"'Good morning,' said the little prince. 'Good morning,' said the railway switchman. 'What do you do here?' the little prince asked. 'I sort out travelers, in bundles of a thousand,' said the switchman. 'I send off the trains that carry them; now to the right, now to the left.' And a brilliantly lighted express train shook the switchman's cabin as it rushed by with a roar like thunder.
'They are in a great hurry," said the little prince. 'What are they looking for?'
'Not even the locomotive engineer knows that,' said the switchman. And a second brilliantly lighted express thundered by, in the opposite direction. 'Are they coming back already?' demanded the little prince. 'These are not the same ones,' said the switchman. 'It is an exchange.'
'Were they not satisfied where they were?' asked the little prince. 'No one is ever satisfied where he is,' said the switchman. And they heard the roaring thunder of a third brilliantly lighted express. 'Are they pursuing the first travelers?' demanded the little prince. 'They are pursuing nothing at all,' said the switchman. 'They are asleep in there, or if they are not asleep they are yawning. Only the children are flattening their noses against the windowpanes.'
'Only the children know what they are looking for,' said the little prince."
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
Velden am Worthersee is a simple little tourist town at the western edge of an admittedly gorgeous lake. Little happens there, not even that first weekend in July. Portschach am Worthersee is a simple little tourist town at the northern edge of that same admittedly gorgeous lake. Little happens there, except for that first weekend in July. I had come to Velden because it was just a fifteen-minute trade ride from Portschach. And I had come to Portschach because Portschach is the home of the annual World Bodypainting Festival. I remembered reading about the festival many months ago, seeing a photo maybe. I was intrigued, and that intrigue grew—as it often does—into an interest, a desire, a plan. First I thought about going, then I wanted to go, then I needed to go, and then ... there I was.
So, the festival. Like all festivals, it starts with good food: Indian curry, German schnitzel, warm pretzels and sweet crepes and steaming french fries. And, of course, the drinks: good German beer, bad German beer, hard liquor smuggled in with Gatorade, wine, spritzer, more wine. Then music: there was the main stage, and the electronic pier, and the plug-and-play amphitheater somewhere in between, and if you didn't go looking for the music, it'd come to you, four men, on stilts, wandering Portschach for three days playing sax and violin and harmonica and ukulele as they walked by, towering overhead.
How and where the music gets played isn't really as important as what gets played, which is seemingly every genre and non-genre imaginable. Sure, there's jazz and funk and rap and rock, but where the Bodypainting Festival excels is in its non-genres and sub-genres and trans-genres, its duos and trios and quartets of Germans and Austrians playing acoustic dubstep, funk fusion, acapella dubstep. A folk song becomes a deathcore song, then that morphs into a sing-along, but just for a fleeting moment because suddenly the beat drops and its hip hop, then reggae—wait, pause for yodeling—then right back around to folk, full circle.
Food, drinks, (terrific) music—let's talk setting. Often, festivals get squeezed in wherever room will allow: big asphalt parking lots, old hayfields, sometimes a nice park. But the World Bodypainting Festival is first and foremost an arts festival, and beautiful art calls for a beautiful backdrop. Enter Worthersee. It's a lake a bit like Bled—larger, though, definitely larger—the kind with glacial turquoise waters and lush greens hugging its rim and those famous Austrian peaks rising to the heavens in the distance. Little towns like Velden and Portschach line the lake, jumping-off points for hiking and climbing and skiing and sailing, and so naturally Worthersee's surroundings are unapologetically natural. The daytime sky around Worthersee is always blue; at night, it's always black. That means you can see stars, hundreds of them twinkling above the lake, great stains of the Milky Way shimmering against the surface of the lake. The air is clean, crisp, clear. The festival itself is hosted on Portschach's gorgeous peninsula, a pretty little hook of an appendage jutting out into Worthersee, an outstretched arm saying hey, come on over. You enter near the mean stage, near the food and the drinks and the music, and as you work your way further out onto the hook, you arrive at Bodypaint City, heart and soul of the festival.
And this is what it's about: the bodypainting, the hundreds of skilled artists coming from literally all over the world to paint beautiful and mesmerizing and fantastical murals on the surfaces of their models, a three-day competition to make art of the human canvas, to spraypaint skin and brush bodies and accessorize everything. Let the games begin.
It was Friday. The festival had just kicked off, so I bought myself a three-day pass—a band affixed to my wrist with a metal clamp that was tightened by a woman wielding foot-long plyers—and entered. Great music at the main stage, a quick stop at the bar, then Bodypaint City.
Bodypaint City is comprised of rows and rows of white tents, one per artist or artist team. The tents have doors, and some artists close them, but most leave them open for passerby—and this is really the whole point. You walk from tent to tent and you watch the painters at work, some airbrush, some brush, some sponge, and sometimes they talk to you and sometimes the models talk to you, but mostly they just talk to each other and you simply marvel—at the detail, at the care, at the beauty.
The models are naked, I should note. The World Bodypainting Festival would never find a home in the United States, because Americans are afraid of nipples. Most models actually wear underwear, or a thin strip concealing their most private bits, but largely they're exposed and comfortable; they take breaks from painting and walk around and chat with spectators and pose for photographers and buy pretzels from the vendors. But it's all tasteful and mature, and skilled: no one is slapping a coat of red paint on a naked body and calling it a day. No, each painting session takes hours—five, six, seven—and by the end the models are covered from head to toe, and sometimes they're so covered with paint and special effects that you almost forget they're naked, other times their breasts become cat eyes or children or owls, but either way there's nothing indecent about it.
Every bodypainting competition needs a theme. The first and second day, it was pop art, which meant there was a whole lot of Warhol and Liechtenstein around, mixed in with some oddly placed social media allusions, and though I thought pop art a poorly chosen theme for the medium, I found it all astonishing nonetheless.
Walking Bodypaint City is one way to see the models. The other way is to let them come to you. About three times per day, painted models took over the main stage for the competitions: amateur brush or professional sponge or facepainting. The competitions ran like a fashion show—catwalk, music selections, each model and artist carefully planning a series of poses, turns, moments. I was impressed by the first competition I saw, by how excellent the works were and how well the models carried them, by the creativity and the diversity, and most of all, as the hour wrapped up, that what I'd seen was only what the amateur artists had to offer.
Between shows, I wandered. I found myself at the secondary stage, found myself lured in by the sirens' song of two beautiful Japanese men playing an acoustic didgeridoo-halodrum-chimes set accompanied by the verbal clicking and clacking of one of them. It was enchanting, so I sat and watched. Then, later, more bodypainting. More competition. I headed back to the stage to watch the professionals do it, once in the light and then a second time a few hours later in the dark ... for the ultraviolent paint competition, of course.
It's difficult to describe what I saw that night, partly because I don't remember myself, but also partly because it was all so wonderfully wild. I'll try. I saw: a woman with five faces. A woman emerging from a painting. Fireworks, and sword swallowers, and pyrotechnics. I saw a neon woman illuminated by blacklight run down the catwalk from a twenty-foot dragon. I saw mock battles and mock romances. Brains falling out of broken craniums. I saw someone climb a pair of suspended scarves and twirl thirty feet overhead; I saw a painted woman lift a painted man clean off the ground without even breaking a painted sweat. I saw dancing, masterful and theatrical, I saw limbs move like reptiles, saw spines snap straight the second the beat dropped. I saw a nude woman walk to the middle of the stage and pour a bucket of orange paint on her bare body, and it glowed in the blacklight like hot lava as it snaked down her naked shoulders.
Every thirty seconds, something new. New song, new model, new art, new moves. The energy was uncontainable. The crowd swelled and shrieked and shook, and as the bodypainters slayed the dragon at midnight, fireworks erupted high overhead. July 4th in Austria.
Worthersee didn't offer much in the way of hostels, which is why I was out in Velden, a full train ride from the action. Lodging in Portschach was obviously too expensive, but I'd found a reasonable single room in a bed and breakfast by the Velden station that would do the trick. I hadn't realized until checking in and dropping my pack earlier on Friday that this was the first room I'd had to myself—like, really to myself—in nearly two months. Privacy seemed such a foreign idea, a room of my own such a privileged treat. I slept naked, of course.
Naked, and also late. I woke a little before noon, showered, dressed, and headed back to the festival. It was much like the first: more great food, more good beer, more terrific bodypainting. A curbside performance of two zombie-like creatures hunting each other. More dubstep-grunge, more jazz-rap, more yodeling-metal. Ah, and more of that excellent pair I'd heard the day before, more hours spent sitting trancelike against a bale of hay as I followed the syncopation of those clicks and clacks.
On the third day of the World Bodypainting Festival, the theme changed from pop art to artificial intelligence. Gone were the cute Wonder Woman get-ups and Marilyn Monroe references, in were the science fiction horrors of a brave new world. Special effects abound: tubes erupted where nipples would be and wrapped around necks, arms, legs, plugging in deep into the spine. Solar panels lined backs, special contacts turned eyes red, green, all white. There were shiny futuristic helmets and thick chrome boots. There was a pregnant model—like, actually pregnant—with a green alien fetus painted atop a wormy purple womb on her torso. During the competition that night, there was a fifteen-foot machine model that raced across the stage with three-foot-tall hydraulic shoes that thundered on the stage. There were robots, androids, cyborgs. Theatrics of that which we create rising up against us. Theatrics of things I couldn't even begin to understand, much less describe.
And then it was over. After three glorious days, three days that rekindled my creative flame, that filled my mind with great hazy memories and my memory card with some of the best photographs I've ever captured—ah, it'd be another month before I could even work on them!—there was a winner and a celebration and then it was time to go, a sad departure from what was very well the best festival I'd ever been to. My only regret is that the written word, at least my written word, is a poor medium to communicate what an experience it was. For that, I'll have more soon.
But for now, I was off to the train station. I had a whole lot of Germany to see.