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The almost bucolic atmosphere of the campus of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana witnessed on the evening of Monday, May 14, 2012, a disturbing event: the controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch and a group of students of the University of the Arts staged performance number 135, by one who is considered one of the “fathers” of this manifestation, and founder, along with Otto Muehl and Rudolf Schwartzkogler, of the “Viennese Actionism.”
Jesus against the Universe is the name of this action, in which a pig and a fish were gutted and the blood smeared on the student/artists, who were completely involved and focused on what they did. Those of us present who managed to overcome the violence of the event couldn’t help going back to archaic stages of human development when men believed they could decipher the future in the entrails of animals, or were sacrificed and offered to the gods.
The students, wrapped in white robes that soon became stained with the unmistakable red of blood, also reminded us of the virgins who were sacrificed to appease divine wrath, although the naked bodies tied to a tree referred us to the crucifixion of Christ, explicitly put forward in the title of the performance. However, the music performed by the University’s Symphony Orchestra, the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro and several musicians from Síntesis, plus the tropical fruit used in the action, forced a quick relocation in space and time, directing the viewer to certain ritual ceremonies of Afro-Cuban religions. An evocation of Homage to Ana Mendieta and The Burden of Guilt, by the also controversial Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, was also inevitable.
The acrid smell of blood, spilled, smeared on, drunk; the jumble of viscera; the red that stained bodies and clothes; but most of all the obvious enthusiasm of the officiants made us acknowledge certain truths in William Golding’s novel “The Lord of the Flies” with its allegory of human society and the unpredictable extent of instincts out of control. Are we so far as we believe we are from atavistic fears, from the “primitive” uncertainties and behaviors of our ancestors? Do cruelty and violence as well as noble sentiments unite us with all human beings?
With the terrifying beauty of the contrast between the hackneyed purity of white in clothes and panels and the symbolism of red, the brief nudity of bodies, the dramatic staging of the ritual and the invasion of all the senses of the viewers, Nitsch--who the next day received an honorary doctorate at the University of the Arts--and his Cuban collaborators hoped to produce in the audience a cathartic reaction that would release them from the stresses produced by a chaotic world. From what I saw, they did, as well as other side effects that they possibly never suspected could happen. The friend who accompanied me, who gulped more than once during the entire performance, yearning for the Ship of Tolerance and its message of hope, confessed to me that he was seriously thinking of going vegetarian. Perhaps environmentalists and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, who have both criticized the practices of the famous Austrian artist, will thank my friend for his sudden conversion.
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