Positions with Joseph Beuys

Contemporary dance and art attracts limited informed audiences- often artists, people from within ‘the scene’. A big part of western capitalist society seems unaffected by contemporary art.

However, also small numbers of people can act as multiplicators within the society by speaking about impressions, by setting the example of lifestyles and interests differing from the mainstream, by providing ground for controversal discourse – by publicity.

What and how does contemporary art contribute to society? And how do I want to shape my own arts practice? These were some of the questions I asked myself when I started out formulating my contextual enquiry project.

Admission Ticket

© Gebken 2011. Hamburger Bahnhof

And one artist that helps me  circumscribe the intention respectively the political of my work is Joseph Beuys. His most know proposition is probably the expanded concept of art in which he formulated that creativity and thereby ‘transformation lies as a possibility within every human being’. And every creative faculty should be noticed and developed in order to empower people to shape society. To Beuys this did not mean everybody should produce sculpture for instance, but every human being has the facility to sculpt something. (Beuys 1984)
And I really got struck by his thesis that art equals capital (Stachelhaus 1991), which makes complete sense to me in the way that the peoples creativity is also their resource, but which I do not see appreciated in the capitalistic societies I move in as much as I would wish for their culture. When I worked in the Netherlands last year the government had just decided on cutting down their funding for contemporary dance drastically which means that many dutch production houses will have to close this year. And I read in Beuys thesis quoted above the importance of bringing one’s art practice to other areas in society, beyond the context of the contemporary art scene, say to the milieus of literal politics and economy.
Moreover, Joseph Beuys seems a visionary in the sense that already in the 80s he claimed that we need to merge western and eastern culture in order to prevent the world from self-destruction. For him western culture was highly rational (Hamburger Bahnhof 2011) -which definitely rings with my experiences of how I grew up in Germany in the 80s and 90s- and asian culture more spiritual. So the warning he addressed to the Japanese society was not to take over only the western rationalism, but also nourish their spiritual culture, or else the world might be heading towards some sort of apocalyptic crisis (Hamburger Bahnhof 2011). When I saw Beuys’ exhibition ‘8 Days in Japan and the Utopia of Eurasia in Berlin’ I felt as if he had predicted the nuclear catastrophe of Fukoshima where numerous nuclear power sites have been built in an area known to be prone to earth quakes, but yearning to support it’s economical boom.
Besides these political and cultural insights I found an aspect which explained needs to me further that I feel in my artistic practice. And this is the element of  ‘warmth’ or a gradient of temperature: hot AND cold in Beuys’ working materials (felt and fat), and in his compositions. As examples one could look at his project ‘7000 oaks’ for which he planted oaks each one with a basalt stone beside them or the actions he performed with a dead rabbit. So, in these art works there was always something living and something dead present. (Beuys 1984)
Beuys saw art as a process of healing or locomotion, that picked you up from somewhere and brought you someplace else, from ill to healthy (Stachelhaus 1991). And I get the image of this element of warmth speeding up or facilitating a process of transformation as it makes the molecules involved move faster.
This claim for transformation through art work is important to me, because it explains why some pieces of art ‘work’ for me and some don’t. Sometimes transformation does not happen or is not complete for me and I would like to revisit an artist I have already cited in my proposal and look at his work again: I saw the exhibit ‘It’s burning everywhere’ by Thomas Hirschhorn in Dundee in 2009’ which contained -amongst other items- pictures of war victims, showing real torn-off faces and similar images of violence on their own, printed onto wedding dresses, implemented into a complex installation landscape (Hirschhorn 2009). This, for me, had a shock effect, but not one of transformation. It left me where I was, angry and said about reality.
If I can go further and sketch another model of the hot and cold, the death and the living perceived in Beuys work I will use + and – mathematically, but also chemically, thinking of an electric charge, ions moving in between poles and say: in this Hirschhorn exhibition there was no plus and minus, it was more like a minus and minus – which in mathematics makes plus and in chemistry allows no electricity to be transported, at all. In this respect I feel Hirschhorn applied death onto unliving things. It was like a dance piece solely portraying doom without tranformation and without warmth. In the way I perceived dance pieces concerning the holocaust like ‘7734’ and Hofesh Shechter’s ‘Political Mother’. I feel if there is no warmth, no plus AND minus, there is no hope for and no mercy with the people and therefore no creativity set off. This means the process ends quite quickly after or with the end of the performance. There are arguments for these choices, especially where themes like genocide are concerned, but for developing my choreographical work I am more interested in working with the idea of transformation inspired by Beuys.

© Malin Gebken

About gesellschaftstanz

Dancer, herbalist and banker by training and a curious, creative and political human being.
This entry was posted in Positions in Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Positions with Joseph Beuys

  1. Contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys for instance showed in their work an openness to an immense range of aspects of life, for instance towards beauty inmidst brutal social situations when one regards some Beuys work during war time. Juxtapositions society might need.

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