Natalie Gravenor | Monday May 27th, 2013
Austrian artist Otto Mühl died on May 26 at age 87. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but was active until his last years, exploring digital technology to create new work from samples and adaptations of earlier paintings. The controversial artist and commune leader has been the subject of three documentaries: CHILDREN OF THE COMMUNE, the artist portrait BECOMING OTTO and the recently released “Meine keine Familie” (My Non-Family) by director Paul-Julien Robert who grew up in the Friedrichshof commune.
Mühl was part of generation of artists coming of age towards the end of and after the calamity of World War II. Reacting to what they thought was ineffectual art of the 1950’s andearly 1960’s, Mühl and other artists like Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Owald Wiener and Rudolf Schwarzkogler aimed to shake Austrian (and Western) society out of a consumerist complacency and provoke meaningful debate about the National Socialist past. They developed a radical art practice. As the so-called Vienna Actionists (a term coined by artist and theorist Peter Weibel in 1969), concurrent to the like-minded Fluxus movements and art happenings, these artists questioned conventional understandings of art by incorporating everyday objects, animal flesh, their own bodies and its fluids and by-products such as urine and excrement into art works that emphasized process over product. Breaking religious and social taboos (Austrian society was and still continues to be determined by Catholic hangups about guilt and sex, see Michael Haneke’s adaption of Elfriede Jelinek’s scathing novel THE PIANO TEACHER), refuting authority and dissolving the boundary between art and life were central to the Actionist agenda. It can be seen as one specifically Austrian contribution to the late 60s cultural and political revolt.
By the early 1970s, prime movers Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch had broken away from the Actionists. Nitsch emigrated to Germany in 1968, though he bought the lower Austrian Prinzenhof castle from the Catholic church in 1971 and performs his experimental “Orgy Mystery Plays” here annually. Around the same time, Mühl became disenchanted with the happening as a political art statement, calling it “bourgeois”. Inspired Arthur Janov’s primal scream, bioenergetics, gestalt therapy, and the orgasm as liberation teachings of psychologist Wilhelm Reich, especially the maxim that “the family is the breeding grounding of all disease” Mühl founded the AAO (Action-Analytical Organization) and founded an anti-authoritarian commune as his greatest art project. First located in Mühl’s own and other nearby apartments in Vienna, he then purchased a farm in Friedrichshof, 60 kilometers south of Vienna and moved the commune there in 1972. Commune members had their hair cropped short (a reaction against long-haired hippies) and wore blue striped overalls. Private property and the nuclear family, two designated root causes of capitalist dysfunction, were abolished. Sexual experimentation was encouraged; children were reared collectively and not within smaller family units. Creative activity as self-expression, from painting and sculpture to ecstatic public performances, was encouraged. The commune offered facilities such as a school and a biological waste water plant and sustained itself through farming, small businesses and “commune tourists” who paid to help out and thus learn the AAO way.
Friedrichshof seemed to follow egalitarian principles of collective social forms as the Kibbutz, but its identity-dissolution therapy also resembled the mind control techniques of some religious sects. And though Mühl started his bold social experiment as a means of exploring the roots of authoritarianism and fascism in order to overcome them, as so often in such utopian set ups, he became the worst abuser of the power entrusted to him. He regularly engaged in sexual intercourse with underage girls who were no had been isolated from the protection of the reviled nuclear family. While Mühl purported that he was promoting healthy psychosexual development, many young women later testified that the sex was not consensual and they were traumatized by the lack of privacy and intimacy. Mühl also introduced hierarchical structures (putting himself at the top) and cult of personality, exempted himself from self-critical AAO procedures, and practised Reichian techniques which were tantamount to corporal punishment. Collective property was abolished in 1979, and by the time the remnants of the commune had relocated to the Spanish island of Gomera in 1986, to flee feared nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, AAO had lost most of its utopian appeal. Mühl faced accusations of bribing Spanish officials to obtain building permits. In 1988 Mühl was investigated for sexual abuse of and unlawful distribution of illegal substances to minors, based upon testimonies of former Friedrichshof members. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 1991. He served the full term.
After his release from prison, he moved to Portugal (where lived until his death, in a new, smaller commune). Later that year, Burgtheater director Claus Peymann invited Mühl to read at his theater, sparking great controversy while also bringing him back into the public sphere. 1998 also saw a major solo show in Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts. On the occasion of a career retrospective in 2010, Mühl publicly apologized to the children of Friedrichshof. Too little, too late? Mühl had always asserted that the sexual activity was governed by certain rules and that by being exposed to free sexual expression at an early age, the children were aware of what was happening and able to make a conscious choice. He claimed that his were the best intentions – to liberate the youths from the sexual and social repression of the Western world, not overpower or hurt them. If that was the result, he hoped for their forgiveness.
Can Mühl’s artistic legacy – his neo-expressionistic paintings which often depict Hitler as if to exorcise the evil he caused, his objects and readymades and the radical, envelope-pushing actions – be separated from the social legacy: the Friedrichshof commune and what happened to the children who grew up there? Perhaps the answer lies in what artist-musician and scholar Wolfgang Müller once said that the dividing line between artists with and without integrity is the extent to which they put their own bodies on the line and not just exploit those of others. That criterium marks the watershed between Mühl’s provocative Vienna Actionism and his post-1970 social engineering as gesamtkunstwerk, and yet the messy continuities and grayzones between both Mühls must also be confronted, as must the social circumstances that engendered a response like the AAO project .