2.2 / Review

Castration Myth

By Spencer Young September 22, 2010

With its recent move to a new gallery space, Steven Wolf Fine Arts has immediately gone to work, eliding the just-trying-to-get-comfortable-and-situated phase by inaugurating its new home with an exhibition of real provocation. The exhibition Castration Myth opened on the most provocative of days, September 11, and contains a series of “Aktion” photographs by the Viennese performance artist and provocateur Rudolf Schwarzkogler. The show intentionally juxtaposes and rubs together two controversial “castrated” events—Schwarzkogler’s 1965 castration-as-art performance and the 9/11 terrorist attacks—in order to lend a resonating friction that shifts the relationship between both events from seemingly tenuous into one of new insight and interpretation.

In 1972, Time reported that Schwarzkogler “proceeded, inch by inch, to amputate his own penis, while a photographer recorded the act as an art event.”1 They also claimed that “[s]uccessive acts of self-amputation finally did Schwarzkogler in.” All of the above turned out to be false. The severed penis? Sliced fish. The sadistic performer? Schwarzkogler’s friend. And the artist’s death? Not “self-amputation,” but a fall from a second-story window in 1969. Rumors like these are what led to the “castration myth” and Schwarzkogler’s notoriety within the art world. Being associated with the Viennese Actionists, an avant-garde group that rejected art objects in favor of scatological performance art, Schwarzkogler helped provoke declarations like Time's “The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde.” Fast-forward to 2001, and the second castration event includes not one, but two phalluses in peril—the severing of the Twin Towers—with a similar mythologizing and vilifying effect.

The parallels between 9/11 and Schwarzkogler’s actions are many. Both events became legendary via images.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Untitled portrait from Aktion 3, 1965; silver gelatin print mounted on heavy card stock, 19.5 x 15.5 in. Courtesy of Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Untitled, Aktion 4, 1965; silver gelatin print, 13.5 x 13.5 in. Courtesy of Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

Schwarzkogler’s notoriety began at Documenta V, in 1972, with his butchered penis prints, while 9/11 grew infamous as the towers were cut ad nauseum across television screens and newspaper stands everywhere. Both criticized the purpose and possibility of an avant-garde. 9/11 declared irony dead by claiming to be the most seriously spectacular event in history, thus defaulting any marginal and subversive art and culture movement as child's play. Both have become shrouded in the confusions, conspiracies, and queries of a self-inflicted death.

For those who feel these connections are still tenuous, a look at the photographs in Castration Myth reveals an even stronger, more sinister correspondence. This realization came to me on my way home from the gallery when I noticed a bus on Market Street carrying an advertisement that read: “Real Ain’t Pretty.” To me, this phrase sums up what Viennese Actionism was all about—pushing art into the real, into an intensive authentic realm where life and art are one. But Schwarzkogler’s photographs in Castration Myth don’t fit this description. In fact, the reverse, “Artifice Is Pretty,” is more accurate.

Despite the macabre content—castration, subjects wrapped in gauze, bloodstains, a dead chicken, etc.—Schwarzkogler’s photographs are gorgeous. The reason for this is that while the other artists associated with Viennese Actionism performed in front of audiences in order to employ chance and thus “keep it real,” Schwarzkogler staged performances in his apartment so he could control situations and capture them photographically. The result is all artifice: clinical, meticulous scenes that could pass for high-fashion ads. The fact that all the images are in black-and-white furthers this clinical and fashionable aspect; all the potentially disturbing elements appear less as subjects of pain and loss and more as aesthetic objects. The rest of the photos’ stage props (rope, nets, razor blades, tangled wires, plaster balls) lend themselves to this aesthetically driven concern for balance and control. They appear carefully considered and positioned alongside, on, under, and in the models, who, young and attractive, with makeup and striking poses, also look unrealistically pretty.

When related back to the events of 9/11—a carefully executed plan of hijacking two jet airplanes and crashing them with precision into the most tender spot of America—Schwarzkogler’s photographs reveals its most haunting effect.



Castration Myth is on view at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, in San Francisco, through October 9, 2010.



1 Robert Hughes, “The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde,” Time, December 18, 1972. 

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