Tibor Hajas and the Sacred Body

Destructive Body Art and the Homo Sacer

Tibor Hajas was a body-art and performance artist of international renown in the seventies. He was a universal artist, and one that cannot be forced into categories without falsification. He approached fine art from the terrain of poetry. He was a central figure of the Hungarian neo-avantgarde, working in cooperation with János Vető until his death in 1980. After the exhaustion of abstract expressionism and art informel, several artists of the age saw direct action as a means of reforming fine art. The assumed death of the panel painting led to the rediscovery of the body. The reinstatement of the picture plane to its ‘origin’ uproots objects and bodies from their reduced flat surface, reconstructing flesh, object and action in a real and also more menacing space.

Nevertheless, Hajas’s monomaniacal preoccupation with sacrality and transcendence detaches him from similar trends of the age. In his case, the stakes of the analysis, the denudation and reconstruction of the ‘body proper’ involve the search for a sacral outlet. In Hajas’s way of thinking, which generates artistic license from paradox, corporeal existence is at once an imperative and an impossibility. His actions, recording the experimental stages of a subjective transubstantiation, endeavour to produce energy from precisely this tension.

Conceptual performance

One type of his direct action had a characteristically critical approach to media and endeavoured to take a kind of meta-stance from which it attempted to analyse the reality-text-artwork triad. This media criticism explored the directness of human presence as well as the identity-generating function of prevailing media. This branch of performance art in the sixties shows similarities with concept art. We might name Peter Weibel as one of its representative figures. The “analysis of a spatially structured linguistic context, giving rise to a new linguistic situation to which several meanings can be attached,” 1 is especially characteristic of PeterWeibel and this ‘school’. The reason this conceptual perception is relevant with regard to Tibor Hajas is that this critical approach to media and language dominates his early photo-objects and pre-performances (Népszabadság Front Page (1976) Use My Voice (1973), Letter to a Friend in Paris (1975)). At this time – as well as later – the fundamental question for Hajas is what authenticates, what constitutes identity. In his view, the traces and documents of identification that can be associated with corporeal identity, such as voice, proper name and personal linguistic communication are all constructs, and as such, may be subject to manipulation and combination. ‘Identity’ is in fact a fiction fundamentally influenced by the exploitation and exhaustion of various media. We model ourselves in the material of all manifestations, or, more precisely, this material, the medium models us.

This is the moral that Hajas’s famous fashion model metaphor originates in. His over-quoted declaration goes: “It is not man who creates the picture; it is the picture that creates man.” 2

Tibor Hajas and Viennese Actionism

It is adequate to mention Peter Weibel from a further aspect: his person can be associated with another school of direct action in the sixties. This group of artists has special relevance in understanding Hajas’s mature period. Moreover, it is important to mention the famous movement of Viennese Actionists because besides its underlying connections, the discourse that has developed in Hungary around the Viennese group may also have an impact on the Hungarian reception of Hajas. Although I consider some of these argumentation methods transposable, there are a few that I deem problematic as regards both the Viennese group and Hajas.

The fact that direct action ‘resorted’ to the body may be interpreted as a quest on the part of artists for a purer, historically less saturated surface to replace the image space burdened with the tradition of art history. However, the blank, ‘uninscribed’ body, pure corporeality, is a fiction itself, since the tortured body of the white man is a focal point in the cultural tradition of Christian Europe. For millennia, elite thinking has revolved around the resolution or preservation of the dichotomy of body and soul. It is impossible to conceive of the body outside the framework of the various sacral and philosophical authoritative discourses; the only way to approach any organ, any body part and function is under a sort of cultural umbrella. Corporeality is overloaded and unapproachable. In this context, we might interpret Viennese Actionism as interested in the self-destructive deconstruction of this indirectness and inapproachability. It may be asserted that they wanted to burst corporeality into a purer, reference-free space, and one device of this was penitence, self-punishment. In László Földényi F.’s words: “The entire activity of the Viennese group is directed at tearing the human body out of ‘social consensus’, out of the all-encompassing communication network, and making it self-contained, unique and devoid of any external obligation – even at the cost of destroying it.” 3

Of course this approach was further articulated by different creative attitudes within the school; yet there is an apparent dialectic of de- and reconstruction. Birth from extinction – as advocated by Günter Brus. The body, ‘covered in script’, has to be dismembered aggressively along its sensitive, vague, defenceless spots, to be reconstructed in the end. These vague spots are where the intimacy of bare life and the scandal of this intimacy seep through the socio-cultural coverage of the corporeal self. This scandal relates in a sense to the “Other” body. According to Julia Kristeva, 4 the cost of the creation of the pure and socially convenient body is abjection. That is, rejection of uncanny characteristics and phenomena; creation of “the abject”. This means that in order to create his/her ‘normative body-proper’ that is compatible with the cultural norms of society concerning the body, the individual has to detach the non-normative corporeal aspects, features and zones from his/her body image, corporeal identity, ‘corporeal self’. These bodily regions and characteristics, associated with the notion of uncleanness and abnormality, are condensed into and objectified in the concept of the abject. The conceptual field of the abject also includes a virulent, contagious and proliferating quality, and the connotation of wastage. It practically functions as an enemy image opposing the artificially standardized body, being subversive by nature: it does not respect the boundaries of the corporeal self kept under social control. It lacks control and threatens with ceaseless intervention. The abject is the concrete and symbolic manifestation of the fantasies concerning the contaminating, defiling quality of the Other, the Foreign.

Although the aggressive evocation and extension of the abject may annihilate the social body, the actionists believed that this procedure can be successful in reconstructing a liberated corporeal identity that is free from deviation caused by media and norms. The late period of Tibor Hajas’s art (from Dark Flash until the performance entitled Chöd) revolves around similar issues (of concern). Applying the methods of conceptual media analysis to the body, the ultimate substance, he is forced to concede that only from negativity can one squeeze out a valid identity. For him the only method that would genuinely represent the process of constructing the self is the “self-abandonment” of the tormented body, devastated by disaster: “The only possible way to avoid the position of outsider is complete exposure; only through the annihilating experience of catastrophe can one find oneself, gain one’s due time and fulfil one’s destiny.” 5

The logic of “birth from extinction” seems to be in play in the case of Hajas, too. However, the outcome of this Utopian idea is questionable. It is appropriate from both an aesthetic and an ethical aspect to cite Sándor Radnóti’s question: “Can the acts of iconoclasm, of hostile dissatisfaction with the (corporeal) image be restored as (corporeal) images?” 6

Self-destructive performance and sacrality

At this point we have reached the central aspect of this essay: the theme of sacrality. Some forms of self-destructive body-art (particularly those of Hajas) allow for certain religious connotations and intimations of tradition to come into play on the part of both the interpreter and the artist. According to this concept, on the model of the above mentioned notion of the abject, the medium seeping through from ‘behind’ the body would be identifiable with the field of the sacred, of sacrality. Thus, the artist would have to extinguish, provoke and sacrifice his own profane, ‘sinful’ extension to become able to be reborn in a resacralized Other. This shift would be a sort of ontological leap, a border-crossing, since it entails shifting the body from an imperative but unacceptable ‘here’ to a vaguely defined ‘there’ that has the predicates of the Absolute. This idea draws upon both the elements of Christian tradition and the formal heritage of pre-Christian cults and mythologies.

This hardly legitimate claim of destructive action refers back to the medieval tradition of martyrdom and the Vir Dolorum, the experience of “all bloody identity” (die allerblutigste Gleichheit) with Christ, who is covered in wounds. Destructive action deems its own ‘sacral legitimation’ creatable through a motivic linkage with these traditions.

“The attempt to render religious penitence a collective experience was manifested in the rending of garments, the torture of the body, the practice of repentance and penance, and self-flagellation processions, thus making the evangelic teachings interpretable and endowing them with a social sense. In the course of this process, the suffering of the body is autotelic, lacking any particular altruism, becoming the means of identification with the embodied Logos, with the redemptive suffering of Christ.” 7

Hajas and the Viennese Actionists were culturally open as regards the origin of the traditions they evoked, since in constructing the visual framework of ontological border-crossing they resorted to elements of both Tibetan mysticism and the Dionysian myth of Hellenism.

In my view, the art historical examination of these sources and traditions is adequate in analysing Hermann Nitsch’s O.M. Theatre or Hajas’s early motifs from a reception history aspect. Nevertheless, the issue of ‘ontological border-crossing’ is in fact not or not only a question of aesthetics. Sacral interpretation has the risk of distancing the artwork from the sphere of ethics, and reconstructs itself as a cultic object, as a rite. The ‘ontological leap’ leads to an environment, which resists reflection and aesthetic judgement, and only reveals itself to the initiated. The notions of sanctity, sacredness and deification have an emphasised role in Hajas’s art. This is why it is worthwhile to give rise to an interpretative environment that is able to reflect the metaphysical and sacral aspects of artwork. Giorgio Agamben’s train of thought may be of help, for it can productively be collated with other interpretations of direct action (abject theory) as well as with Hajas’ own declarations.

The notion of homo sacer

The notion of homo sacer, introduced by Giorgio Agamben to current philosophical discourse, is in the crossfire of interpretations, its fields of use not yet clarified. This notion, which originates in Roman law, is used by Agamben, in relation with various theories of the state, for the characterisation and criticism of the current biopolitical situation as well as of the state and law that resorts to biopolitical measures.

In order to transpose the notion of homo sacer to my own topic, I consider it relevant to unravel the original, archaic, legal meaning of the phrase first of all. 8 Stipulatio in Roman contract law was one of the contracts of archaic law, an obligation in a formal and concurrent question-answer design. Its prototype is sponsio, in which the sacred verb spondeo was used to establish the obligation. Sponsio originally meant that the obligor swore, practically evoking the gods as witnesses, to fulfil his obligation. For practically the violation of such an obligation under oath had the consequence of outlawing the perjurer and qualifying him as a sacer (‘holy’ in a negative sense – excluded from all civil rights). This banned individual was free to be killed by anyone, and was deprived of bios, ‘life in a social sense’. All that was left at his disposal was zoe, ‘bare life’ (subjective intimacy). In addition, his murder did not count as ritual sacrifice, for that would have been sacrilege. The word sacer derives from the verb secernere (‘to separate, to segregate’), and because this was possible for gods both Olympian and of the Underworld, its field of meaning included both ‘sacred’ (blessed) and ‘damned’. In this sense, therefore, homo sacer is a marginal creature, situated ‘in between’, but one who fails to connect anything and who is excluded from both the profane world of men and the realm of the sacred.

Agamben associates the notion of homo sacer with the sovereign’s body and the devotus. The sovereign’s case relates to it because in a given situation the fictive body that sustains sovereignty may become detached from the concrete, extant human being. The devotus, in turn, is a person who offers his life to the gods of the underworld in order to reach some goal. It may happen, however, that he stays alive after the fulfilment of his desire.

Despite staying alive, he too is stripped of bios and is cast into the same ‘in between’ that is homo sacer’s lot. In such cases a double, a doll or colossus is made, the ritual burial of which allows the reestablishment of the regular order between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This substitution settles the status of the devotus. However, in homo sacer’s case, this is not an option. He cannot be redeemed from ‘in between’: “The very body of homo sacer is, in its capacity to be killed but not sacrificed, a living pledge to his subjection to a power of death. (..) Insofar as he incarnates in his own person the elements that are usually distinguished from death, homo sacer is, so to speak, a living statue, the double or the colossus of himself.” 9

In homo sacer’s case, what remains is bare life (zoe), and that cannot be redeemed. This bare life (bare, pure corporeality) is what places homo sacer, the sovereign’s body and the devotus in a common void, since this life, detached from its own context, surviving its own death, is irreconcilable with the human world.

According to Agamben, modern societies can give rise to such exceptional situations or conditions in which a global sovereign suspends the operation of law, and declares everyone homo sacer. This can entail unforeseeable consequences, since in the state of bare life, of primitive existence, basic human rights are rendered invalid just as the concept and possibility of identity: “The sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures . . . the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.” 10

Homo sacer and Hajas

The problem of homo sacer might be interesting with respect to Tibor Hajas’s reception because it can be juxtaposed very productively with the artist’s own self-interpretation. Hajas provides a definition of the performance artist in his essay A Halál szekszepilje (Death’s Sex Appeal). As it well serves the development of further analysis, I shall provide a longer excerpt: „An artist should by nature be a danger to himself. This however, does not satisfy him.

He now wants to exercise that same unforeseeable redemptive act which is not his own, which is not his own choice but a means of choosing him, an act of grace. He compels himself to become a work of art, becoming his own Golem. This act segregates him from the rest of society. From now on he is mutilated and inhuman. In order to maintain his integrity, he is in constant need of that gesture of grace which is the prerequisite of all works of art; he is at the mercy of a power of which he has no information whatsoever. He is the mannequin at the hands of this power; a puppet, a wax doll. A puppet is less complex but more substantial than man. More substantial because it is on the border of life and lifelessness, a unified metaphor of the two.” 11

What might this declaration imply if regarded in the paradigm of homo sacer, applying the conclusions drawn from the foregoing analysis? The artist declares a state of emergency; the event of performance can only take place in a space of catastrophe. Doubling corporeality, this state of catastrophe alters all prior rules concerning the body. Exempt from earthly norms, Hajas consummates the duality of the sovereign and homo sacer within himself. He qualifies himself as homo sacer by the right of a sovereign, with a gesture of absolute power, forcing himself into the extrajudicial ‘in between’ of the artwork. He simultaneously observes himself as aggressor and target. The web of social determination and social coverage inscribed on the body, this surface which is also interpretable as bios, is torn open at the vague spots of the abject to give way to bare life, to pure corporeal space in which he waits standing naked and ‘open’. Simpler than man. Simpler of course, for this is such an evanescent state of the extant that it might well serve as a medium for the shining of existence, of the sacred. He is on the border of life and lifelessness. He is accursed. Even so, the temptation of hubris pervades this voice, since the sovereign gesture is autocratic: it arrogates the right of unlimited control. It has the power to do anything as a ruler, it suggests, tempting – whereas homo sacer is bound to suffer and endure everything. He simultaneously excuses and defeats himself. However, this self-reflexive logic is not the only source of the feeling of defencelessness. He senses the presence of a power of which he has no information whatsoever. He refuses to believe in the possibility of ‘ontological border-crossing’, since he is not crossing a border but standing on it. Movement is impossible in any direction, since the body of homo sacer is not sacrificeable and the restoration of bios and zoe is likewise doubtful.

Translated by: Daniel Sipos


1 Károly Szűcs: ‘Nyitott mű – Peter Weibel kiállítása’. Balkon , 2005/4. p.15.

2 Tibor Hajas: ‘Vita a közönséggel a Dokumentum 2. kiállításon’. In: Hajas Tibor: Szövegek. Enciklopédia Kiadó, 2005. p. 302.

3 László Földényi F.: ’A testet felszabadító bécsi akcionizmus (válasz Radnóti Sándornak)’. In: A performansz művészet. p. 217.

4 Julia Kristeva: Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, New York, 1982. Various uses of the concept are brilliantly explored by Márta Csabai – Ferenc Erős: Testhatárok és Énhatárok. Jószöveg könyvek, 2000.

5 Károly Szűts: ‘Test és kép – Hajas Tibor kiállítása’. Balkon, 2005/6. p. 14.

6 Sándor Radnóti: ’Levágta-e saját farkát Rudolf Schwarzkogler?’ In: Sándor Radnóti: A piknik. Magvető, Budapest. 2000. p. 269.

7 Gábor Klaniczay: ‘Elgyötört test és megtépett ruha. Két kultúrtörténeti adalék a performance gyökreihez.’ In: A performance művészet. Balassi Kiadó, 2000. p. 169.

8 cf. András Földi – Gábor Hamza: A római jog története és instituciói. Nemzeti Tankönyvkiadó, 1996. p. 489.

9 Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, 1998. p. 99.

10 ibid. p. 84.

11 Tibor Hajas: ‘A Halál szekszepilje II.’. In: Tibor Hajas: Szövegek. Enciklopédia Kiadó, 2005. p. 331.