The Irish Times, 01. August 2001
Artist Gottfried Helnwein does not tread lightly with his art - Nazis, mutilation
and surgical instruments regularly crop up in his work. Aiden Dunne warns festival-goers
what to expect.
In Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein's Epiphany, Nazi officers in uniform
cluster around an Aryan woman, an icy blonde Madonna. She supports a naked
infant who, it occurs to you, resembles Adolf Hitler, particularly as it has
a precocious moustache. For an Austrian artist to venture into this highly
charged terrain, blatantly conflating Christian and Nazi iconography, and doing
so with work that had such an ambiguous edge and leaves a lot to our own imaginations,
suggests a particularly provocative sensibility.
And, on the score, Helnwein certainly fits the bill, as a lot of people will
discover when they encounter his work at first hand during the Kilkenny Arts
Festival. In fact, his work, distributed over several venues, will be hard
to miss. He makes sure of that.
Incidentally, he does not come to Kilkenny as a stranger. For several years
he and his wife Renate have lived in a castle in Co. Tipperary. A technically
proficient, immensely versatile artist who seems to think instinctively on
a grand scale, he had systematically broken taboos. Some of his earliest public
"actions" involved cutting himself with razor blades. These were
very much in keeping with a taste for elaborate performance featuring violent,
bloody spectacle typical of Herman Nitsch and the notorious Vienna Group.
There is an account of a late 1970s performance by Helnwein in which he drove
around in Nazi regalia, his head bandaged and apparently bleeding. Since then
he has become much more confrontational in his approach. He anticipated British
artist Gillian Wearing by a number of years in wandering the streets with his
head and face swathed in bandages, recording the reactions of passers-by.
As will be readily apparent from his Kilkenny exhibitions, scale is an important
part of his strategy because, he wants to engage with the widest possible public.
To this end, transgression is also central. Many of his images set out expressly
to stop us in our tracks, confronting us with scenes of what look alarmingly
like grotesque surgical experiments, of horrible torture, of children in distressing
situations, of distorted and mutated flesh. . .
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