Dig into Christmas traditions outside the United States and you’re likely to find Santa Claus’ dark side. Artist Cameron Jamie did, traveling to the Bad Gastein Valley near Salzburg, Austria, to shoot footage of an annual ritual that occurs every December 5: roving bands of demon-like characters take to the streets to terrorize children, accost women, and wreak general havoc on the village; the following day, the feast of St. Nicholas (who appears accompanied by a basket bearer and an angel), is decidedly less creepy. Some say the Krampus is the evil alter-ego of Santa Claus, others that Santa and the Krampus are one in the same, but one thing is clear, the creature is a throwback to the pagan rituals of the pre-Christian era.
Jamie’s film, Kranky Klaus, is part of his eponymous exhibition opening at the Walker on Sunday. In it, footage of rampaging Krampusse–who, by one account “stalk young women, fondling them, throwing them over their shoulders and whipping them with wooden switches until their shins and thighs are black and blue“–is set to the music of regular Jamie collaborators, the Melvins (who also provide the soundtrack for the artists’ films on backyard wrestling and spookhouses, both screening during the show). If the pranks and perversions of the beasts aren’t frightening enough–and, if you watch the response from the kids in the film, they are frightening–their costumes should do the trick:
The wooden mask with genuine goat- and ram-horns, the sheepskin coat and the bell-belt are family possessions. The oldest Krampus masks are exhibited. They are carved wooden masks with pointed animal ears and fangs in a “Dracula-like style”.
The masks–or horns you can use to make your own–are sold on ebay, and the likeness of the Krampus, running from the impish and quirky to the downright Death-metalesque, have ended up on antique postcards (shown here), in books, and at the center of modern-day Krampus theme parties around the globe. The word Krampus comes from the Old High German word for “claw” (Krampen), and in terms of general spikiness, the depictions seem to bear out the etymology:
Cameron Jamie opens on Sunday, July 16. The films Kranky Klaus, BB, Spook House and JO run in sequence beginning at 11:15 a.m. daily, repeating every other hour. In addition, the exhibition includes works based on a Japanese eating-contest champion, wooden Krampus masks (below), photographic portraits of face-painted backyard wrestlers, and the massive environment Maps and Composite Actions, a winding (and possibly treacherous) mountain path visitors navigate, one at a time, lighting their way only with a lantern.