The guy in the corner of the bar has a gaping headwound. It looks as if someone has only recently removed the axe. Yet even so, he’s chatting happily with his wife – cupping her hand in his – and with two others people at the table. This would probably seem strange under normal circumstances but the fact is that things are going to get a hell of a lot stranger over the course of the next week in this little Austrian town. Our axe-attack victim was no doubt a model for this afternoon’s prosthetics workshop and I’m having my mind blown at the World Bodypainting Festival.
On the banks of Lake Wörth, looking over at the imposing mountains that separate Southern Austria from Italy beyond, nestles the hamlet of Pörtschach am Wörthersee. Its single main street is crisp and clean, with a number of boutiques and comfortable cafes. Even so it maintains the quaint sense of its rural Austrian past, as if the air here were more wholesome.
There are also two topless women walking up the street towards us, painted from the waist to the crown of their heads in swirls and patches of colour; they look like someone’s work in progress.
Despite the brazen nudity the aim is hardly to shock or offend, and though they do attract a lot of sideways glances – and some not-so-subtle stares – no one is affronted.
Over the last couple of decades the bodypainting world has matured and so too has its audience. The racy artform no longer seems to feel like it has to push the buttons of the public for attention. Rather, the impression that you get is of a united push for respectability by artists wanting recognition not simply infamy. The annual World Bodypainting Festival is the face of that unity and for a week every June/July the little town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee becomes the centre of the bodypainting world.
As for our two main street distractions, being a bodypainting model is often a long and painstaking act and even a canvas deserves a coffee and a cigarette break now and then.
‘This is the 17th year,’ crows the founder and organiser, Alex Barendregt. With his flopping blonde fringe, boundless energy and infectious smile he barely looks old enough to have been running the WBPF for almost two decades.
‘The first year was a bit of a media bomb. I did the first event in a monastery, which was really a no-go. I asked a friend of mine to do a photo workshop but he didn’t want to wait until the girls were painted so he took two other girls, fully naked and went to the crucifix to make a photoshoot.’
‘The mayor was calling me, “What the *&#! is going on down there?” And I said “What? We do body painting, you know” and he was like, “But they looked like they were naked!”’
‘”Yeah,” I said. “It could look like that, maybe it’s an illusion”. We got hundreds of calls. But I got away with it.’
Today the festival runs for a week, with the majority of the first four days devoted to workshops and the education program for budding and established artist alike to develop their skills.
The Festival main days then open the doors to the public with over 150 open air tents, shows, live music, parties and the chance to try your hand yourself. It attracts over 30,000 people.
‘If I look back, in the late nineties bodypainting was mainly done in clubs and it was seen as a little bit dirty. Now it’s part of a lot of art projects, of commercials, even of trade shows,’ Alex enthuses.
‘A lot of makeup artists are doing body painting as part of their education programs already…A modern bodypainting art movement was created because of this festival.’
Meeting some of the artists you get a sense that this is an artform in which there are still boundaries to be pushed and new and exciting experiments to undertake.
It was a pleasure to meet the wonderful Bella Volen, a fine-art trained painter based in Vienna. For her, contemporary art has moved in such an ugly and meaningless direction that no one understands it any more. Bodypainting, she said, offers the chance to create a new aesthetic, one in which beauty is once again possible in challenging art.
Her work is a beautiful example of the rise of body art away from the grimey image of its past and toward an interesting and diverse future. I encourage you to have a click around her site – http://www.bella-volen.com/ – and also those of other leading artists Australian Emma Hack (best known for her work on the Gotye music video) and American Craig Tracy.
The World Bodypainting Festival creates a riotous fantasy world of colour and sensuality, where the human form is a vehicle for the imagination. It can be surprising, funny, otherworldly and bizarre all at once.
If you’re an aspiring artist join the World Bodypainting Academy workshops, if you’re a free spirit volunteer to be a model or just turn up on the festival main days to be transported to a fabulous world where not all is as it seems.