Home » OldThings » Bookmunch » The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group – Stephen Barber

The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group – Stephen Barber

The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group - Stephen BarberCreation Books 2004 , 160 pages , £11.99

Bitesize: Shock theatrics on film – wallow in the degrading art of the Vienna Action Group.

So, you think you’re pretty rock ‘n’ roll do you? Reckon you’ve seen it all, done it all and that the Dirty Sanchez blokes wouldn’t know gross if it vomited on them? Well, the Vienna Action Group would still out-puke you AND get to call it art as well. So who are this bunch of happy (or not-so happy) go lucky funsters?

Formed in Vienna (funnily enough) in the 1960s, the VAG (as we’ll affectionately call ’em from here on in) took performance art out of its cosy “cover a naked lady in blue emulsion” beginnings and dragged it through the quagmire of a decade, coming to terms with televised warfare and crumbling moral boundaries. Not content to merely talk about sex and whip their togs off, the VAG went the whole hog and shagged on stage. For the sake of art, naturally. But they didn’t stop there, far from it, the shag-fest a mere (w)hor(e)s d’oeuvre to the main courses of theatrical depravity.

Putting it bluntly: they’d give anything a bash – sometimes animals, sometimes themselves. They’d kill a few beasts. They’d stab and mutilate each other and themselves. Toilet breaks? Not for these crazy dudes – why stop the performance mid swing? Surely it’s better to just shit on the stage and get on with the rest of the show? Naturally, such antics were not always appreciated and the overall effect on the main members’ lives was profound – imprisonment, breakdowns and even suicide. Were this just a theatrical movement, the VAG might well have languished as a footnote in experimental performance art, but fortunately (!) for us many key performances were filmed so we can ‘enjoy’ the VAG experience at our leisure.

The films themselves range from documents of performances to highly structured experimental films. The Art of Destruction concerns the main protagonists of the movement and their own particular brands of performance/art/terrorism as well as a discussion of the major films and their influences. Each member is given space for biography (and there are some bizarre backgrounds to be sure) and key performances, all amply illustrated in disturbing black and white. Rather than just a catalogue of broken taboos the VAG are seen as natural extensions of both Dadaism and the “Happening” scene of the ’50s, but one distinctly Austrian in the way that it rebelled against a harshly censorious government whom the performers saw as intrinsically unrepentant of its recent fascist past. This adds greater weight to the performances than perhaps the later New York transgressive movement, and their influence can be seen in everything from Helnwein paintings to mainstream Marilyn Manson videos.

The VAG’s story is an engrossing and compelling one (despite necessary repetition), of arrests, imprisonment, notoriety, cult-like sex in chateaux, suicide and degradation but it’s not for all tastes – the very nature of their art is confrontational, nihilistic and the book reflects that. Graphic illustrations of coprophilia, masturbation with animal organs, self-mutilation, defecation and a host of other perversities are the order of the day so you might feel the need for a cleansing shower after reading.

Any Cop?: Fascinating but worrying art-film book for very sick bunnies only.