautiful for me. Then I create these beautiful colours. Think of all the beautiful pictures of passion, think of the music of Bach and you will realize that aesthetics is not just pretty colours. Beauty goes very deep, it goes to the deepness of death. And I would say that when I find the form, it means that I have found the way of creation and, therefore, the intention, the purpose and, therefore, the meaning. There you go.

A.S.: So meaning comes after creation?

H.N.: There are so many theories of development. What comes first, what comes after. And, in this process, creation becomes too conscious through us.

A.S.: What do you think about ideology?

H.N.: I am very much against it. Ideology, particularly political ideology, destroys everything, it numbs our personal thinking. I want everybody to fight for their own thinking, their own meaning, accept no authority. I want people to be free.

A.S.: What does it mean to be free? There are things that define us that we cannot go beyond. To be against ideology is a contradiction, because it is already an idea.

H.N.: Ideology is a kind of machine, like technology. It makes you lazy, it does not celebrate creation. The alternative to that is my work, because it shall, hopefully, set you free. I want to bring everything into consciousness with the sole purpose of setting you free. I despise artists who work for an ideology, artists with political convictions, artists who use their work to promote ideologies.

A.S.: Like Picasso.

H.N.: Ah, I don’t think he’s such a great artist. Having said that, it can happen to anyone that they do something that turns out to be good.

A.S.: Yet still, you crave for communication with people. How is that not political?

H.N.: I am against Politics. There is only one way: you love art, you write about it, you make an analysis. If you don’t like it, it’s not necessary to write about it. But I am against criticism, against this automatic way of thinking that ideology imposes. It is important to always find new ways of thinking. None of these ridiculous maxims: ‘I don’t eat meat because I’m a Buddhist’.

A.S.: So you think belief impedes freedom…

H.N.: I’m just not interested in details, not interested to believe in environmentalism or sport or anything like that. I am not interested in any of these things.

A.S.: It’s hard to relate to this way of thinking…

H.N.: Yet our wisdom permits it.

A.S.: I wanted to ask you how you conceived the idea of the Orgien Mysterien Theatre?

H.N.: I get asked this a lot. There is no idea: it’s working, working, working. I tried to do a new kind of theatre and, well, it worked out. But one thing was for me very important: to lose language, make poetry without words. For me, words are inferior to the senses. There are many artists who tried to work in the direction of the performative, not using any words, any language. Language has borders, it is not everything. Sometimes you can see without language, when you hear music, when you feel very intensively, when there are no words.

A.S.: You can feel it, not think about it.

H.N.: OK. Then, to feel is more important.

A.S.: In your plays, you have full control over the senses of the participants. So, on the one hand, you liberate them from language, on the other you instruct them what to feel.

H.N.: I am like a cook cooking a meal, it’s the same principle. I create a game, a theatre play, I teach them to use their senses in the right way.

A.S.: Desires, urges…

H.N.: Yes, exactly. It is very important to use our sense in a broad way. I ask questions about life, being, and I hope that both come out in this game, in this theatre play.

A.S.: And when your play is over, you are left with a canvas. What is it? A relic? A remnant?

H.N.: What I try to do in this play is to develop like a monk in a monastery. My theatre play is a concentration of all that I want and all the experiences that are registered, surface in this process.

A.S.: A full experience, engagement of all senses.

H.N.: Yes. And the important think is that they are not contra spirit. This is only a false problem of consciousness. When you register your senses in your consciousness, you find yourself entangled in this dichotomy: here is the spirit, there is the body. This dualism doesn’t exist, it’s fake.

A.S.: How is it, after the play, going back to a normal every day life?

H.N.: I construct this explosion because I want to produces all these sensations. And these sensations don’t wane off; the actors, after becoming aware of them, go on to use them in their daily life. All these feelings that you don’t know are possible, open up new possibilities for you in your normal life.

A.S.: What result would you say your theatre has produced in the forty years of its run?

H.N.: I would, first of all, say that it is necessary to have this theatre in our society. At the same time, it is very romantic to think that a work of art, a work of philosophy will instantly bring change. Change will come, but it is impossible to say in what way and how long it will take. Some people that participate in my performances say that they had the most intensive experiences of their life. Let me say this: there is no story in my plays, I just try to show the development of our consciousness. The players in the drama are not special heroes on stage. In this sense, everybody is a hero, all participants are heroes; and the story of the performance is the development from Ego to Self. Ego is practical: money, politics, career; the Self is much more, it is being inside the process of creation, being in the cosmos without Ego. The Ego has to die; the self doesn’t have to die. Jung called this the individuation process: the journey from Ego to Self.

A.S.: Between play and canvas, which one is more important?

H.N.: They are two different things. The canvas is, in fact, the first step of my theatre. But the process is always more important than the result. And I always say that my theatre plays are a visual representation of my action theatre on the canvas – it’s a theatre play on the canvas.

A.S.: Is there a contemporary artist whose work you appreciate?

H.N.: I am a monist, I’m not interested in other artists.

A.S.: You said that years ago you were arrested because of provocation. Many contemporary artists like provocation for the sake of shocking, without any motivation, only for the sheer sensationalism of the spectacle.

H.N.: I cannot relate to that. My work is tied to the intensity of passion, the intensity of Greek tragedy, Sophocles, Euripides. But, regarding my past, I was always an anarchist, never belonged to the Left, never to the Right. That’s not to say that I wasn’t thinking in a social way; art is by definition always social. If an artist is not in some way an altruist, not interested in the function of his work, he is not an artist.

A.S.: Your works seem to invoke a world of their own, a world outside reality.

H.N.: It is like going back to the uterus, the womb. Art, like the uterus, is a bit like a model of the cosmos. I don’t know if you saw those little houses on your way here to the Castle. Many people ask: ‘Is this where poor people live?’. These are not poor people’s houses. They are for the fermentation of wine. And the wine farmers, when they have time, they sit in these cellars and drink wine. It is a bit like going back into the body of your mother. I try to make my players re-enter the womb. People here like to drink a lot – it’s a kind of return to your mother’s body – this degree of comfort.

A.S.: Do you like animals?

H.N.: I love animals. I also know a lot about them, their species, their functions; and let me tell you, we are not as different from them as we like to think. Like positivism, anthropocentricism is nonsense. Nietszche was right when he spoke of √úbermensch. Maybe in the future it will be possible. From stone to animal to human being. Why do we always assume that we have reached the end of our evolution? What a ridiculous idea.

A.S.: Do you reflect on what you have done so far in your life, your contribution in a way?

H.N.: Yes. And it’s not enough. I have much more to do. I am not at the end and will never be at the end. I notice how things are different when I work – more pain, less power – but, on the other hand, I have much more concentration. I have always been interested in the last works of artists. Titian did his greatest works at the end of his life. Michelangelo, Beethoven, their last works were the best.

A.S.: Do you watch the news, read the papers?

H.N.: Every morning the papers are laying on my table. I’m not really interested.

A.S.: How do you feel when people buy your works? Are you attached to them or are you glad when they are gone?

H.N.: I am not a collector. Many artists collect their own works. I’m always happy to sell paintings. It means I can enjoy my life: I can drink wine, have a good meal, invite all my friends, buy a little motorbike, I can buy books, records, realize my theatre plays – I pay for my plays, you know. I’m happy when I sell, this is life: movement, constant regeneration, producing and consuming and producing again, not remaining stagnant. I’m not at all against money. Of, course it’s really very unfortunate that more than half of our fellow humans have nothing to eat. There must be a solution to this, a sense of justice. I’m sure some genius will work it out

  • About

    Alexandros Stavrakas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied politics, philosophy and economy, followed by graduate studies in philosophy at the LSE and anthropology at UCL. He has written articles, translated, lectured and worked as contributing editor. He is the Editor of Bedeutung Magazine.

    The Interview with Hermann Nitsch appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.