Kurt Kren Retrospective

I have been wrestling this week with my ambivalent reaction towards the recent Kurt Kren and Viennese Actionist Film near-complete retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives which I found to be both enervating and exhilarating in equal measures. In retrospect, this inability to reconcile with the artist’s body of work seems to stem from Kren’s markedly divergent, subjective approaches to filmmaking.

On one side of the argument is Kren’s early structural studies that, like Peter Kubelka’s metric films, create textural composition through subliminal imagery, visual repetition, and sensorial distillation, resulting in a film that is intrinsically rhythmic, sensual, and experientially pure. Among the most notable in the Early Works and Actions program are the evocatively foreboding, natural compositions of 3/60 Bäume in Herbst (a film that prefigures the stark desolation of Ernie Gehr’s Precarious Garden), the morphing, “apparent” animation (achieved through editing and shot placement) geometric, graphic arts studies of 11/65 Bild Helga Philipp, and the anonymous despiritualization of urban spaces (and residents) in 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, Etc.

However, on the other side of the argument is Kren’s energized, pulsing, and highly stylized documentation of the Actionist movement that captures disturbingly graphic and often salacious images that straddle the fulcrum between libertine expression and provocative sensationalism, resulting in works that seem exploitive, pornographic, and even literally excremental (as in the Forms and Bodies program short, 16/67 20.September that presents a seemingly interminable looped sequence of a disembodied person relieving himself). It is within this collaborative realm of “artist filming artist” (and in the case of 16/67 20.September, an artist goading/inspiring/provoking another artist) that I find Kren’s vision to be particularly amorphous, untenable, vile, and elusive, which seems to validate the personal observation that it is not Kren’s technical skill or abstract compositions that I find obtuse, repulsive, or otherwise problemmatic in some of his fims but rather, the selection of certain (artistically nebulous) subjects within his work: a broader aversion to (or unreconciled disaffection for) the Actionist movement – or at least, in the overarching vision of Kren’s featured artists that define the materialaktion (essentially, the performance art) – that the filmmaker captures on film.

The intriguing, underlying Actionist concept of materialaktion lies in the presentation – and observation – of the human body, not as an organic form, but as a plastic and deformable (and continuous) surface that exhibits specific and unique material properties when in action or subjected to dynamic motion. Of the two Actionists featured in Kren’s films, Otto Mühl (filmed in color) and Günter Brus (filmed in black and white), Mühl’s oeuvre – as represented in Kren’s films – seems the most artistically bankrupt and irredeemable: elementally saturated, consciously outré, and baroque, his work recalls the atmospherically dense, bacchanalian kitsch of Kenneth Anger without the implicit, covert, sinister ritual. Through films such as 6/64 Mama und Papa, 9/64 O Tannenbaum, and 7/64 Leda mit dem Schwan, Mühl reveals a penchant for capturing the action of the body engaged in primitivistic (and implicitly sexual) behavior, using assorted tactile materials such as chicken eggs, clay, paint, wispy objects like flax and feathers, inflated rubber balloons, and flowers (inserted in human orifices) to depict the human body as artistic canvas or as linear props that define geometry through erogenous vertices (as in the otherwise forgettable 12/66 Cosinus Alpha).

In contrast to the voyeuristic intimacy of Mühl, Brus’ work reveals a more estranged and abstract perspective, often incorporating correlative objects and mechanisms (in particular, bicycles) into the composition, but exist apart from the actions of the (human) body. The most indelible short film in the Brus materialaktion series is 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, a haunting and innately disturbing expression of profound alienation as the artist, covered in a clay-like, deformable medium, performs grotesque acts of disfigurement and self-mutilation, revealing an even more intimate and profoundly unsettling presentation of a body in agony.

Nevertheless, the stylistic constant in what has proven to be a polarizing and aesthetically confounding experience is Kren’s metric precision – an intuitive rhythm that pushes the liminal bounds of what is visible and, perhaps more relevantly, challenges the notion of what is filmable and artistically capturable. It is this intrinsic confrontation that is perhaps best reflected in the subtly hypnotic and abstractly dissociative microcosmic landscapes of 4/61 Mauern Positiv-Negativ, an observational study that illustrates patterns of metallurgical surface grain and scale through rapidly alternating positive and negative images, a perceptional material duality that effectively blurs the distinction between void and substance, presence and absence, the tactile and the impression.

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