Archive for June, 2018


Floating on an Unteachable History

Joseph Beuys was born in Kleve, Germany on May 12, 1921. His first one-person exhibition was held in 1953 in Kranenburg. In 1961 he was appointed Professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he had earlier been a student, and he continued teaching there until 1972 when he was dismissed amidst great controversy, a dismissal that finally, in 1978, was deemed unlawful. From the beginning of the 1970s he exhibited widely throughout Europe and the United States, representing Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1976. Beuys died January 23, 1986, in Düsseldorf, where he had lived for most of his career. Notable among the many retrospectives of his work are those held in New York in 1979, in Berlin in 1988, and in Zürich, Madrid, and Paris in 1993-94.

He attempted in his work to harness his creative energy as a means of redressing the decline of spirituality. He tried to change the world, not unlike William Morris or John Ruskin, he believed in the power of art to mitigate the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution that in the end drew him into political activism.

“Moenie my skiet nie! Moenie my skiet nie!” cry the African-Europeans who cannot stand the march of this new beat. Beuys attempted to use myth and magic to turn us all into artists through symbolic performances. These ideas gained rather than diminished in poetic resonance with the passage of time because they exist for us today only in the realms of memory and imagination.

The change from then till now is equal to an upheaval of self – a moving of house so to speak. One has gathered the baggage from the past and scatters it into the present. What was ordered and appeared logical (Beuys’s works have a strong narrative dimension) has now changed, the matrix of control is now de-matrixised. The gallery is in a de-matrixised space, especially for the ‘babies’ who never questioned if they would be around in 2002 but still are.

Beuys absorbed formal influences both from the Old Masters and from his contemporaries loosing, stealing or destroying important items alone the way. In 1963, when Beuys became an international celebrity, and when he began to concentrate on making monumental artworks, installations, performances and multiples he was attempting “to make people free … art for me is the science of freedom.” What fitted well then now has no place. After the TLC the new space has become a yearning for new castes where the old castes yearn for a familiar place.

Evidence of his fundamental idea of bringing art and life closer together is found in Beuys’s multifarious use of materials. He incorporated materials from the “outside” world rather than just paint and canvas. This led him to venture through many different styles, including multiples, sketches, and performances. Whether it is felt, fat, food, honey, or iron, these materials symbolised his past. Cornelia Lauf points out that through the fusion of rituals and their fetishes, Beuys believed that art and artefacts could not always be distinguished from one another. Matthew Drutt noted that he developed this further in the larger environmental installations dating from the last years of his career. They are enormous in scope, magnificent in their intention, and involved hundreds of participants. They centre on a single theme, a call for a change in thinking that developed out of his personal understanding rather than from any technological advances. Beuys said of his ‘Nine Oaks’ work: “I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness — raise it increasingly in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting.” — Joseph Beuys, 1982.

What is evident is that Beuys in a search for place attempts to interact with the author, the text and the reader. He creates a place where the viewer has to use a process of interpreting and imagination to interpret the text in various ways. Beuys points out that without the reader, there really would be no text, for it is the reader who brings the text to life, through his realization of the ranging interpretations. As Alexandra Reese explains, “for Beuys the value of the written text is to provide the core knowledge, while the unwritten text is greatly needed to fuel the imagination and spark the viewer’s creative ideas”. It is what the text implies in so many different ways that allows the reader to develop a picture image of the story.

According to Hans Dieter Huber, Beuys’s work is especially adaptive to systems theory. Not only because of the basic system operative in Beuys’ works, the elements and objects and their relational links, but also because it accounts for the environment as an entity equal to that of the system itself – the environment allows for the artwork’s “aesthetic effectiveness.” The perception of an artwork by a viewer plays a role in such a system and can be seen as a variant of literary theory known as “reader response” theory.

Space and place in today’s galleries is an arrangement that talks back to the 1980s offering us a concept of culture. So the new space may require us to rise up, but this time there is no alternative, there is no symbolic overtone of comfort and healing anymore.

In the new space we look at walls that are too close, that cry “leave us alone, let us determine our own future”. The future is in it seizing itself, which can only come from a tool (within the de-matrixised structure). We live in this time where the disordered boxes of the past litter our reality creating a dis-structure that makes us seek for meaning where meaning may not exist. We search through a chaotic structure left by mad men and see meaning at every turn. “Why this box here, why this order? Where is the other related content? There must be meaning…”

In other words, we are still operating in a metaphoric place where we are being played backwards.