The Irish Times, 01. August 2001

Aiden Dunne

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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