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60 Years mumok | Interview with Gerhard Rühm

mumok insider


„the entire language is potentially concealed in a single word “

Gerhard Rühm, an interloper between the disciplines of art, music, and poetry, has decided to give the core of his artistic estate to mumok. In conversation with curator Heike Eipeldauer he talks about the relationship between language and thought, his artistic socialization in postwar Vienna, and his famous artistic companions.


Heike Eipeldauer: When an artist decides, as you have, to entrust his work to a museum, then this is one of the happiest moments of our curatorial work. How easy is it for you to give seven decades of your artistic work to mumok?

Gerhard Rühm: the idea that after my death, and i am now already 92 years old, this comprehensive body of work would be split into pieces and distributed all around the world, is very unsettling for me. given the varied nature of my production, a single piece would only give a fragmentary idea of my artistic oeuvre. as the museum moderner kunst in vienna already has a number of my earlier works, this seems to be the absolutely right place to give this representative portion of my artistic works.

Heike Eipeldauer: An experience of presence, spatial and temporal connection to the here and now, is a key characteristic of your work. Your famous NOW drawing puts this perfectly, with its insistent repetition of the word “now” (“jetzt”) appealing to being in the present and conscious the experience of the moment. Do you see your performative and genre-crossing approach in contradiction to the principles of entering a museum?

Gerhard Rühm:
i appreciate the museum as an indispensable cultural institution for the proper administration of complex issues and their presentation in visually clarifying forms.

Heike Eipeldauer: You were socialized artistically in the reactionary cultural climate of postwar Austria. The Vienna Group, founded in 1952 by yourself, Friedrich Achleitner, H. C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer, and Oswald Wiener, seems like a collective revolt—to what extent was this group a political movement?

Gerhard Rühm: we assumed that the way people think corresponds to the condition of their language, and that therefore exploring language also entails a substantial investigation of people. new forms of expression modify language and thus have an effect on the ways people think and their image of the world. at the time we took important theoretical impulses from ludwig wittgenstein’s and fritz mauthner’s critique of language, as well as neopositivist approaches in the “vienna circle” such as the ideas of moritz schlick, who was murdered by a christian fanatic. one should certainly never forget that language is always an instrument of power. when i address the basic elements of language in a very purist fashion, beginning at zero, so to speak, then this should also be seen as an attempt to purify language from its barbaric treatment under the nazis. the political element of “concrete poetry” lies in the radical democratization of language. if you dissolve the hierarchical principle of the sentence, for example, and see the single words as equally valid elements, then in a metaphorical sense this is a radically democratic and thus also political operation.

Heike Eipeldauer: Did the universal investigation of language also include looking at dialects?

Gerhard Rühm: if you address language as a holistic phenomenon then you cannot avoid also looking at dialects as forms of everyday usage. h. c. artmann and I developed a new alienating form of dialect poetry, from an “abstract” perspective to recording the Viennese dialect in sounds alone. but we came to dialect in a rather anecdotal fashion. in 1954 we were sitting and talking in cafe glory, as we often did at the time, and h. c. artmann got rather angry about the poor translations of lorca by enrique beck. artmann was convinced that certain dialect passages in lorca had to be translated into the dialect of the target language, which beck had unfortunately not done. as we were talking we also mentioned the rich sound world of the vienna dialect, and then quickly had the idea of writing a new kind of viennese dialect poetry. the very next evening artmann brought along his first attempts that we found really delightful. i then immediately joined the endeavor, and as a result numerous dialect poems as we wanted them were written over several years, meaning that they differed completely from the staid “literal Vienna” poems of josef weinheber. at the same time i also wrote a number of short “experimental” plays for theater in dialect, and artmann wrote his wonderful play “no pepper for czermak.” at the time we were often accused of fouling our own nest, and this probably was mainly due to these dialect works that took the undeniably macabre viennese dialect to extremes.

Heike Eipeldauer: In retrospect, the two Vienna Group “literary cabarets” (1958/1959) are among the first happenings in the history of art in which literature is transformed into a form of action. Where did the Vienna Group’s performative approach come from, and what did it look like?

Gerhard Rühm: in our programmatic “operations sheet” we defined the form of cabarets as a “simple event,” which is pretty close to the concept of the “happening” coined by allan kaprow. we in no way saw the forms of performative presentation developed here as a break, but rather as a seamless transition to our literary work. some points in the program were certainly close to what was later called “fluxus,” such as the idea of showing real events as theatrical occasions in real time, and thereby questioning the traditional division of roles between a passive audience and active performers, by having coffee brought to us from the canteen while we were on the stage, for example. the now legendary first destruction of a piano then took place during the second literary cabaret in 1959.

Heike Eipeldauer: You are an experimental writer, a visual poet, a composer, a writer of radio plays, a performer, and a fine artist, and you operate as an interloper master of crossover between the disciplines, as the edition of your works, which has now reached eleven volumes, shows. You have been a pioneer and part of an international development leading to a “Verfransung” or blurring of the media (Theodor W. Adorno), as manifested in the early 1960s in movements such as Fluxus, Happenings, and conceptual art, all key holdings in the mumok collection. How would you describe your interdisciplinary approach?

Gerhard Rühm: from very early on i endeavored to liberate poetry from the fetters of syntax and to align it with the status of material and awareness in contemporary music and fine art. fascinated by twelve-tone music, beginning in 1954 i undertook a number of attempts to use serial principles in poetry, which lead to surprising new forms. in the way anton webern created crystalline constellations of tones and intervals, i produced my first constellations of single words and sounds extracted from the structure of the sentence, which could be brought into a spatial relationship with each other. basically i am interested in the economy of the means, which to this day remains a central principle of my work: no word, no sign should be used that is not an expression of the essence of a message—the entire language is potentially concealed in a single word.


Heike Eipeldauer is a curator at mumok.