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
Felix' 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
Action. 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?