BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Theo Altenber

PICTUREshow, Berlin, Germany

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

It's a scene straight from the 1970s - corduroy, dungarees and pine shelves are all in evidence. Two men and a woman lie on a mattress. It is a moment of reverie, their eyes are unfocused, one guy sucks on a dummy, the other cuddles the woman's armpit, while smiling and sucking on his finger. There's a dildo on the shelf, which makes the dummy seem ironic and charges the scene with the intimation of wild sex.

These two weird props in the photograph by Theo Altenberg, Commune Praterstraße, Vienna (1973), sum up two maxims from the early AA Commune founded in 1970 by Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl (the 'AA' stands for 'Action Analysis'): free sexuality and freedom from the disciplinary restraints of growing up. With their peculiar mix of Performance Art, Karl Marx and Wilhelm Reich, Mühl and his disciples put into practice what they satirically called 'horny socialism': sharing property and desires, rejecting familiar social codes (including the Hippie's long hair and tight jeans), and radically opposed to the moral laws of the nuclear family, which they considered a bed of capitalist - and fascist - oppression.

Altenberg, who joined the commune in 1973 (when it had about 50 core members), curated its art collection and was something of a 'foreign minister', cultivating connections with the art world (Joseph Beuys and Harald Szeemann) and politics (Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky was interested in the 'social experiment' of the commune). So, the photographs on show here are not those of a bystander, but of someone who actively took part in this social experiment.

Happy communards carry buckets full of ripe tomatoes and peppers; a topless girl on a construction site pauses to wipe the sweat off her forehead (Commune Friedrichshof, 1974). These are not, however, simply propaganda shots of Horny Socialist Realism. Bathed in the soft yellow of afternoon sun or lamps at evening, these images of the commune's heyday from 1973-78 encapsulate both the passing joy that sparked, and resilient horror that destroyed, this utopia of 'free' sexuality.

A central part of the daily routine was the so-called 'self-presentation' gathering: a kind of spontaneous performance meant to exorcise the demons of one's own psycho-history. In Altenberg's photographs the faces are full of aggression, or glowing with orgasmic ecstasy, while naked bodies oscillate between images reminiscent of Woodstock and concentration camps. There were elements of primal scream therapy in all of this, with a bit of raindance brouhaha, but also an almost Factory-like will to model and amplify the sardonic, hedonist 'self'. And, as with Warhol's Factory, this inevitably included power games - under the ruling eyes of Mühl - the winner being whoever projected the most daring, cool, or, in this case, 'freest' self. They were laughing at what they called the Wichtelgesellschaft, the society of petty-bourgeois Austrian 'gnomes' that neglected its fascist past. Yet, at the same time, they regurgitated their repulsion in their shaved heads and disavowal of intimacy.

You wonder whether it was heartfelt joy or a desperate attempt to top the hit-parade of polymorph perversity that made a bald, naked, woman smear herself in mud and then hold a finger up to her grinning face as if she had just stuck it up her arse, where she has shoved a bundle of meadow flowers (Self-presentation gathering, Commune Friedrichshof, 1976). This photograph was taken well before Mühl became an increasingly ruthless tyrant in the mid-1980s, violating the very maxims of 'free' sexuality and 'free' childhood by putting up lists of who had to sleep with whom (the notorious 'fuck-lists') and demanding the jus primae noctis with the young girls. The commune, appropriately, imploded in 1989, and soon afterwards, Mühl was imprisoned for child abuse. It's a history that makes Lars von Trier's Idiots (1999) look like a kindergarten party, but it would be all too easy to dismiss the AA Commune as a scheme conceived by idiotic perverts. After the Self-Presentations, Commune Friedrichshof (1976) is like a 20th-century flashback to Ingres' Turkish Bath (1862): an after-the-storm moment of soft flesh and warm light, hands relaxing like exhausted swans. It is in these fleeting moments of fulfilment that it becomes clear that this was a drama of complementing mimesis: power poisoned desire in the Commune precisely because power had already poisoned desire in society at large.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.