Body without Organs

A small-scale Zoe Dewitt retrospective in Paris connects queer theory and occultism with surprising ferocity.

Zero Kama (Zoe Dewitt), Thighbone Trumpet, 1984.

In a backyard in the dilapidated yet hip 10th arrondissement of Paris we find Goswell Road. Not the London street, of course, but an exhibition venue run by visual artists Coralie Ruiz and Anthony Stephinson, who are a couple both professionally and privately, and who use the space as a studio in between exhibitions. The space may be diminutive, but the ambitions run high in Goswell Road, which has hosted exhibitions with 1980s subculture icons such as Richard Torry and Chris Korda, mixed with young like-minded figures such as Thomas Cap de Ville, Alison Flora, and Cecile di Giovanni.

The venue’s sweeping, extravagant energy and underground profile are perfectly encapsulated by its current exhibition, a tiny, yet quite overwhelming retrospective featuring Austrian artist Zoe Dewitt (christened Michael Sperlhofer). Dewitt first entered the art scene as a performer in Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch’s (1938–2022) utterly transgressive Orgies of Mysteries Theatre (1984), but is best known for her experimental industrial music project Zero Kama. This is where the exhibition at Goswell Road begins.

A display case contains an instrument, a kind of flute made from a human femur. The space is softly filled with strangely sombre background music, an ambient electronic track which features the bone flute as well as several other instruments made from human bones. Like other acts on the industrial music scene at the time – such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire – Zero Kama was interested in anything and everything that could offend and shock people: occultism, sexual perversion, mental illness, or seemingly fascist aesthetics and symbols were flashed in abundance to shake people up and loosen society’s controlling grip.

Concurrently, Zero Karma aka the younger Dewitt worked as a translator of occult texts, for example those written by British artist Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956), whose 1913 magnum opus The Book of Pleasure forms the basis for Dewitt’s series of mysterious, almost preternaturally beautiful prints in gold frames. Full of hints at alchemy, the prints are based on Spare’s own drawings, modified by Dewitt, and show strange occult figures: bodies with goat’s heads, naked women, skulls, and birds all woven into each other, drawn in a free-flowing, graceful hand. Like the slightly older Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), with whose cult Spare was briefly involved, Spare experimented with the type of spiritual automatic drawing that sees the body as a host for supernatural forces guiding the hand.

It is quite a jolt to be directly confronted with this kind of material, which – no matter how little we may believe in Crowley and his demons – gets under the skin. Perhaps because it is difficult to know just how literally we should take their ritual function – or, indeed, Dewitt’s self-image as a shaman in general. Are they simply representations, or do they, as concrete occult objects, carry with them a part of the world to which they refer? At any rate, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want them on my walls.

The main work of the exhibition is a video documenting a performance from 2015 called What is a Body? In the video, Dewitt lies naked on a dissection table in an anatomical theatre in Vienna while an audio recording plays a long monologue based on French writer Antonin Artaud’s (1896–1948) theory of body without organs, later popularised by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which is fundamentally about setting humankind free from normative systems and understandings of desire by rethinking what a body is.

In Dewitt, the issue is one of physical, bodily self-transcendence, a metaphysical understanding of the body which, by channelling the overlooked, the socially unacceptable, and the transgressive, can break down dualities between the here and the beyond, or between man and woman. A series of non-binary self-portraits from the early 2000s drowned in purple liquid, Liquid Bodies, shows exactly how queer Dewitt’s project is. These are liquid bodies, fragmented bodies, and bodies that delve all the way into their own bones to investigate how we might escape the realms of rationality, normativity, and social control – perhaps even the body itself.

There is an intensity and a desperation in Dewitt’s project which is both touching, alluring, and in places also repulsive. Although – or perhaps precisely because – her latest works are characterised by a somewhat clumsy rawness, I sense a clear nerve and a willingness to go to extremes rarely encountered in present-day contemporary art. It does not feel as if Dewitt is interested in pleasing an art audience – or, for that matter, a subcultural fan base. Rather, it feels as if she strives to push herself into border zones where body and metaphysics, occultism and queer theory meet, clash, and fray. As boundary-breaking and unnerving as it was in the black-clad 80s, Dewitt’s project is also a hyper-current and radical take on how just how fundamentally we may rethink issues of body and sexuality.

Installation view, Zoe Dewitt, Body and Methaphysics: A retrospective, Goswell Road, Paris, 2022. Photo: Goswell Road.