The power of art. On the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys – Part 1

Hermann Achenbach (LOGON) interviewed the author and filmmaker Rüdiger Sünner from Berlin. - Do we need a new look at Joseph Beuys, one of the most important artistic personalities of the 20th century?

The power of art. On the 100th birthday of Joseph Beuys – Part 1

H. A.: The anniversary of Joseph Beuys’ birthday is on 12 May 2021, and it is striking that many critical voices are being raised this year in particular. Is his art, which touches people and is spiritual, fading into the background? Does the spirit of the age want to establish materialism as the measure of all things once and for all, or does it not remain merely a means of providing evolution with temporary inspirational impulses? Is the division of people also taking its course in art: fake or truth? Polarisation? Defamation of things that one does not want to or cannot recognise?

We need a fine sensory

R. S.: Yes, Beuys’ art is taking a back seat at the moment, basically the personality cult is being continued subliminally, which is otherwise always criticised. Instead of being touched by his works of art, people are looking at his life for biographical “weak points”, such as ambiguous statements or acquaintances with former Nazis. Or people try to harness Beuys to the devil’s own devices to zeitgeist themes such as ecology and the critique of capitalism. None of this does him full justice. I think that despite his political programmes, the focus should still be on his work, which comprises several thousand individual pieces and is, after all, accessible in many museums. But I have the impression that today there is a lack of a finer sensorium for art in general: what cannot be quickly classified politically or topically hardly exists anymore. We should remember that aesthetic objects get their name from the Greek aisthesis, which means “perception” and “sensation”. Beuys should be approached through such abilities and not through intellectual classifications and attributions.

H. A.: Mr. Sünner, you made a documentary film and wrote a book of the same name: “Show Your Wound”. Here you deal very sensitively with the art of Joseph Beuys and demonstrate a great research quality. This Beuys installation, which can be seen in the Lehnbachhaus in Munich, speaks intensively of human suffering, of healing and transfiguration. Isn’t this work typical of Beuys’ love of humanity and the artist’s recognition of the power of fate?

Show your wound

R. S.: Absolutely, hardly any other work has touched me so strongly. I was allowed to spend a whole hour alone in front of it, accompanied only by the restorer, filming it and letting its enormous aura take effect on me. The restorer told me that school classes rush past the installation in horror to get to Franz Marc’s beautiful horses, but Beuys’ silent work penetrated me deeply: the suffering, death, pain and decay of our bodies were present in the space, the measuring procedures of medicine and pathology but the ancient craft tools with the red ribbons also told of vitality and the children’s writing on the slates (“show your wound”) reminded me of the value of vulnerability. It is an intimate meditation space, which are rare nowadays and it was more intense than churches or yoga rooms. I also chose this motto as the title for the film and the book because it enabled me to “show my wounds” myself when filming and writing. Only by building on this is real healing possible.

H. A.: This thought also touches me very much. Revealing one’s own wounds is also connected with “opening up” and building trust with one’s fellow human beings. Does the repression that does not allow dialogue about injuries and old wounds have to do with the fact that people do not want to see or that they misinterpret the unpleasantness of their existence? Joseph Beuys said of his installation “Doppelfonds” in New York: “The iron blocks are so heavy so that man does not lightly remove himself from this hell. The endurance of the unbearable, the clear and illusionless view of death enable the view on life.” Doesn’t death in fact keep us awake, as Beuys describes it?

R. S.: I have the feeling that such dimensions are hardly seen in Beuys today – or do not want to be seen. Unfortunately, through endless appearances, television interviews and photos, he himself has contributed to the enormous personality cult that now pushes itself in front of his work. Labels have an effect on the public: “the man with the hat”, the “clown”, “agitator”, “entertainer”, “provocateur”, “performer” or now the “man of the people” or “German nationalist”, all of which of course distracts from the abysmal and existential aspects of his work. These media ascriptions bounce off me, one should examine certain points of criticism more closely, but they don’t help in the personal encounter with the concrete work. That’s why, in my film, I let the objects, drawings and installations themselves speak to the viewer in peace.

H. A.: In another passage, Beuys says that it is suffering that helps people. Two paths of destiny lead to the enrichment of the world: active doing and suffering. He says: A sick child who can do nothing and lies in bed fills the world with Christian substance through his suffering. Doesn’t that sound very Buddhist? Don’t such thoughts show the deeply human and merciful attitude of Joseph Beuys?

“The last Christian artist”

R. S.: He was Christian in the sense that he showed mercy, empathy, sympathy, and gave impulses of warmth. Eugen Blume, the former director of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin even once called him “the last Christian artist”. Beuys not only created many interesting forms of the cross, but all of his works basically lean down with compassion to the “most pitiful”, to the maltreated, worn, deformed and injured. Gauze bandages, plasters, blood bags appear in many works as direct symbols of healing. For me, warmth shimmers through Beuys’ muted colours everywhere, perhaps even what the theologian Dorothee Sölle once called “God in the rubbish”.

7000 oaks

H. A.: From another point of view, trees are fundamentally important to Beuys. In Kassel, he realised the huge action “Stadtverwaldung” (urban forestation) and had 7,000 oak trees planted with basalt stones. He connects trees with the human soul, and he sees the soul in danger. The soul is the only thing worth raising. Then everything else will be saved. Can you shed more light on this work of art? Doesn’t a cosmic sense of meaning show itself existentially here? (In the sense: Creation has provided for a Plan B (B standing for Baum, tree)?

R. S.: 7000 is a great healing initiation in many ways. It juxtaposes the crystalline, non-developing basalt with the upward sprouting green of the oak, as the symbol of a greater future sustainability, but also open to older mythological interpretations. For the Celts, whose spiritual world Beuys loved, the oak was the “sacred tree” of the Druids, which continued to be revered by the monks even after the Christianisation of Ireland, which was gentler here than on the continent. Beuys also alludes to a Celtic spiritual heritage of Europe in Ireland, which he even called “The Brain of Europe”. Another layer of meaning is the misuse of the oak symbolism by the Nazis, who awarded the oak-leafed “Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross” to soldiers who were granted heroic status. Hitler also planted many oak trees, and the oak became a symbol of the “firmly rooted German nation” in relation to the homeless “Jewish desert people”, for example. Beuys indirectly includes these symbolic levels in his action “7000 Oaks”, but not as sympathy for the Nazis, but as an attempt at a healing reinterpretation. All of this is currently not understood by critics who accuse Beuys of having a “brown” attitude or of being a “German bully”.

H.A.: Oaks and basalt surely have a special meaning? They seem megalithic and Celtic. For thousands of years, the Celts populated Europe from Portugal, Ireland and Scotland to the far shores of the Black Sea. In his search for archaic archetypes and symbols, Beuys is intensively involved with the world of the Celts in Scotland, Ireland and England. Does he go into his Eurasian imagination with the action “Celtic”? Does it have anything to do with the legend of King Arthur? Also a path of salvation for souls! Are there connections to the megalithic culture – to Stonehenge, menhirs, dolmens, graves? Is the Celtic the root for Eurasia? The old gods were annexed and superimposed by Roman Christianity.


R.S.: Beuys visited evidence of the megalithic culture when he visited the enormous burial site of Newgrange on a trip to Ireland. There he was particularly fascinated by the double spirals, which probably symbolise the cyclical course of the sun, growing larger in summer and smaller in winter, and probably also reflect the rhythm of death and rebirth. Beuys was aware that Ireland had an ancient spiritual culture, ranging from megalithic culture to the Celts to Iro-Scottish Christianity, and he is interested in all aspects of it. He also addressed elements of this cultural stream in his action “Celtic”: Beuys stands motionless for a long time with a spear in the crowd like a Celtic Grail and Arthurian knight, while tears of exertion run down his face, and he washes the feet of some spectators like Jesus did shortly before his death on the cross. With an old watering can he has water poured over him in an act of baptism. Everything takes place in an underground air-raid shelter that embodies the dangers of nuclear war: Celtic healing mysteries are invoked as counterweights, if you will, against the modern-day apocalypse. Anyone who has seen the films of this action will be wary of lightly criticising Beuys henceforth as a mere “self-dramatiser”; he lives all this with an earnestness and dedication that still today touches and leaves one speechless.

H.A.: Menhirs symbolically stand for the seat of the souls of the ancestors or the seat of gods. So the stone and oak setting could represent a spiritual combination?

RS.: The basalt stelae are certainly reminiscent of menhirs and stone circles of the kind Beuys saw on his travels through Celtic countries, but they may also echo his visit to the “Giants Causeway” in Northern Ireland, where 40,000 basalt stelae jut into the sea like a gigantic staircase. But he lets the stones speak for themselves, never overburdens anything with mythological meanings; he has a great sense for the symbolic intrinsic effect of substances and materials that have had an archetypal effect on people through the millennia.

(to be continued in part 2)



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Date: April 26, 2021
Author: Hermann Achenbach (Germany)
Photo: Suenner Beuys

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