Presenting Kurt Kren — humble bank teller by day, radical action naked performance artist by night!
The exigencies of living and working miles from the mainstream can prevent even the most noteworthy artists from achieving the kind of renown their work would seem to warrant. This has been the unfortunate fate of the late Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren (1929–1998), whose films predate and predict many of the strategies of present-day radical art. In one aspect of his career — documenting the work of some of his wilder associates in the Austrian avant-garde — he arguably helped prepare us for groups like Survival Research Laboratories, body outlaws, and modern primitives — gay, straight, and all other variants.
Called the “father of postwar European avant-garde cinema” and regarded in some circles as the continental equivalent of America’s Stan Brakhage, Kren was an unlikely pioneer. A bank cashier by trade and by all accounts rather elfin, charming, and unassuming in manner, Kren began making experimental short films in 8mm in the early 1950s, moving up to 16mm in 1957. His subjects were everyday objects — walls, trees, people — but manipulated according to amusingly elaborate diagrams and charts that showed a sensibility both rigorous and whimsical. The effect in one of his earliest official works, 4/61: Walls, Positive and Negative, is hypnotic; as the title implies, it’s a series of strobe-rapid shots of walls, alternating in hard rhythms to induce a kind of dream state in the viewer.
In 9/64: O Tannenbaum — all Kren’s films are named by the order in which they were made (9) and their year of execution (64) — the filmmaker documents a ritual by members of Vienna’s renegade Direct Art, Material Action group, with whom he had become associated. This explicit film counterposes disturbingly intense imagery — blood, paint, eggs, feathers, and candlewax smeared all over naked, writhing men and women — with the comic element of a pathetically ragged Christmas tree on top of the writhers. In one recurring shot, a dick and a woman’s breast pop up through cut-out holes in an opened suitcase; in another, a woman attempts a faltering blow job on a man as both are sprayed head-to-toe with red paint. Like most of his films, this one is extremely economical at a mere three minutes running time, this being perhaps the limit of what any audience would accept. (Not surprisingly, Kren had great difficulty finding labs to develop such material.)
Even more unsettling, if possible, is 10/65, another brief record of a performance, this time of Kren’s confrere Gunther Brus using his nude body as a canvas. The cinematic equivalent of a Francis Bacon painting, fraught with existential anxiety, this film features Brus covered entirely in a white substance that might be paint or whipped cream and opening his mouth as if to scream without being able to. The grim intensity of the subject matter — Brus appears as a kind of animated corpse surrounded and sometimes pierced by sharp, rusty weapons — is again countered by Kren’s mathematical editing, which finds order behind the chaos on the screen.
Kren’s fantastic formal command of his work is evident in 3/75: Asyl, a veritable epic at nine minutes. This one recalls transporting works like Gregory Markopoulos’s Ming Green with its in-camera flashing effects and surprisingly dramatic treatment of a simple country scene by using cut-out masks that allow parts of the landscape to pop in and out of view in fanciful rhythm. Kren himself appears in 36/78: Rischart, but this is no ordinary self-portrait: it’s a series of double-, triple-, and then countless multiple exposures of a smiling Kren with a cigarette in his mouth. The instability of the image reaches dizzying proportions as the same or related image wavers and wobbles, with the subject both fixed on the film and eternally elusive, unknowable within it.
In one of his most notorious films, 16/67: September 20—Gunther Brus (a.k.a., Eating, Drinking, Pissing, Shitting Film), Kren again used his always accommodating pal Brus, this time to reduce existence to its mechanical essence as stated in the subtitle. Kren was typically unpretentious about this startling work: “It is very dirty, being about eat-drink-piss-shitting. Many friends will hate me after having seen that film.” But he added, in a phrase that shows his career as an irresistible command to create, “Sorry. It had to be done!”