Micha Brendel is one of the founding members of the Autoperforationsartisten – translated loosely as “Self-perforation artists” – active in the 1980s in East Germany. The group formed when they were students, and started creating performances and live events as a new and different form of expression, an alternative to the status quo at the time.
I spoke to Micha a lot about life in the German Democratic Republic. In the 1980s, when the situation in the rest of Eastern Europe was becoming somewhat more relaxed, in the wake of perestroika and glasnost, in the GDR, where daily life was under the constant scrutiny and control of the State Security [Staatssicherheit], this was not the case. The atmosphere Micha described to me was oppressive: full of suspicion and insecurity on a daily basis. He told me that he and his friends were constantly coming up with plans for escape – through Hungary, in a hot air balloon, by marriage to someone from West Berlin. Eventually, the Wall fell, and of course the situation changed dramatically.
The Autoperforationsartisten were active for a brief period at the end of the GDR, from 1987-1991. Their work is symptomatic of the climate at this time, and all three of the four artists from this group that I spoke to described their work as a direct result of the socio-political situation. Their name is a compound term of their own invention, and derives from three components: “auto,” referring to the self or ego; “perforation,” referring to destruction or in this case self-destruction; and “artistic,” a reference to the humorous, comic or absurd aspect of their work, as artistik in German refers more to circus performers that to artists. The group formed when they were students; initially it consisted of Micha, Via Lewandowsky and Else Gabriel; later they were joined by an artist and student younger than them, Rainer Gorss.
The group’s first performance took place in 1986, the context of a student carnival. This was a typical student event, and as an informal evening that was more of a party than an official artistic exhibition or presentation, the rules were more relaxed, and experimental work was tolerated. Consequently, the group (Micha, Via and Else), together with other students, put on a presentation – which they referred to more as a type of theater than performance art per se. The piece, entitled The Top of the Meat Mountain [Die Spitze des Fleischbergs] consisted of absurd actions. For example, Micha appeared disguised as an animal, naked, with spots all over his body. At one point he was captured in a net, struggling to get out of it, a stream of green excrement emanating from his body. Else wore the lungs of a cow on her chest as a costume, and took a dead chicken and dried it with a hair dryer. Via was dressed in drag and speaking through a cow’s esophagus. Micha told me that the artists created these actions as a way of expressing their own private, individual situations – which could not really be expressed in art otherwise, and certainly not adequately enough in painting – through theatrical forms. The performances were confusing, challenging mélanges of imagery and activity, and he said that they aimed to have two different points: the first was the expression of these difficult things – emotions and sentiments, both individually and in a greater socio-political sense – which the audience could understand on a visceral level. Then, they would change the scene and do more humorous, grotesque things. The artist said that this second element was perhaps more difficult for the audience to understand, but the point was not clear, direct communication with the audience. Rather, it was about completely pure and free expression. And mainly, I think, the feelings expressed were the result of life in the challenging and stifling atmosphere of the GDR.
The artists spent the entirety of the 1986-1987 academic year preparing for their diploma project. As they were students in the theater department, focusing on stage design, the tradition diploma project would consist of a theoretical component – a thesis about a theatrical problem – and a practical aspect, which was usually involved students building a model. These artists had a different idea, however, to present a “form of theater,” and their teacher allowed it, giving them a space to work on their ideas. The process involved lengthy discussions and planning sessions, an intense period of time spent together, and the result was the 90-minute piece Herz Horn Haut Schrein [Heart Horn Shrine Skin], performed on July 3, 1987. Each of the artists wore costumes that they made themselves. Micha recalls that each of them represented a different element represented in the title – he was the skin (his costume had a reptile-like skin made of scales), Else was the heart, dressed in red; and Via was the horn, dressed in a costume representing a hospital patient, and sewing his seeds in the performance. When I spoke with Via, however, he didn’t recall that their characters were meant to be taken so literally. The shrine was the igloo-like structure that they had built for the performance. The performance was photographed for documentation, and they also recorded one version of it as well.
Micha told me that these performances were thoroughly planned, and not much was improvised, giving them a more theatrical alignment. He was also quick to distinguish their work with another group known for using animal parts and blood, the Viennese Actionists. While he recalls being aware of their work, they were not a direct inspiration or influence. Whereas the Viennese Actionists would use animals for ritual sacrifice, the Autoperforatsionsartisten used them for different reasons. Mainly, the blood, bones and remains of animals represented a more simple form of life, removed from the modern world. It was also the waste of the modern world, which they recuperated and used as a form of primal expression in their work.
As for its academic merit, the artists failed their diploma work with this piece. They had submitted other work, however, which passed. As a sign of the changing times, however, two years later when their fellow member Rainer Gorss presented a similar type of performative piece for his diploma work, in which some of the (already graduated) Autoperforatsionsartisten took part, he received the highest mark.
Perhaps the most well-known piece by the group is Allez! Arrest, a long-durational interactive performance staged in the progressive Leipzig Gallery Eigen + Art. For 11 days, the artists (minus Via, who was out of the group at that time, due to professional differences) lived in the gallery, slept and worked there. In fact, they invited the public to come visit them in the gallery for a few hours during the day, from 6-8PM, when they would exchange artwork for food. The piece was based on Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. Information about Beuys’ work was not widely circulated in official circuits, however artists were aware of his work through unofficial channels. Officially, the political aspects of his work were often glossed over. For example, several months prior to Allez! Arrest there was an exhibition of Beuys’s work in the GDR, however the social aspects of his work and performance weren’t mentioned. So the artists decided to present the other side of Beuys’s work through their own, in response to that exhibition. The performance started with a drug-induced sleep, after the artists took sleeping pills, reflecting the listless atmosphere of life in the GDR. Micha also told me that the start of any performance was something that they thought carefully about – how to start, so that it woud have significance. The artists were unsure whether the idea of this piece would be well-received, and whether or not they would eat, but in fact, the visitors to the gallery were quite generous, and kept them alive with a daily supply of munitions.
The artists also created solo performances, and one of Micha’s iconic performances was Der Mutterseelenalleinering, performed in 1989 at one of the few experimental galleries in East Berlin: the White Elephant Gallery. The artist arrived at the gallery in a Trabant, wearing a mask over his face. He was led into the gallery by a child, representing innocence. When the artists entered the gallery space he opened up a briefcase and took out two knives, and started cutting into his body. Eventually, he stuck the knives into his eyes and pulled out pieces of bloody, raw meat, which he had hidden behind his mask. The artist then began to sing a Dieter Rot song, “My Eye is a Mouth,” while a fan was blowing the smell of rotten meat into the gallery, providing the viewers with a complete visual, aural and olfactory experience. Finally, the artist drew a square on the wall, like Malevich’s Black Square, and proceeded to smear it with animal brains, smoothing it out with a trowel. While the artist conceded that the work was most likely shocking to the audience, and that shock was indeed part of the intention, he also said that there were other important elements. Mainly, there was the sense of liberation, through such pure expression, and the idea of transformation, which the artist underwent during the performance.
The Autoperforatsionsartisten continue to work as artists individually nowadays, but they stopped working as a group in 1991. The breakup is symptomatic of the conditions that they had found themselves in during the late days of the GDR. The artists described a working situation that was psychologically grueling under socialism. But their work remains as a testament to the time in which it was produced, and exists as a rare form of free expression in the late days of the GDR.