Joseph Beuys. Courtesy Welt
The artist, the shaman, the teacher, and the activist
Joseph Beuys is one of the most well-known and provocative artists in Germany and one of the most debatable figures in the international art community. While the artist saw his role as an artist as a teacher or shaman who could guide society in a new direction, many were skeptical of his methods. Beuys spread esoteric philosophy as he adopted a shaman-like persona for his performances. There were some people t by that, but also people that have dismissed it as cultish sensationalism. Beuys, as he often explained in his interviews, saw and used his performative art as shamanistic and psychoanalytic techniques to both educate and heal the general public. Quite big words, but even bigger is the story of his sudden found identity.
It goes back to when Beuys was a fighter pilot in the Crimea. In 1944 his plane crashed and from this incident, the artist created a myth that he was rescued by nomadic Tatar tribesmen. According to Joseph, the tribesmen had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health. Of course, records stated the opposite – Beuys was conscious and recovered by a German search commando. However, this particular story has served as a mythical origin of his artistic identity. Later in his performances, he came to use unorthodox materials, such as felt and fat, that are central in this crash story.
Beuys pushed the boundaries of what constitutes art in different ways. And he’s mostly known of using unconventional materials, such as bee’s wax, fat, felt and dead animals – many of which were symbolic representations that embodied artist’s ideas into forms.
The story can get quite long, but to cut to the chase Beuys’ has an extensive body of work in four domains: traditional art (painting, drawing, sculpture, and installations), performance, contributions to the theory of art and academic teaching, as well as social and political activities. I’m mostly interested in his controversial performances, that without a doubt were polarizing but at the same time iconic. A personal favorite was the one dubbed ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’.
‘I Like America and America Likes Me’
In 1974 Beuys flew to New York and without seeing anything or stepping a foot anywhere, he was taken straight to the René Block Gallery. Of course, he made quite the entrance: upon arrival, he was wrapped in a large piece of felt and later transported to the gallery by the ambulance. There, he shared the room with a coyote, for eight hours over three days. The artist was on a mission to illustrate that human beings can coexist with nature. Beuys believed that the union between men and nature must be restored. By the time the three days were over, the artist has managed to hug the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him.
The performance continuously shifted between what needed to be done to survive in the situation to elements that had a purely symbolic character. At times he sat or stood, covered in felt, with a peeking crooked staff from the top of it.
Beuys’ idea behind the project was to start a national dialogue. America at the time was far from the welcoming American Dream that the title of this performance suggests. The coyote symbolized a variety of things for Beuys: from trickster to America’s spirit animal.
At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him and was taken to the airport. At the end of the performance, the artist was taken back to the airport. Again, he rode in a veiled ambulance, leaving America without having set foot on its ground.
Joseph Beuys, ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’, 1974. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, Germany. Courtesy of SFMoMA.