matta wagnest, matta, wagnest, artist, künstlerin, malerin, skulptur, wien, österreuch, europa, skulptur europa, soplo, austira, painter, painting

Performativity and action in the work of Matta Wagnest

Walter Seidl


Matta Wagnest’s work deals with moments of performativity that appear in image and object formations of materially diverse constitutions and which take in the relationship between object/artwork and subject/viewer as a process of collective gestures.  

The materialisation of Wagnest’s art exhibits no media affiliation, although it is based on an actionist potential that the artist envisages as the subject of a transcendental experience of space and time. All of Wagnest’s works – whether created by the direct use of her own body or by an introspection of the self in sculpture, painting, drawing, or photography – can be seen as part of an actionist whole and are interdependent with the artist’s performative approach. Kristine Stiles speaks of “commissures” in the context of objects or works of art that are regarded as part of actions and always relate to their actors. These must be seen as related to behaviour, which in turn demands to be looked at. Thus, in action art, objects are entrusted with, or assigned, the task of acting as connections that lead back to aesthetic concepts. The objects that emerge from the action, when seen as commissures, must be understood as a sign of the bond with the viewer, which is due to the desire to communicate about an artist’s actions.1

Viewing Wagnest’s works as commissures suggests that they are designed as an infinite series of actions which negotiate the artist’s experiences in a situational context and always place the content-related parameters that arise, be they material or ephemeral, in relation to her viewers. The actionist potential also unfolds in the act of painting when, in a series predominantly painted in gold, various word formations such as “bleed”, “bloom”, “blood” or “fall” emerge which, through their violent pictorial gestures and phonetic components, evoke specific levels of emotion. This is where references are created to, for instance, the action painting of Jackson Pollock and the performance of a performative act per se, which occurs during the painting process and whose result can be understood as commissure, as well as developing a relationship with the observers. “In order to achieve more cooperation than competition, we need idiosyncratic actors who not only perform something, but do not act for a specific purpose and thereby cause something to emerge that cannot be measured by its result, but only exists in performance between several [actors].”2

Wagnest calls for public participation and offers a process of further conceptual developments which do not understand her works as completed artefacts or works of art, instead calling for a mental revaluation in the sense of a “performative turn”. The “performative turn” emerged in the 1990s, and became stablished as a heuristic principle for a better understanding of human behaviour in the humanities and social sciences, especially in disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, history and art. It understands every human act, independent of space and time, as a performance that defines every action as a public manifestation of the self. This proportionality also characterises Wagnest's works, in which the artist repeatedly enters the picture herself and intervenes in a performative manner. Wagnest is not so much concerned with a direct visualisation of the body as with the reflection of its psychological constitution in late capitalism and the concomitant effects of the Anthropocene on all areas of an individual’s life. If nothing else, the “performative turn” came about in the 1990s after the end of real socialism, when there was no escape from the global clutches of a metastatic dissemination of capitalist power devices. 

Although the metaphor of performance originally developed in the fields of theatre and art, it increasingly referred to economic processes and the evaluation of human performance. According to Paolo Virno, this development led to “the capitalist mode of production at some point crossing the boundary to the ‘real subsumption’ of life processes when it can no longer be described solely within the scheme of wage and factory labour and the added value derived therein.”3 Wagnest attempted this transfer of performative gestures as early as 1986 in her first art action: “Stationary Protuberance”. This was a “staged attack”, an assassination attempt on the image of a colleague from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna who had recently committed suicide. However, the work was stolen during setup, and the artist was accused of blasphemy. Eventually the work reappeared and the attack took place as planned, transferring the colleague’s performative act into an expanded sphere of artistic action. Here, Wagnest counteracted the defeatist tendencies of performance as shaped by capitalism with its definition of the “pain body”, which must be overcome in an actionist manner in order to find liberation from the socially conditioned influences on the self.            

The contiguity to the actionist art of the 1960s – such as that of Rudolf Schwarzkogler – is also evident in Wagnest’s work where she ablates the pain of the world on her own body. However, their approaches differentiate where Wagnest extends this context by situating herself with her actions as the subject within an a priori politically contaminated space. As Hubert Klocker puts it: “Schwarzkogler and his closest friend Hermann Nitsch were a long way from the political agitation practised in the second half of the 1960s by the Vienna Institute of Direct Art founded by Günter Brus and Otto Muehl.”4 Simply by using the word “bleed”, Wagnest turns away from the use of animal blood as practised by the Viennese Actionists, and of its use in the Christian liturgy. Instead, she refers to menstrual blood, made taboo by religion. This brings her closer to VALIE EXPORT’s feminist actionism, which was directed in opposition to her male colleagues and did not objectify women’s bodies, instead claiming the position of women as independent subjects able to act in society. Wagnest performances make use of wordplay, such as in “whoumanrights”, shown as a graffito in 2016 at the Kulturzentrum bei den Minoriten in Graz. The work was originally conceived as a 12-metre-long “human rights” wall installation for the Istanbul Biennale in 1993. However, this wording was censored and subsequently expressed in a more intricate way. The result thematises homophonic as well as homonymous language variants of “who as a man has rights?”, “women’s rights” and, of course, “human rights”. The “hngrrr” and “wssrrr” performances of 2019 also represent the question of essential human needs. The “square metre” “spiritual sculpture” aimed to stimulate visitors into thinking about the following sentence: “There is enough for all of us.” With this statement, Wagnest aligns herself with the current “degrowth” debate, a critique of growth that condemns the social, political and entrepreneurial ambition of limitless economic growth as achievable only with climate deterioration or a proliferation of the Anthropocene’s effects.   

Wagnest also formulated the slogan “We are the Art”, addressing the overcoming of physical pain which the action artists of the 1960s had articulated in real terms, as in the well-known performances by Marina Abramović or Chris Burden, who sometimes exposed themselves to life-threatening situations. Pain and blood often point to a Christian iconography and visual culmination of suffering. In our increasingly secular era, the challenge is to find freedom from an art history dominated by the Church and written by what was once the West, as well as to confront the economically and politically oriented war scenarios that were never created from purely religious, but also from economic dispositifs of power. 

In the early 1990s, Wagnest’s “We are the Art”-themed projects included “RKW – New Radio Matta Wagnest” at the Kunsthalle Wien in 1994 and, in 1996, “das Labor” with Gerwald Rockenschaub at the New York Kunsthalle. Her performative approach addresses the relationship between individual and collective suffering, whether it be self-inflicted or caused by others, which leads to different levels of pain. Her actionist gestures refer to the phenomenon of the pain body, but at the same time tries to avoid identifying with it, as in the “print” performance at the Graz Gallery in the summer of 2018, during which an impression of the pain was manifested. Ultimately, the artist’s performative attitude is concerned with a confrontation with pain to the benefit of love. Wagnest's artistic approach can therefore be understood as an analytical actionism between the activism of the 1960s and a feminist avant-garde. 

Wagnest’s art is about overcoming the day-to-day limitations imposed by a performance-oriented society on the individual that define her performances from a range of perspectives. The artist calls for a new perspective on reality and its underlying behavioural parameters. In this respect, aspects of femininity can be seen as reference models, but these are translated into a universality of points of reference that connect moments of “fame” with “fear” to refer back to basic psychosocial patterns of human existence or fuse mentally interdependent opposites. The use of her own body, or rather the “self”, serves as a pre-formulation of individual and collective gestures that are artistically negotiated in different media and form a synthesis of social models of determination; this differs from the aspirations of Viennese Actionism in that it constitutively shifts late capitalist political change into the field of view. Wagnest's aim is to activate a process of thought in her work that allows viewers to go beyond sociopolitical and neoliberal connotations and to rethink models of self-determination. In her physical performances, Wagnest touches upon the wrongs that arise from the growing gap between rich and poor, and between the exertion of and dependence on influence, in order to bring the development of social processes into sharp view. The aim is to capture this discrepancy with art, and to delineate it on the basis of its ontological certainty. In this respect, the actionist potential must always be understood in the context of Wagnest’s production of objects and images. This brings into play the commissural component that takes up performative elements, scrutinising the determinations of those permanent changes of social performance.             


1 Kristine Stiles, »Unverfälschte Freude: Internationale Kunstaktionen«, in: Out of Actions. Aktionismus, Body Art & Performance 1949-1979. Ausstellungskatalog MAK, Peter Noever (Hg.). Ostfildern: Cantz, 1998. S. 230.

Stefan Hölscher. „(Re-)Evaluating Performance seit 1990“, in: Texte zur Kunst No. 110, 2018. S. 87.

 Ibid. S. 83.

4  Hubert Klocker, in: Print. Ausstellungsfolder. Galerie Gerhard Sommer, Graz: 2018.