Line 960x3


w638 © 2007 R.C. Hörsch / Eroto~


Metaphysics Through the Skin:

R. C. Hörsch’s Theater of Erotic Cruelty

By A.D. Coleman

Part Two of a two part essay on the life and work of R.C. Hörsch.

"The theater will never find itself again – i.e., constitute a means of true illusion – except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior." 
          — Antonin Artaud [1] 

If you’re reading this, presumably you did not find the progression of images in this book’s “prequel” too unsettling, and have decided to venture further into the world of lust according to R. C. Hörsch. Just as he did in that preceding collection, Hörsch has sequenced these images starting from what he considers the least intense to the most extreme; and, once again, he invites the viewer to decide where, if anywhere, his level of unacceptable transgression begins. 

A jest embedded in this process is that it offers complete freedom of choice to the viewer while placing before his or her eyes an extended narrative of master-slave relationships that takes as its ground rule the total surrender of free will: a parable of the abnegation of the self. The electorate addressing this tale — the audience for this two-book-plus-film trilogy and the accompanying exhibition version thereof — thus enters into an ironic dialogue with what we might call Team Hörsch, an argument over the limits of unfreedom exercised in the arena of free speech. 

As you’ll soon see, in this second sequence Hörsch has upped the ante considerably; things rapidly become explicit, autobiographical, and highly charged. In short order you’ll encounter sacrilege; explicit oral, anal, and genital sex; lesbianism; bondage and discipline; sadism and masochism; sex play involving knives and guns; blood sports; drug use; and erotic fantasies of murder and suicide . . . among other things. Not for the faint of heart, to be sure. Moving through the microcosm constructed by this selection of Hörsch’s tougher photographs inevitably brings to mind the French visionary Antonin Artaud’s impassioned call for a “theater of cruelty,” in which actors and audiences alike become “victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” [2] 

Artaud’s insistence on the necessity for a radicalized form of theater, one that cut to the quick and restored to drama its deep connection to the primitive mysteries and rituals, proved both prophetic and magnetic. We can look at numerous subsequent approaches to theater itself — The Living Theater in its heyday, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysterical Theater, many others — and find Artaud’s spirit manifested there. It shows its face in other forms of art as well, from Japanese butoh dance to rock-and-roll spectaculars, as well as in a considerable amount of what we nowadays call performance art and installation art. Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Orlan, Matthew Barney, Bob Flanagan, Karen Finley, Herman Nitsch, Robert Delford Brown, and quite a few more have pressed forward into Artaudian territory over the past six decades. Hardly surprising that some people nominally categorized as photographers — Hörsch is one, Nobuyoshi Araki another — have traveled there as well. 

"If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized."
          — Antonin Artaud  [3] 

So we can think of this chunk of Hörsch’s body of work as a dramaturgical project, a form of repertory theatre performed by a rotating, variously intersecting cast of regulars, a collective I’m inclined to identify as Team Hörsch. Their activities, performed in front of lensed recording instruments, resolve as photographic tableaux vivants — and, now, as motion pictures. In a recent quasi-documentary film titled Slaves [4] that concludes the trilogy of which this book constitutes the middle section, Hörsch introduces us to seven of the women who appear in these photographs, contextualized in a story concerning a presumed ménage à huit that they share with him. While they perform as submissives (mostly, with some significant exceptions) within this perhaps real and perhaps fictional household, these ostensible “slaves” speak fearlessly, frankly, and often critically of Hörsch in the interview portions of the film, and come across as articulate, confident, autonomous people who make their own decisions — including their choice of the collar and whip. 

In the ritualized world of S&M and B&D that they inhabit in that filmic event, and in these photographs, Hörsch is clearly the designated dominant of this elaborate script; his slaves — Xyla, Samantha, Lorelei, Maya, Rachel, Ruth, and Cecelia in the film, plus others in some of these still images — are the submissives. Yet it’s common knowledge within that sexual microculture that the ultimate power and control rest with the submissives or “bottoms,” not the dominants or “tops,” and Hörsch seems especially drawn to bottoms who tend in various ways to do what’s called “topping from below.” His role in all this, seemingly clear-cut, thus proves itself ambiguous at best. 

So, from the evidence, Hörsch enjoys making things difficult for himself as well as for others. Following his lead, I take it as part of my role here to work against the grain and make it harder for you to cast your vote on a merely reflexive basis. 

Let me begin by asking some questions to ponder while you prepare to mark your ballot: 

♦ In the film Slaves, Hörsch proposes that he experienced childhood in the gaslight era, claims to have done time in jail, intimates that he’s a vampire, appears to drink a glassful of blood drawn from one or more of his slaves. How much of that – if any of it – do you choose to believe? 

♦ In that same film, Hörsch describes himself as “a sexual predator.” Yet there’s no evidence in that film, or in his photographs, that his presumed “victims” are anything other than willing participants in these events and eager subjects for these images. Clearly (leaving aside the improbable claim that he’s a supernatural being), seven women, if they so chose, could easily overpower one mortal man of average size – and could surely even manage somehow to drive a stake through any vampire’s heart. How do you explain the fact that they neither kill him nor leave him? [5] 

♦ What, in your opinion, can we define as the factual content of these images, as distinct from the fictional? 

♦ Should we consider this as documentary photography, directorial photography, performance art? 

♦ In what ways, if any, does each of these labels shift your response to these images, their informational level, and the life choices they imply? 

♦ If you discovered that these people actually led conventional, even conservative sexual lives, but enjoyed getting together as a theater troupe and pretending to sexual outlawry, would you feel relieved? Disappointed? Cheated? 

"A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well." 
          — Antonin Artaud  [6]

This doesn’t imply that I can state for a fact that what these images depict didn’t really happen. Certainly I’m convinced that it could have. I don’t know Hörsch and his accomplices, witnessed in the making none of what you’re seeing on these pages, have nothing more to go on than you do. However, I find it easily conceivable — based purely on personal experience — that a sexually active male born after 1940 (which, discounting his claim to membership among the undead, is about where I’d peg Hörsch) and not restricted monogamously and long-term to a single partner could, in a single lifetime of average duration, encounter women who were variously tattooed, pierced, even branded; women who enjoyed the penetration of all their orifices; women who longed for collars, leashes, bonds, handcuffs, chains; women who craved slapping, whipping, spanking, golden showers; women who went even further than that, on their own initiative. Women who, though perfectly normal by all outward appearances, needed no persuasion (and certainly no brute force) to behave in ways that would have astonished and horrified their parents. Women who often did the persuading and initiating themselves. 

I merely want to suggest that the evidence at hand isn’t exactly incontrovertible proof that such things actually took place in front of Hörsch’s lens – or that these images authenticate the existence of a slave pen over which Hörsch rules. The myth of the vampire – Nosferatu, Dracula – retains its potency even today, [7] as does that of the legendary seducer Svengali (based on the hypnotist Mesmer), who by sheer force of will bent the hapless Trilby to his every carnal whim. I haven’t come across a persuasive example of either archetype in real life, but maybe I just don’t get out enough. Hörsch intimates that he’s some combination of the two. Never having met him, I couldn’t say he doesn’t exercise such control or exude such magnetism. What do you want to believe? 

"One can very well imagine a pure cruelty, without bodily laceration. And philosophically speaking what indeed is cruelty? From the point of view of the mind, cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination." 
          — Antonin Artaud [8] 

After all, how you respond to these images — and how you determine their transgressive level — must depend in part on whether you take them as reliable documentation or acts of the imagination. Does Hörsch actually maintain a personal harem of seven grown women? Or does he run a performance group in which seven women play those roles? Or both? 

Either way, of course, he’s got his hands full. Still, there’s a considerable difference between someone pounding a stake through a woman’s heart with a mallet and someone making an image representing itself as an account of that event. Is that real blood, or a Hollywood substitute? Were those eyes blackened by fists, or by artistry? Which of the six or seven ways whereby that particular woman (Xyla) appears to die in the course of this sequence strikes you as most plausible? 

I can tell you, from watching the above-mentioned film, that Hörsch and his troupe of players are all gifted and skilled actors, entirely at ease before the lens, certainly capable of convincing you (or me) that their imitation is real. I think I know what the welts left on skin by a whip look like, or a woman’s bottom reddened by spanking, but I’m sure someone adept with makeup could fool me. So I’m inclined to take nothing for granted here. And I think this artist wants it that way; he drops clues periodically to suggest that all may not be what it seems. (The production company for his film is called Cinéma Menteur, which translates loosely as Liar’s Movies.) 

The lens-based media – still photography, film, and video — serve as logical vehicles for an illusionist. Despite their apparent veracity, and the credibility we consequently attribute to them, photographs deceive us in many ways; photographers inevitably distort the facts somewhat, and often lie like bandits. When we approach photographs not with our quotidian gullibility but with our critical intelligence at work, we have to start sifting the images in such a way that we separate the photographer’s imagination from the data. All photographs contain various kinds of evidence; the question is, of what? 

From a technical standpoint, I should report that the making of these pictures required the full cooperation of all concerned. They’re not casual snapshots, even though they frequently persuade the viewer that they catch, impromptu, the heat of the action. Formally thoughtful, carefully composed, they reveal themselves as deliberate, considered, orchestrated, previsualized. 

So a Heisenbergian indeterminacy operates here. Concept dictates percept. As I said earlier, what you take these photographs to represent — facts or fictions, real life or simulation, one man’s unilateral imposition of his desires on women or their consensual teamwork to fulfill mutual yearnings, exclusively male fantasies or collectively imagined scenarios, the imperatives of testosterone or those of estrogen — will shape your interpretations of these depictions and your assessment of the ethical, moral, social, legal status of these images, their acceptability or excessiveness. 

And mine. Fair’s fair. What do I assume? How do I cast my own vote? 

I consider some of what Team Hörsch portrays here to have happened. I believe a lot of sex goes on among them. I believe that both S&M and B&D role-playing constitute staples in their entertainments. So, patently, does exhibitionism. As for the rest, I’m sure only that they want me to envision it, to imagine it happening, enabling that by giving me engrossing, visceral images that insinuate those possibilities into both my awareness and my unconscious. 

Do I enjoy all of it equally? No; I have my tastes, and my distastes too. In my young adulthood I lost two former girlfriends — long after our relationships had ended — to hard drugs; images of girls shooting up evoke only my melancholy memories of their absence. And blood, guns, knives, and death, real or fake, simply don’t turn me on. 

Other things do, and more than a few of them appear in these pages. Some I’ve experienced, others I haven’t. I plan to continue enjoying those I’ve already sampled, and to anticipate ones that remain new to me. Because I value highly my own freedom (which includes the right to surrender it if I so choose), and because I don’t believe in the concept of thought crime, I find nothing here I’d ban. To the contrary: I’m grateful to R. C. Hörsch and his cohorts for taking on the roles of sacred monsters. Every civilization needs its vanguard pushing at the boundaries from within, because stasis is death. 

Several decades ago, in a much different context, the photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon wrote, of a convicted killer who had escaped from prison and avoided recapture, that he was “somewhere out there, running murderous and free. He runs for all of us.” Something of what Lyon meant by that brief yet extremely complex statement lies at the heart of these unnerving images and the disturbing yet remarkable film to which — as you’ll discover if you elect to venture even further — they’re so deeply connected. 

"Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds." 
          — Antonin Artaud [9] 

Which isn’t to imply that Lyon would endorse these pictures. But then I doubt that his approval – or mine, or anyone else’s – matters much to Team Hörsch. One thing that all concerned have made abundantly clear: No one involved in this project worries about what you or I think of them. None of them truly care how this poll turns out. They don’t have any interest in local community standards or political correctness. They’re too busy with their fevered dreams, with doing lewd and shameless things, with pondering whatever lines they themselves haven’t yet crossed. 

          — A. D. Coleman 

* * * * * 

[1] AntoninArtaud, “The Theater of Cruelty: First Manifesto,” in The Theater and Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 92. The texts of Artaud’s cited here date from the late 1930s through the 1950s. 

[2] Artaud, “Preface: the Theater and Culture,” loc. cit., p. 13 

[3] Artaud, “The Theater and the Plague,” loc. cit., p. 30. 

[4] Slaves, written and directed by Ich Bin Niemand; Cinéma Menteur, 2002. 

[5] In the film, one of them appears to commit suicide – certainly a symbolic departure. 

[6] Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” loc. cit., p. 82. 

[7] Witness the international popularity of my former classmate Anne Rice’s ongoing elaboration of a saga based on this theme. 

[8] Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty: First Letter,” loc. cit., p. 101. 

[9] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty: First Manifesto,” loc. cit., p. 99. 

  Rant, Rave, Comment and Review!  Comment!