Published  24/03/2005

Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments

Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments

Tate Modern, London
4 February - 2 May 2005

Joseph Beuys tested the international art world to breaking point throughout his career. Now, nearly 20 years after his death, he is questioning the capacity of the art world to do justice to his theories on art and his methods of making art, which have previously resisted the efforts of art gallery directors, curators and art conservators to preserve it from its inherent vulnerability.

In 1970, he certainly tested the Demarco Gallery and the Edinburgh College of Art, as well as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the Tate Gallery in London, to breaking point. They were not able to exhibit, or purchase, the three masterpieces with which he chose to represent himself in his exhibition 'Strategy: Get Arts.' This was the exhibition I brought into being for the official programme of the 1970 Edinburgh Festival, in collaboration with the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle, the German Ministry of Culture and the German Embassy in London. Thirty-five artists from Dusseldorf were represented, a significant number accepting my invitation to make work inspired by their experiences of Scotland and the Art College building, which bore a distinct likeness to the Dusseldorf Kunstacademie where some of them were teaching.

The exhibition was conceived in the studio of Gerhard Richter, a good friend of Gunther Uecker, whom I first met in 1967, in Dublin. He was one of the 50 artists selected by James Johnston Sweeney, American critic and curator and Willem Sandberg, Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, for the inaugural exhibition of ROSC (the Irish Gaelic word for 'the poetry of vision'). This was a fitting title for an exhibition which had set itself the task of presenting the work of the world's leading contemporary artists. There was no Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, so it was presented within the impressively large-scale, high-ceilinged rooms of the Royal Dublin Society.

Gunther Uecker's sister, Rotraut, was married to the French artist Yves Klein, the leader of the 'New Realist' Group of painters. Klein had studied at Trinity College, Dublin and had shared his enthusiasm for Celtic culture with Gunther Uecker, whom I had promised that I would visit in his Dusseldorf studio. Uecker was one of a number of artists from East Germany who had been obliged to find refuge from the Communist world which had engulfed eastern Europe.

In 1970, I had been the guest of the American government, in order to consider presenting an exhibition of artists who would strengthen the concept of New York as the art world's capital. I accepted an invitation from Brigitte Lohmeyer, the Cultural Attachée at the German Embassy in London and on my return from New York in early 1970, I found myself in that part of Germany on the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr, where there was a conurbation linking Bonn - the capital of West Germany - with Cologne and Dusseldorf. After a week, I knew that the international art world had a new capital and it was not New York. I also knew from my meetings with them that the artists of Dusseldorf were inclined to accept my invitation to visit Scotland and to take their personal experience of it into consideration in making new works of art.

It was most important that Joseph Beuys was among the artists who had shown interest in my proposal. When I eventually met Beuys, he was fully engaged with half a dozen friends who occupied his small studio, which also seemed to serve as a reception area and office. It was an extension of the unobtrusive house in which he lived in the Oberkassel district of Dusseldorf with his wife, Eva, and their two young children, Jessyka and Wenzel. I wondered what I could offer that would make him concentrate his attention upon Scotland which, at that time, despite the success of the Edinburgh Festival, was not regarded as a mecca for artists concerned with avant-garde activities. I decided not to ask him to make a new and special artwork, but to concentrate instead upon the physical reality of Scotland, the stuff and substance of its landscape and its cultural heritage. There was no point in showing him aspects of Scotland's commitment to contemporary art - those few that existed could not compare with those found within a 100-mile radius of Dusseldorf.

I knew that I only had a few minutes to attract his attention and I decided that I would show him a collection of postcards of Scotland - the ones I had already shown to Gunther Uecker. They contained images of heather and heath, mountain stream and waterfall, forest and field, lochside and riverbank. There were images of stag, deer, sheep and long-haired Highland cattle. There were also the mid-summer Hebridean sunsets, pre-historic monolithic monuments in the forms of stone circles and burial chambers, and thatched cottages and castles. After a short and, for me, interminable silence, he remarked, 'I see the land of Macbeth - so when shall we two meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain, when the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's fought and won?' At that moment, I knew he would soon be in Scotland.

Three months later, Joseph Beuys arrived in Edinburgh, accompanied by Karl Ruhrberg, Director of the Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, and George Jappe, art critic of the German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine. I decided to take Beuys on 'The Road to the Isles' - the road celebrated in song and legend, to the world of Tir N' An Og, the Celtic 'Land of the Ever Young'. This was a similar space, in pure Celtic terms, to that of the Tartars who inhabited the Caucasus and the extremity of Europe, which Beuys defined as Eurasia.

Beuys did not intend to spend his first visit to Britain in the metropolitan world of London. Instead, he sought out the wilderness, the British equivalent of that which he had found in Russia and which had inspired him to make positive his negative experiences of World War Two, including the moment he faced death, when his plane crashed in bitter winter conditions.

He installed in Edinburgh a major exhibit in the form of photographs defining all his most important art works, his 'actions' and installations. This he entitled 'Arena' (1970). It took up the space of a very large Life Room at Edinburgh College of Art. The photographs were covered in glass attached clipboard; few of them were actually hung on the walls, most being laid out on the floor, or leaning against the walls. There was a feeling of the haphazard about his arrangement of these works. He made no attempt to light them in any special way, to repaint the walls or to remove the paint marks left by generations of art students that bespattered the floor.

In the adjoining Life Room he performed, over a period of five days, what he chose to define as 'Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch): The Scottish Symphony', in collaboration with his friend, the Danish composer and sculptor, Henning Christiansen. It was the art lesson I had always wanted to experience as an Edinburgh Art College student and it was also a kind of requiem to all the artists that Beuys wished to acknowledge in the history of art. It was, indeed, a symphony in response to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. The action was four hours long and it was performed twice a day. Every single square inch of the floor and the walls was taken into consideration. I had the feeling that the room was being blessed.

Beuys chose to represent himself with three major works. The third, unlike the others, was already made and brought in especially for the exhibition. For Beuys, 'The Pack' (1969), symbolised the dangers threatening the human environment, through the misunderstanding of energy and wealth. The work was a symbol of human survival, consisting of a Volkswagen bus and a number of wooden sledges, the title evocative of a pack of animals identified with sledges. It was installed with great difficulty, just inside the door leading to the College Sculpture Department. At first, the College janitors refused to allow the motor vehicle to be brought into the building - however, they eventually agreed that it was indeed a sculpture because Beuys had written his signature on it. This particular bus had belonged to Rene Block, Director of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Germany. It was a timeworn, old, decrepit workhorse, carrying a precious cargo of wooden sledges. When Beuys unpacked them and arranged them, it seemed that they were emerging from a womb-like space. Together with the Volkswagen, they represented a chilling image of a world in which motor vehicles would be rendered useless and human beings would have to resort, in an ice-cold, sunless wilderness, to the basic transportation that a sledge can give. Each sledge carried a torch, a piece of fat and a roll of felt.

Thirty-five years have passed since Beuys installed 'The Pack' and it now exists with even more significance, in an age when global warming has become a reality. It could be seen as the centrepiece of the newly opened exhibition at Tate Modern. 'Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments' was devised originally for the De Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas. It is arranged in ten separate parts, which give a clear indication of the wide-ranging interests of Joseph Beuys as an exponent of what he calls 'Social Sculpture' and his insistence that the most important expression of his art was through his work as a teacher. Each room expresses the autobiographical nature of his work, particularly Room Two which reveals an arrangement of the furniture from his early life in his family home in Cleves and from the first studio he used in the 1950s. In this, you see references to the language of the Celts.

There are many references to his concern for the lives of animals and how humankind is too often separated from the animal world. The exhibition emphasises his concern for the ways in which the 20th century is ill prepared to deal with the challenges of the new Millennium. There is a whole room devoted to 'The End of the 20th Century' (1983-1985), the work owned by the Tate itself. It consists of blocks of basaltic stone scattered around the floor, resembling the ruins of a civilisation, or even the human victims of a catastrophe, evocative of those at Pompeii. In this installation, Beuys used the basaltic stone as a manifestation of the origins of the earth itself when molten matter began to cool. The stone and the oak tree are sacred Celtic symbols and Beuys linked both elements to make a sculpture which would form a bridge between the second and third millennia. He called this work '7,000 Oaks'. It consists of 7,000 oak trees, planted along with 7,000 basaltic stones. This work was his contribution to the seventh 'Documenta' exhibition in Kassel, Germany. No doubt it will dominate many more 'Documentas', as the oak trees will grow to maturity halfway through this millennium. The Celts regarded the number seven as sacred, so that whenever there were seven oak trees, there would exist a sacred grove. This was the realm of the druid - 'dru' being the Gaelic word for 'oak' and 'wid' the word for 'wisdom'.

Beuys's commitment to the Celtic world changed the course of his life's work. He came to Scotland eight times and each time he made artwork revealing aspects of Scotland - aspects that the new Scottish parliament would do well to take into account in their plans for the country's future. It is a tragedy that only one of the eight major works that Beuys made in Scotland remains there, in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. It is the result of the 'Three Pots' action which took place in The Forresthill Poorhouse building in Edinburgh. This was prior to his involvement in the Demarco Gallery's experimental Edinburgh Arts Summer School, in which he collaborated with the American philosopher Buckminster Fuller, to give new meaning to the world of North Sea oil. Beuys did not think that the great platforms deserved to be referred to as man-made 'giants'. The true giant for him was the little Scottish terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, who personified the animal world in a loving relationship with his human master.

There is an enormous difference between this exhibition and 'Strategy: Get Arts', the exhibition which brought Beuys into the English-speaking parts of Europe (supported by enthusiasts in Scotland like Michael Spens and Andrew Mylius). The difference lies in the fact that Beuys was physically present in Edinburgh in 1970 and, a full quarter of a century later, his presence is sorely missed. You can literally feel his absence and can only wonder how he would have intervened to alter all the carefully arranged installations, to add to them that dimension which provided a whiff of danger and of the unexpected. I wonder what the Tate exhibition would look like in the Forresthill Poorhouse where Beuys was pleased to make art, to teach the Edinburgh Arts students and to install the exhibition of Caroline Tisdall's photographs showing him in fruitful dialogue with the coyote.

Tate Modern makes a special point of inviting its gallery-goers to consider the vitrines which Beuys designed to bring together many of the materials, objects and ideas in the form of mini environments. These can be read as anthologies, revealing the particular interests and events which define Beuys's commitment to politics, as well as to art. They contain many references to the need for a spiritual realm to be taken into consideration in any political or cultural initiative. Each of the vitrines is the result of Beuys's handiwork and it is possible to imagine him installing each one with loving care. Although they are aesthetically appealing, their main impact relies on the manifestation of the moral rectitude which was at the heart of all Beuys's endeavours.

There are also related talks and discussions, perhaps the most important of which will consider Beuys and religion. I have a particular interest in the early sculptures which are to be found in the cemeteries of the Roman Catholic enclave surrounding Cleves, the city where Beuys grew to manhood. These are images which take the form of crucifixions and pietas and which would not be out of place among the great works of Roman Catholic medieval sculpture. They reveal Beuys's profound understanding of the truth embedded in Europe as Christendom. Like Shakespeare, he is as fully aware of the sacramental life led by Christians and the efficacy of art forms that aspire to the condition of prayer.

Beuys was inspired by the life of St Ignatius Loyola, who, like himself, led a soldier's life and suffered the pain of grievous wounds. It is a pity that this exhibition does not contain reference to his 'Manresa' action. Manresa was where St Ignatius recovered from the scars of battle, deciding to end his life as a soldier and to found the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Beuys's art exhorts us 'to show our wounds' and to use the language of art as a blessing upon the suffering of humanity and as a message of hope. He does not sit comfortably in the company of those artists and curators who inhabit today's art world, those indifferent to the forces of materialism, who reduce art merely to the level of a saleable commodity.

Beuys had the capacity to love life and every aspect of creation. This is why, like all great artists, he was a maker of icons. They are to be found all over the Tate Modern exhibition with some difficulty, as they question our normal perceptions of art. At first sight, they could appear as discarded useless materials and objects. They suggest that everything in nature and in the human environment is of value. But they are to be treasured, not merely as manifestations of beauty, but, rather more importantly, as the manifestations of love.

Richard Demarco

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