Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) is thought to have lost the plot after his Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber was shot down on the Crimean Front during World War II. The German’s wild tales of nomadic Tatar tribesmen smearing his wounded body in animal fat and felt before nursing him back to health formed the basis of his artistic identity —Beuys’ reinterpretation of his own biography is what propels his work above and beyond.
Buenos Aires’ Fundación PROA is currently showing ‘Joseph Beuys. Works 1955–1985′ through May, a retrospective of the late artist’s work comprising 110 items. PROA’s sterile innards are flecked with curiosities detailing the former Luftwaffe gunner’s life, but this show is no aesthetic marvel. The objects, films, and sketches are only minor representations of a greater meaning formed in Beuys’ mysterious psyche.
The first gallery projects a soundless short of the artist explaining contemporary art to a dead hare (‘How to explain pictures to a dead hare’, 1965), apparently highlighting his concerns surrounding art education and whether it is actually possible. Speaking about his head being covered in honey during the showing, Beuys said, “In putting honey on my head I am clearly doing something that has to do with thinking. Human ability is not to produce honey, but to think, to produce ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thinking becomes lifelike again. For honey is undoubtedly a living substance.”
This performance stems from the artist’s involvement in the 1960s Flexus movement, which relies on emphasising the concept of anti-art and chastising the seriousness of modern art. Unsurprisingly obscure stuff given the German focused his crosshairs on those who believed art should be “understood.”
Other exhibits include a felt suit hanging alongside a bottle of ‘Rhein Water Polluted’ and a sledge carrying yet more felt, a torch, and what appears to be a block of lard, likely referring to his mesmeric and imagined experiences with the Tatar.
Universally celebrated as one of the most important and revolutionary European artists of the last century, Beuys’ work engages the audience in provocative ways while striving to act as a medium for revolutionary change — “social sculpture” as he described it.
Not content with simply creating art and film, Beuys harboured a strong interest in politics and was instrumental in founding a number of organisations including the German Student Party, Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, and German Green Party Die Grünen. As a result, his art often refers to the political groups with which he was affiliated.
The artist’s unusual back story and anti-establishment beliefs are the centrepiece of the exhibition. Patches of text detail his humanist, anthroposophist, and philosophical concepts but the short films in particular are a little difficult to digest. This is perhaps best demonstrated in ‘I like America and America Like Me’, shot in 1974, which shows the performer lying on an ambulance stretcher wrapped in felt before sharing a room with a wild coyote who eventually warms to him. The truth is I understood very little — but I’m pretty sure that’s what Beuys would have wanted.
Joseph Beuys. Works 1955–1985 — until June. Fundación Proa, Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1929. Admission: $20.