torsdag den 24. september 2015


Last Friday, curator Keith Hartley of the Scottish National Gallery and I discussed Joseph Beuys at Tate Modern. In my introduction, I spoke about the countless ways in which meaning is produced in Beuys’s work. Meaning is a real problem in Beuys’s oeuvre, as it is generated across an incredibly wide range, all the way from private experiential knowledge to universalizing political theory.

Because my first meeting with Beuys as a scholar was in connection with my research on Fluxus, this is where I started. It ought to be easy to deal with Beuys and Fluxus. If you apply the strictest of criteria, Beuys only participated in one Fluxus festival, the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus at the art academy in Düsseldorf on 2-3 February 1963, and of the two pieces he presented there, he only considered one to be a “Fluxus” piece. So: one festival, one work. But what, then, about the exhibition Joseph Beuys Fluxus at the Haus Van der Grinten in Kranenburg in November 1963? If you go by the title, all the works on display there  ought to be Fluxus works, but some of them predate Fluxus by several years. There is even one drawing, Fluxus für Vierzehnjährige ("Fluxus for Fourteen-year-olds"), that is dated 1948/9. And Beuys’s engagement with Fluxus extends way beyond the early 1960s as well: think, for example, of his and Ken Friedman’s multiple Fluxus Zone West/Fluxus West from 1971. In the case of Beuys, Fluxus is both a very narrow and a very broad concept.

Laws – in this case the simple one-after-the other of time – seem to work differently with Beuys. The notion of the reservoir, which he unfolded in his Infiltration-homogen für Konzertflügel ("Infiltration-homogen for Concert Piano"), is a useful one to explain how. The Infiltration-homogen, an action performed at the art academy in Düsseldorf on 28 July 1966, revolved around a concert piano with a felt cover. The felt, Beuys has said, turned the piano into a “Klangdepot”, a sound reservoir. All the sounds that the piano can and will produce, are trapped inside the felt skin, without order, earlier and later sounds, real and potential sounds mixed together. The idea is echoed by the felt itself: the fibres it consists of are not woven, but matted. Felt is a homogeneous material. In Beuys’ work, felt is associated with isolation, warmth and absorption. Beuys draws on direct bodily knowledge about felt that we all have, which is one of the ways in which he communicated. But what is more important here is that each and every one of Beuys’ works, and indeed his oeuvre as a whole, can be seen Depote, reservoirs, felt-like in their structure.

Within the single work, there are always numerous layers and kinds of meaning. In Infiltration-homogen, the experiential knowledge we all have of felt is combined with the conventional sign of the Red Cross, stitched on the side of the piano cover - for Beuys a sign of “emergency” - and a contemporary reference: the subtitle of the Aktion was der grösste Komponist der Gegenwart ist das Contergankind, “the greatest contemporary composer is the thalidomide child”. The drug thalidomide had been taken off the market only five years earlier because it caused serious deformities in unborn foetuses, especially deformed limbs. The crippled child echoes the isolated piano as a container that nothing can get out of. But despite the many things Beuys has said about his work, you cannot compile a Beuys dictionary. Every line you draw through the homogeneous mass of references – the reservoir – gives a particular reading, but you cannot say that any single reading is the correct one. And the same can be said of his dating. If he includes a drawing from 1948 in a Fluxus exhibition, it is to invite the visitor to think about Fluxus. To Beuys, Fluxus was a principle rather than a group of people or a type of work. Flux, later Hauptstrom/”main stream”: flowing.

Beuys’ work was about setting in motion, about abolishing fixed categories. He is perhaps best known for the term “social sculpture” and the slogan “everyone is an artist”. Sculpture means changing things. A felt corner changes the right angles of a room. A thought can change society. It is not surprising that Beuys became politically active. The Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Student Party) was founded in his class at the Düsseldorf art academy in 1967. In 1970, he founded the Organisation der Nichtwähler, Freie Volksabstimmung (Organisation for Non-Voters and Free Referendum). Renamed the Organisation für direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung  (Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum), it was present at Documenta V in 1972, with Beuys discussing his works and politics with the audience for the full 100 days that the exhibition lasted. In 1977, at Documenta 6, he installed his Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (“Honey Pump in the Workplace”), an image of ideas flowing through the social organism. An integral part was the presence of the Freie internationale Universität (Free International University), by means of 13 workshops on contemporary issues such as nuclear power, the effects of capitalism, et cetera.

Beuys’ work and politics became increasingly inseparable – but they are miles apart as well. His theories, such as the Energy Plan for the Western Man from 1974, dealt with society and how to change it. His work, on the other hand, is recognizable as artwork, with a distinct style and an often unique character. It is also extremely puzzling. As a viewer, you’ll want an explanation, but the nature of the explanations, of the available keys, varies enormously, from knowledge that we all carry in our own bodies to abstract theories offered by Beuys. That, to my mind, is the greatest challenge Beuys’s work offers to the scholar and the viewer: to balance all of these explanations.

- More Beuys to follow - 

torsdag den 10. september 2015


On Friday 11 September, during a seminar in connection with the annual Golden Days Festival (theme: "important shit"), I spoke about Het Lieverdje in Amsterdam as cultural heritage. As a sculpture, Het Lieverdje ("The Street Urchin") is nothing special. Commissioned by the Committee for Activity in Amsterdam, it was created by sculptor Carel Kneulman and unveiled in 1960 as a symbol of the Amsterdam spirit, cheeky but lovable. If "anti-smoking magician" Robert Jasper Grootveld had not turned it into the symbol of "tomorrow's addicted consumer" in 1964, the expression "cultural heritage" would never have been used. Grootveld discovered that the sculpture had been funded by Hunter Cigarette Co. and organised a happening there every Friday at midnight. A crowd that grew larger with each week that went formed a magical circle around the statue in order to exorcise the spirit of consumerism, ritually coughing and chanting slogans.

Het Lieverdje - quite accidentally - became the meeting point for a whole range of people with different agendas. There was Bart Huges, who drilled a Third Eye in his skull in order to get permanently high. There was Johnny van Doorn, or Johnny the Selfkicker, a poet who worked himself up in a trance, ranting and raving his poetry. There was Nicolaas Kroese, the eccentric restaurant owner who claimed to have discovered the Fifth Energy that made plants grow and who lent Grootveld a garage for use as a K-Temple (K stands for "kanker", cancer) until it burned down. There were literary figures such as the poet Simon Vinkenoog and the author Harry Mulisch, who immortalised Het Lieverdje and the crowd surrounding it in their writings. There was the photographer Cor Jaring, whose pictures ensured that everyone, both inside and outside Holland, knew what went on. And there was Roel van Duijn, the co-founder of Provo.

As Van Duijn tells the story, he either found Grootveld's Gnot-sign drawn on the wall next to his door one day when he came home or a paper with the Gnot-sign written on it in the letter box. "Gnot", a word of Grootveld's invention, is a combination of the words "genot" ("indulgence") and "god" ("God"). The sign looks like an apple with a dot in it. It also stood for "Amsterdam Magic Center", Grootveld's campaign to turn the city into a place where everything was possible. Van Duijn had handed out leaflets announcing the publication of the magazine Provo at Het Lieverdje, and posting the sign was Grootveld's way of calling a meeting. Apparently he suggested to Van Duijn that Provo make use of ludic means, the very means that made it both notorious and effective in those serious times. The anarchist youth movement only existed from 1965 until 1967, but it turned the city upside down - and it adopted both Het Lieverdje and the Gnot-sign as its own signs.

This year it is 50 years ago that Provo began to organise its happenings at Het Lieverdje. The event has been marked with a documentary, several exhibitions, a Provo tour organised by the Amsterdam Museum and lots of media coverage. When a gnot-sign was discovered on the Royal Palace in Dam square, the place where Provo demonstrated against the monarchy, Paul Spies, the (now ex-) director of the Amsterdam Museum immediately told the press that it ought to be recognised as cultural heritage. Meanwhile, he and ex-Provo Luud Schimmelpenninck placed a white bicycle underneath the sign, carrying a picture frame that picks it out against the background. All the stops on the Provo tour are marked with white bicycles as a reference to Provo's White Bicycle Plan, which Schimmelpenninck was the main architect of.

It is not surprising that Spies wanted to activate the heritage machinery. The Palace is under renovation, and it is always when things are under threat that the notion of cultural heritage crops up. If the gnot-sign is recognised as cultural heritage, it will function the way cultural heritage usually does: a physical object is turned into the unique, authentic sign of an imagined community, in this case the spirit of Provo, as cheeky and lovable as the Amsterdam spirit as embodied in Het Lieverdje. The sculpture, meanwhile, fared differently. During the 1990s, he square where it stands, Spui, got a new pavement with an apple - the gnot-sign - picked out in differently coloured cobbles, but hardly anybody notices it. The owner of a bookshop on the square regularly has to point out to brick layers that they have put the cobbles back the wrong way. The sculpture, meanwhile, is still the focus of demonstrations, ludic or otherwise, that result in the same press photographs as 50 years ago. Especially student protests often take place near Het Lieverdje, as the rectorate of Amsterdam University resides in the nearby Maagdenhuis.

I am tempted to see the tradition for civil unrest around Het Lieverdje as a kind of cultural heritage as well. Some will argue that only physical remains can be seen as heritage, as the word "heritage" suggests "inheritance", the possibility for things to be inherited by later generations. However, cultural heritage is intimately connected with identity; traditionally national identity, but in recent publications on the subject increasingly the heritage of smaller communities as well. Analyses of cultural heritage as a carrier of national identity tend to stress the fact that it creates communities by excluding others. When academics want to address the heritage of smaller communities or minorities, on the other hand, they tend to pull the Butler card, stressing the fact that the performative creation and perpetuation of national identities also leaves open the possibility for changing the status quo, for including the heritage of others. Ever since Grootveld and Provo, Het Lieverdje has been the focus of civic disobedience. Although the students who demonstrate there do not belong to the same community as the early happeners around Grootveld or Provo, they do represent the same spirit of anti-patriarchal, pro-democratic revolt. Het Spui and Het Lieverdje, I would argue, are the locus of the performance of that spirit and have been its locus for the past two-three generations. That, too, I would say, is a type of cultural heritage.

More information on the Golden Days homepage