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Joseph Beuys Centenary

23rd September 2021

The centenary of Joseph Beuys 
has brought to light his enigmatic art.
He was the founder of John Cage inspired
artistic movement Fluxus which believed
the process by which art is made to be
of more importance than the work itself.

Beuys occupies three spaces at Tate Mod.
The first is by the ticket office in 
a vast rotunda with a wondrous echo.
Here his basalt columns lie (salt columns
lie lumns lie lumns lie lie lie...): Das Ende 
des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts
. Created 
by volcanic violence, they show 
Earth's energy. Originally, each
was coupled with a newly-planted oak
at Kassel, Germany. Some seven thousand 
actually. 'It is a monument,'
said Beuys, 'consisting of a living part -
the tree - which changes constantly, together
with a crystalline mass which maintains
its shape and size and weight.' A scar in every
column has been filled in and repaired:
the planet may recover is the theme.

And Beuys himself recovered once from scars
incurred in war when he, a gunner in 
a Stuka bomber, crashed in The Crimea.
Tartar peasants found him, basted him 
in animal fat, wrapped him in felt blankets
and returned him to the Luftwaffe -
or so he claimed. There's no official record 
of this charitable act although
there's something of it in the second work, 
the monumental Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein
auf Hirsch
or Lightning with a Stag
Caught in its Glare. A jagged triangle 
of bronze has struck the floor like Beuys' Stuka.
Everything is bronze except the stag
which Beuys has cast in aluminium
as if illumined suddenly. The other
bronzes are primeval slugs, a goat
made from a three-wheeled trolley with a handle
for a horn, the girder and the 'Boothia
' of a plant-box on a sculptor's tripod.
Boothia Felix is the northern point 
of Canada which in the eighteen thirties
was magnetic north and thus a place 
of magical significance to Beuys.
It took its name from gin distiller Felix
Booth, who'd backed the expedition which
discovered it on June the First in eighteen 
thirty-one. Beuys put a compass on
the top. The lump of earth inside the box
is from a town in Spain, Manresa, where
the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius 
of Loyola, meditated for
a year in fifteen twenty-one before
he wrote his Book of Prayers, the Spritual
Exercises. Beuys was not religious
but he recognised the value of 
asceticism  and renunciation
to an artist. Saint Ignatius gave
away his money, fasted, begged, grew thin,
abased himself and mortified the flesh. 

Beuys was a performance artist in
the Yoko Ono mould, with 'happenings'
as art. He called them Aktionen - Actions -
and in nineteen sev'nty-two he staged 
the celebrated Information Action
during which he occupied a classroom
at The Tate for six and a half hours
while students came and went, asked questions of 
the trilby-hatted artist-teacher who
discoursed on art, and politics and how 
to use art as a force for social change.
He scrawled on blackboards which were canvases
or 'carriers of ideas' and which later were 
preserved like Einstein's and exhibited
with half an hour of film from Information 
. We observe him fill the very boards. 
He looks quite undernourished. One board's called
Fat Transformation Piece and asks how we
can sleep when half the world is starving and 
the other half takes medication for 
                Among those posing questions 
are the artists Richard Hamilton
and Gustav Metzger. Both are represented
at Tate Modern. Hamilton designed 
the cover for The Beatles' White Album.
His work The Citizen is in the room
before the Beuys exhibits. In the film,
he asks Beuys to explain what the artistic 
theory is behind the action in
a posh bass voice at odds with his dishevelled 
look. A girl behind them grins. Three decades
haven't dimmed the German accent in 
the voice of Gustav Metzger meanwhile
when he challenges the idea that
the Third World might achieve the progress of 
the First with patience and encouragement. 
The artists irritate each other. Metzger 
was a Kindertransport Jew who never 
saw his family again while Beuys
was a naive combatant with a misplaced
faither in western rectitude. Metzger 
founded self-destroying art and is 
the subject of another post. 

The third example of the art of Joseph
Beuys is not by him at all but others 
who have seen in him the father of 
environmentalism. Artists Heather 
Ackroyd and Dan Harvey took a hundred 
acorns from the oaks which Beuys grew for
his Kassel artwork Sieben Tausend Eiche :
Stadtverwaldung statt Verwaltung,

wordplay which is hard to equal in 
the English tongue: Town planting not town planning
maybe. Ackroyd Harvey's work is titled
Beuys' Acorns and it stands in sacks 
outside Tate Modern's giftshop. Gradually
it disappears as each young tree is taken 
for replanting in a field where there
is room to grow. So art is nature after
all and doesn't merely imitate. 
The gardener is artist, isn't he?