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March 02, 2005

Joseph Beuys at Tate Modern

Posted by Richard D. North

Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments
Tate Modern, London
4th February - 2nd May 2005
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm

Great building, terrible contents: that will do as a rough guide to Tate Modern. Enter its vast turbine hall to the amplified scraps of declamation which are Bruce Nauman's latest piece of work, and the heart does rather sink. His big show at the Hayward in 1998 left me not so much cold as inoculated: he's Bill Viola without the theatricality, and it's a big deficit.

The young naturally gravitate to Tate Modern as an experience, and it is as near as many of them get to a cathedral experience at that. And who can blame them? There is a hole in the human heart whose size may be God-shaped, but is just as likely to be reserved for reverence of a less specified kind. Art fills it, and for all that a traditionalist likes art to:
a) look like something real; and
b) to look like it's difficult to do; and
c) to look good.
We should not exclude the possibility that you can miss out any or all of these components and still give something for human spirituality to hang its hat on.

Don't worry - this offering will be about Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. But it seemed useful to establish no-nonsense if conflicted figurative credentials first.

Most of the time, installation art is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, but that only adds to the interest of spotting those cases where it isn't. For my money, Saatchi picked much more wisely than is sometimes supposed: the Sensation generation were aiming to provoke and we mostly popped up like trout on one of those promisingly gloomy days which fishermen love. But much of their stuff was a vast improvement on heaps of bricks and all the other stunts with which the earlier super-moderns tried to upset us. A shark in a bottle: for God's sake, who would not be interested in that? Or in a child-murderer portrayed in tiny mitt-prints?

So what chance that the grand-daddy of 1960s tosh could hold water now? Actually, Joseph Beuys never really went away: he is a strong presence in Tate Modern even when they are not putting him centre-stage. I confess to a soft spot for the man's work: I get a little teary around it. About him, personally, I have no view. This may be because I missed him first time round. About the time he was doing London-ish "events" in, say, 1972 (as portrayed by a film in the show and online), I was worrying about how prone to rust was my brand new MG roadster (in a tasty beige called Bedouin) and whether my King's Road plum velvet suit was too much for a pub supper. I can fairly proudly say that there never was a left-wing, revolutionary phase in what I insist on calling my development. The cobble stones of Paris had nothing to fear from me. Beuys was, in so far as I have bothered to explore the matter, a conventionally silly hippy-ish left-winger of the day, and that would have irritated me back then.

But the work, which I discovered somewhere along the line perhaps in the 1980s gripped me from the start. I had not seen his larger installations until this week. I did not know that he had a beaten-up VW "splitty" spewing out sleds, in just the manner one imagines a mythic husky mother might spew out pups if nature had ordained that the young come forth already sniffing trails and eager for pulling. It is an excellent thing: an ideal Northern (or very extreme Southern) reflection.

For galleries which could not manage an entire vehicle, Beuys gives us much the same meditation in a "vitrine", a glass case of the kind you might find in a laboratory. The joke is that one might find such a case in a gallery, but here it's the case as well as the case's contents which draws our attention. And the case's contents are often of the kind normally not bothered-with.

In one, there is the same sort of muscular little sled we see coughed-out by the VW, and strapped on it, a block of fat, a roll of felt, and a torch to see one's way by (or to read the map): what more is required, actually, for not mere survival but exploration and adventure? These items seem to say that survival is crucial and primitive: that's obvious, and yet modern people have only very seldom to consider the rudimentary and elementary and Beuys does brilliantly take us there. But his items take us well beyond survival: this collection of stripped-down necessities also reminds us how rudimentary are the things which are necessary to the biggest possible forays into the unknown. They say: take your simple vehicle and the means of staying warm and sustained, and take on the world. Don't wait for luxurious circumstances to get out there: they may not come.

Blimey. Is that what he says, really? Who cares? Some art repels you with its vacuity or silliness or whatever. Other things draw you in and set you off. Beuys does the latter for me. But then, I am he who scavenges, mucks about, squirrels and accumulates. I fantasise that Robinson Crusoe, or Coral Island or Swiss Family Robinson would have suited me. No rubbish tip is without charm in these eyes. I admire silk, but love shoddy. I sentimentalise the neglected, the discarded, the broken. In grottiness I am inclined to see ripeness. (Well, up to a point.) I do not need awesome mountains or perfect gardens: a scruffy farmyard with possibilities in its neglected sheds is my paradise.

This is Beuys territory, except that he pushes it as only a German can. He not merely wears the same hat as the anatomist who sensibly makes a show of his dissections, he takes us to the same zone of shock. Fat and felt are his favourite things, with rust adding a dash of colour. In one vitrine, there is a beaten-up corned-beef can full of fat. Pretty much, that's it. It has the Marie Celeste thing about it, of course. One has pushed open a door somewhere. It might be an East German border guard's hut (Beuys thought about such things). It might Scott's Antarctic cabin (the sled thing takes one there). It might be a tramp's furtive shelter. It might be a child's den.

But it might not be an imaginative location which Beuys seeks to take us to at all. It might be that this unpromising little container is sacerdotal: might it not be a improbable sacristy light, if only there was some string to make a wick with?

It's no use saying these things aren't art. One of the Beuys objects is a not perfectly clean laboratory measuring tube, calibrated up its side, and in it is a not perfect rose on its stem. So why not run up such a thing oneself? Well, presumably Beuys has found a way of freezing the rose's decay, and that's part of the trick. (How did Hirst learn all that formaldehyde stuff?) But it isn't much to do with the artistry of this offering: that depends on the decision to direct our attention at the object, and the charisma to compel it. It has to do with being preposterous. And that of course is why Beuys and the others can seem to be pulling off stunts. But sneering is useless. OK, say I, a fan: if you think you really can do it, you stick a rose in a measuring tube and see whether you're still looking at it forty years later, and see if anyone will turn out to salve their life's miseries in front of your work, or seek to celebrate their life's hopefulness by communing with your old rosebud. Yet I could imagine taking my deepest miseries and my most elevated joys to a Beuys show.

If some of Beuys's things look tricksy, then some others might be thought to play all too easily to the morbid. Playing the death card can be awfully cheap. But one such item seems to these eyes to reward inspection and to prove the man's classiness. In one vitrine, he has a pair of X-rays and standing before them there are a pair of enamel bowls with pieces of soap (there goes that fat-strand again). It happens that I am instantly taken to Map of the Human Heart, Vincent Ward's lovely 1993 film: it is a story of sanitoria and coincidence, of love and identity. Alright: I haven't sold it to you, but implore that you try it if you get the chance. From the Beuys, I get the death sentence in a negative and but also a zillion variations on the human story, and the things we do to forestall, alleviate and redeem them.

I deliberately haven't listened to the movies by and about Beuys. I will one day, and there is a chance he will irritate or charm me more than I suppose likely. Maybe he will lay out interpretations of his work which are at odds with my own. So be it.

I don't think the Beuys work is as autobiographical as the extraordinary micro-collections which were offered by that other Joseph, Cornell. (By the way, Cornell has namesakes who similarly marshal the disparate: Cornelia Parker and Cornelius Gijsbrechts.) Joseph Cornell's work speaks of arrested development and obsessiveness: he seems to want to heal the world as he gathers in the discarded shards of modern life and re-assembles them as best he can. His biography matters to the work, though it isn't indispensable. We are glad that Lindsay Blair (in her Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order, 1998) and Deborah Solomon (in her Utopia Parkway: The life and work of Joseph Cornell, 1997) has unpacked his boxes (the collections he made) and shown us the rather fragile man within.

February's Modern Painters tells me that Beuys was a bit Walter Mitty. That helps: a man who's something of a charlatan lets one take the personal dimension with a pinch of salt. I can continue to read what I like into the objects.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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