Article by Alena Sokhan, photos by Emelie Flood in Berlin; Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013
Recent visitors to the Hamburger Bahnhof will have noticed that the area to the left of the entrance, usually roped off and guarded, has unceremoniously though meaningfully been left open. This wing contains a collection of works by Joseph Beuys, including his vitrines, large installations, films and multiples. Visitors will first wander through his large installation, Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts (The End of the 20th Century) in which nine large basalt blocks are strewn like dead bodies through the space. The work looks unfinished: one block is still lying on a trolley as if it is still being moved in, though in reality it has been deliberately left in a state of incompletion by the artist thirty one years ago. Each basalt block has a cavity drilled in it, each cavity is lined with felt and mud, and has a cone shaped piece of stone driven into it. You can feel the concrete floor of the gallery about to collapse under the weight of these blocks, they have a presence that can be felt like the deep rumbling of a passing train. The industrial trolley testifies to the labour exerted in their arrangement.
What to make of this? Beuys’s works can be deciphered with a simple code. The random, chance arrangement of the stones, and abandoned work are a defeated representation of the catastrophic events of the 20th century. Clay in Beuys works is symbol for potential creation, a material that is taken from the earth and shaped by humans into useful objects. Felt is symbolic for stored heat, it is a healing material. The cone shaped works represent change, an inversion.
Beuys’s happenings, a few of which are playing on TV’s in the gallery (notably, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare), often begin with Beuys listing out the symbolism of the objects that he will be using. Honey represents creative output, creative thought. Iron found in the earth’s crust and in human blood, represents masculinity and the industrial. Every material that he uses has a specific meaning, which Beuys himself defines for the viewer. However, Beuys also says that he works only with materials, not symbols, a contradictory statement which prompts suspicion that Beuys should not be trusted. And he cannot be trusted: his constant playfulness still has critics wondering if he was remarkably stupid or a very clever trickster.
Moreover, reading his works through this reductive cipher results in an undeniably boring experience and which is massively insufficient to explain the almost hysterical popularity he received in the late 60’s and 70’s. Beuys’s art must be seen in relation to his charisma and his primarily German middle class audience. Beuys created a mythic identity for himself which he constantly incorporated into his work, describing himself as reborn a Turkish shaman after a plane crash in the Crimea. The myth is undeniably fake: the photographic documentation is undoubtedly staged, and his many accounts inconsistent with each other, with official records or reason.
Beuys’ unstable identity was familiar to the post-war German generation. What Germany did they belong to? Certainly not to the Germany that came through Fascism, and certainly not with the divided and segregated Other side on the east which the west had no contact with. German identity was a socially constructed sense of unity that was mythic, lacking foundations in a collective history or a defined geographic space, but still potentially present in the minds of the people.
Beuys’s art is about finding that potential energy, or creativity, hidden among the disregarded crevices of everyday, modern life. Unschitt (Tallow) is a work in which 20 tons of beef fat was cast in the hollow of a pedestrian underpass. These giant yellowed blocks have a solid, industrial presence and a faintly greasy smell, though at the same time they are organic and delicate, with thin wires measuring the temperature inserted at various points as a stern reminder that the viewer’s body temperature could cause the work to melt slightly. This work, like Beuys’s persona, balances on these contradictions. It is literally the manifestation the potential of public space, and also a testament to empty space slowly being wasted.
Beuys believed in the universality of creativity, and that the ability to create indicated a person’s participation in society. His works are often arrangements rather than creations, found objects, mass-produced objects, multiples of the same work. This serves a contradictory double function: firstly making art less sanctified and institutionalized by undoing the illusion of originality, and secondly generating more profit for Beuys. This paradox, both frustrating and playful, is just one of many that can be seen in his works and identity (the two being almost impossible to separate).