I’m laptopping to you this morning from the Tate Modern in London, England. I’ve a confession to make. While I dearly love seeing quality paintings, and love even more trying to make them, I’m a bit of a junkie when it comes to contemporary installation art. This place is screaming with the stuff. Glazed gallery goers, their minds numbed by the visual challenges, wander in the ambience of this renovated power station on the south bank of the Thames. To the many who snicker and snort it’s sort of an intellectual curiosity and freak show.
My main interest here today is an extensive accumulation of the work of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He was a sculptor, shaman, showman, teacher and debater. He spent most of his life in Kleve and Dusseldorf, in Germany. One of his central ideas was that there is a creator in all of us and art is in everything we do. He thought that it is not what an artist makes that’s important — but how he is — his personality, his activities, his opinions. Details of our daily lives are in themselves art and grist for our artistic mills. As a Luftwaffe pilot during the Second World War he was shot down in the Crimea and attributed his survival to the help of nomadic Tartars who supposedly nurtured him with felt and fat. These latter elements exist in many of his art objects and are a part of his personal mythology.
As well as his grandiose sculptures of stone and iron there are cases of framed memorabilia and other items: found materials, pressed flowers, honey, gold leaf, silver foil, part of a dead hare, tufts of grass, classroom blackboards, travel tickets, notepads, cigar packages, coyote droppings, bundled newspapers, photo and clipping albums, Green Party pamphlets, toiletries, inconsequential drawings and doodles, creative ideas and pencil notes scribbled on anything handy. People are bending over examining degraded remnants of felt and fat. Even the fedora that covered his war wounds is worthy of display.
A woman comes and sits beside me. She is biding her time, waiting for her partner who is looking at the Beuys material. She makes notes in a small book. It appears to be a list of items to be taken to the dry cleaner.
PS: “Everybody is an artist.” (Joseph Beuys)
Esoterica: Do not omit collecting the progression of your own creativity. Do not fail to archive your sentiments. Keep dry and out of harm’s way the detritus of your output. Be prolific: Your mind is capable of far more than it is exhibiting at the present.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Calling everything art is meaningless
by Charlotte C. Abernathy, Ashland, OR, USA
I am an artist in Oregon, who (like most of us) tries to develop my own creative ability and to understand and appreciate what other artists are doing and have done. Not an easy task! I’m replying to Beuys’ idea that we can call all our activities art. If everything we do is art, then the term art is no longer useful. It no longer distinguishes anything. Beuys has tried to stretch the meaning of the term, as new movements in art are always doing. It is a way of adding to our understanding of what it means to create art. But, if we stop trying to relate new efforts to the meanings art has accrued, and simply say that everything is art, what happens? We have tried to elevate all our activities by calling them art, but have destroyed any value we are trying to transfer to them by calling them art, because the term no longer has any value. It may be true to say that everything we do is ‘expressive’ of who we are. But does that mean that all actions are equally expressive? Does that mean that expressiveness is all that is necessary to create a work of art? Since a toddler expressing her exuberance by banging on a piano is hardly in Beethoven’s category, the answer is no. There is a deep and mysterious value in the forms which artists develop and discover. Those forms have the ability to touch us, to communicate something to us. They are real. Beuys may or may not have found or created one of these valuable touchstones for our souls in the compilation of remnants from his personal history. If so, it will be because of the fact that he sifted through the detritus, collected it, transported it, responded to it, and placed it for our study. It won’t be because ‘everything’ he does is art.
Personal encounter with Joseph Beuys
by Robert A. Schaefer Jr., New York, USA
When I lived in Munich, Germany from 1975 to 1981, I met Joseph Beuys at a gallery opening one night. My partner owned one of the most important galleries in Munich at the time and had a print by Beuys which was not signed. He asked me to get Beuys to sign it, however he neglected to tell me that, at that time, Beuys was hanging all of his work upside down. So, when I tried to point out that he was signing it upside down, everybody had a good laugh at my expense — except for Joseph Beuys who very kindly signed it and spent a little time finding out what a young American was doing in Munich. It is an experience I will never forget.
Bitten by contemporary installation art bug
by Deborah Putman, Surrey, B.C., Canada
I have also been bitten by the contemporary installation art bug. Having just completed my first installation, over the last 7 months, I am hooked! To see the concept in my mind’s eye coming to life in the gallery is a joy beyond words. My piece is called Letters from Beyond: The Spiritual Journey and is part of an exhibition of 11 artworks based on the theme of the “Journey”. The preparators served as midwives for weeks of installation under the watchful, nurturing eyes of both curator and artist. The process was fascinating as so many creative minds and hands assisted in the final display of this tiny ephemeral seed that was planted long before. My piece involved not only the visual aspects, but sound, movement and the kinetic aspect of viewer participation as s/he walks through the installation. The work is comprised of canvas scrolls, buckets of carefully washed rocks from my garden, hand sewn fabric, ribbons embroidered with symbols and music. Prior to the opening, I was fortunate to have the entire installation ‘smudged’ by a First Nations elder. (One might call ‘smudging’ a cleansing and blessing ritual, using sage and special prayers.) The piece was ready for the public. The final question was yet to be answered. How would the participants feel as they experienced the manifestation of the tiny seed concept? I was honoured with watery and tear filled eyes by some, curious questions, philosophical debates and more. What fun!
Swedish art group creates new cultural initiative
by John D. Vedilago, Göteborg, Sweden
I discovered Beuys after my own art evolved into the conceptual ideas of Arts/Facilitation and Participatory/Kultur. Nevertheless, his thoughts have been a valuable resource to take these ideas beyond philosophy and into reality. In other words, what does it actually mean to live in a society that knows, believes and supports, that everyone is an artist, in every sense of the word? In the book, The Felt Hat (a book that will take you for a walk on the wild side of the potential of his work) Beuys exclaimed, “Let’s talk of a system that transforms all the social organisms into a work of art, in which the entire process of work is included whether it’s a work by Goya or Kounellis or mine, as well as agriculture, the sciences, or education or technology, something in which the principle of production and consumption takes on a form of quality. It’s a Gigantic project.” In the end, Beuys’ concepts were never realized or fully accepted, even by him. Today, however, the gigantic project Beuys described is now beginning to shape in the city of Göteborg, Sweden in the form of a participatory, social artwork known as the International Kultivara Kafé Society™. To find out more about this endeavour, I invite you to contact me for our web site address. I think you will find the material on it of interest. As work on the site progresses, we will be including a link to yours and will encourage the over 6,000 people who have participated in our initiatives to subscribe to your twice weekly doses of encouragement and insight.
Installation art may be valid but it’s still a turn off
by Norma, Elizabethan Gold, England
I often go to the Tate Modern for a ‘creative date’ with my friend. Last time we went, we crossed the millennium bridge, which I thought I would hate. It seemed so tatty on the TV, but, instead, I thought it was a wonderful experience. Paradoxically, I expected to love the Tate Modern, but found that I hated it. I was so disappointed in myself. I absolutely detest installation art! I try not to and I don’t dispute its validity as art, but honestly, it just turns me right off. I live 200 miles north of London, near Manchester, England. We have an old gallery there, which houses the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It has been closed for refurbishment for about 2 years and has just recently opened to the public again with a new wing sensitively designed to fit in with the 18th Century building. It was fantastic! In addition to the original collection, a large gallery space has been set up for children where they can interact with the exhibits. I took my grandchildren and it was a truly interactive experience. One of the exhibits was a piece of Dada sculpture, a cow’s head with handlebars for horns and various bits and pieces of bicycle to form the face, with a squashed tin can for the nose. At either side of the piece was a magnetic board and a box full of household objects with fridge magnets attached to them. There were pan scrubs, floor-mop heads, dish mops, rubber gloves, bicycle reflectors, pieces of wire, paintbrushes, plastic tubing and loads of other things. Little visitors were invited to make their own Dada sculptures. So Dean and Hayly set themselves the task of making a sculpture of their daddy. It was wonderful! There was also a storyteller who used one of the paintings to tell a story. We spent 4 hours in there. After that we were all exhausted and just had to have juice and cakes. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Responding to art objectively
Mary Rich, Shingle Springs, California, USA
I am a student art teacher currently working at a local high school. One of the students asked the question “Do you have to respect art that you don’t like?” I thought that was a really great question and I want to discuss it more with each of the classes. Of course, I think the first step in this discussion would be to define the word ‘respect’. I would love to hear your musings on this thought; maybe you have a past column addressing this topic?
I think it is a terrific and important conversation for high school age people.
(RG note) It’s been my observation that some folks are out to learn and some are out to buy. I believe in the former. Work, attitudes, situations may be disgusting, inadequate, ignorant — but they can be looked at objectively and conclusions can be drawn. My sense of ‘respect’ could be compared to an approach to comparative religion. When we take pause we are apt to find the psychology of it all so very interesting. Curiosity must stand ahead of acceptance. We are apt to learn something. We are apt to have an epiphany. It is right there in the act of curiosity that the truly lovely surprises take place.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Ulla Stenman who wrote, “Laundry list indeed!? Items for her next installation!”