How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare. 1965
Picture of the artist.
|Form: The artist, with a dead bunny. Smeared with felt, fat
and grease. or, alternately, honey and gold leaf.
Iconography: "The bridge between the earthly and spiritual realms
is represented in Beuys' work more often by animals, which he thought of
as "figures that pass freely from one level of existence to another." In
many cultures animals are guardian spirits for shamans, companions on their
celestial journeys. Beuys often used animals in his actions, bringing them
along, so to speak, on his own journeys. He carried a dead hare in several
early performances, shared the stage with a spectral white horse in the
action Titus/Iphigenia (1969), and most famously, spent a week in
a gallery space with a coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me (1974),
an action described as a "dialogue" with the animal. All of these performances
suggest the shaman's special affinity with animals: he can understand their
language, share their particular abilities, even transform himself into
one of them. Beuys identified personally with several animals, most notably
the hare. He always carried a rabbit's foot or tuft of rabbit fur as a
talisman,and jokingly cited the pointed shape of his ears as proof of his
close relationship to the creature. He also had an affinity for the stag,
an animal with deep ties to Germanic legend and northern myth; he sometimes
referred to himself as "stagleader. And in the multiple A Party for Animals
(1969), he simply declared himself to be an animal by including his own
name--along with those of the
Context: He was in world war one, and was shot down. He was burnt
over 70% of his body and had been wrapped in fat and felt to help him heal.
When he got better, he decided he would make art that was all about peace.....or,
more in depth, is a biography by Joan Rothfuss, Walker art curator..."Joseph
Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, a city in northwestern Germany
near the Dutch border. He grew up in the nearby towns of Kleve and Rindern,
the only child in a middle class, strongly Catholic family. During his
youth he pursued dual interests in the natural sciences and art, and he
chose a career in medicine. In 1940 he joined the military, volunteering
in order to avoid the draft. He was trained as an aircraft radio operator
and combat pilot, and during his years of active duty he was seriously
wounded numerous times. At the end of the war he was held in a British
prisoner-of-war camp for several months, and returned to Kleve in 1945.
I Like America and America Likes Me. 1974
|Form: The artist, wrapped in felt and holding a cane. Inside
a gallery space with a wild coyote. This type of performance art is known
as an 'action'.
Iconography: " Beuys' actions were often described as
intimate, autobiographical, politically charged, and intense. Actions would
typically last 45 minutes to nine hours, and though his actions were not
rehearsed, Beuys often created a score or "partitur" (as opposed to a script)
in which he would plan the objects that would be used and the sequence
of the performance. Beuys viewed each action as a new version of a basic
theme and an attempt to make his philosophy more comprehensible. He also
believed that the less literal the performances were, the easier it would
be for the audience members to translate his message into their own lives.
Beuys traveled to the United States in 1974 and performed an action entitled
I like America and America Likes Me at the René Block Gallery in
New York. The action actually began at Kennedy Airport, where friends wrapped
him in felt and transported him to the gallery in an ambulance. Beuys then
spent several days in a room with only a felt blanket, a flashlight, a
cane that looked like a shepherd's staff, copies of the Wall Street Journal
(which were delivered daily), and a live coyote. His choice of employing
a coyote was perhaps an acknowledgment of an animal that holds great spiritual
significance for Native Americans, or a commentary on a country that
through its Western expansion had become "lost"America." (By Joan Rothfuss,
www.walkerart.org) This is a good explanation for what happened, that the
viewer could see, but the meaning for Beuys went much deeper. He was German-born,
and had a hard time with America and how America treated him as an artist
and its' wildlife. In an essay written by David Levi Strauss, this ambivalence
is studied in greater detail, "By most accounts, the American audiences
for Beuys's public dialogues in January1974 (arranged by Ronald Feldman)
also didn't quite know how to take Beuys. His reputation for provocation
and controversy had preceded him, but the substance of his teachings had
not, so much of the time of these meetings was taken up by the most preliminary
clarification of terms. When the dialogues did break through to more substantive
exchange, the audiences often seemed caught on the horns of a particularly
(though not exclusively) American dilemma: How can we embrace Beuys's idealism
(which is akin to our own) without denying its profound opposition to the
materialism which also defines us. For his part, Beuys was equally ambivalent
about America. As his influence spread in Europe, he continually declined
invitations to come to the U.S. or show in the U.S., saying he would not
come as long as the U.S. remained in Vietnam. When he finally did come
in 1974, he tried to engage Americans in two very different kinds of dialogue.
Four months after his largely unsuccessful public dialogues and lectures
on his Energy Plan for the Western Man in New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago,
Beuys performed his first and only aktion in America, and this second contact
was fittingly traumatic. You could say that a reckoning has to be made
with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted. (8) For three
days in May of 1974, Joseph Beuys lived and communicated with a coyote
in a small room in the newly-opened Rene Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway
in New York. Though actually witnessed by only a handful of people, this
action, I Like America and America Likes Me, awakened the interest and
curiosity of many who heard about it, far and wide. Along with Beuys's
golden-flaked honeyed head in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965),
and the glowing white horse and cymbals of Iphigenie/Titus Andronicus (1969),
images of the Coyote action are among the most resilient and generative
images to come out of Beuys's performance work. Caroline Tisdall,
author of the book documenting the Coyote action, has elsewhere written,
"The represented environment must effect the modern consciousness originally,
archetypically and beyond the times." (9) Perhaps more than any other,
Beuys's American action was projected "beyond the times." Fifteen years
after the act and three years after Beuys's death is perhaps a good time
to make an inquiry into the further meanings of the Coyote action, and
to reconsider its significance.
Context: An excerpt from the same essay can be used to explain
the context of what he was doing in the gallery with the coyote, "Upon
arrival in the room with the coyote, Beuys began an orchestrated sequence
of actions to be repeated over and over in the next three days. A triangle
is struck three times to begin the sequence. This triangle that Beuys wears
pendant around his neck is the alchemical sign for fire (dry, fiery, choleric
warmth), which ancient glacial Eurasian shamans sorely needed. It is also
a sign for the feminine element (earthy & mercurial) and for the creative
intellect, and it is the Pythagorean symbol for wisdom. Striking its three
sides three times, Beuys calls himself, Coyote, and the Audience to order.
After the triangle is struck, a recording of loud turbine engine noise
is played outside the enclosure, signifying "indetermined energy" and calling
up a chaotic vitality. At this point, Beuys pulls on his gloves, reminiscent
of the traditional bear-claw gloves worn by "master of animals" shamans
such as those depicted on the walls of Tros Freres, and gets into his fur
pelt/felt, wrapping it around himself so that he disappear into it with
the flashlight. He then extends the crook of his staff out from the opening
at the top of the felt wrap, as an energy conductor and receptor, antenna
or lightning rod. The conical shape of the felt resembles a tipi, the nomadic
shelter which migrated. from Siberia to North America with the hunters.
Topped with the crooked staff, it also recalls both the stag and the shape
of the lightning in Lightning with Stag in Its Glare (1958-85), and is
a reference to the classic shamanic antlered mask, also going back to the
caves of the Upper Paleolithic, as does Beuys's "Eurasian staff," the shamanic
phallos (Coyote carried his around in a box on his back) and staff of the
psychopomp--messenger and mediator. The felt enclosure doubles as a sweat
lodge for Beuys, accumulating the heat necessary for transformation. Beuys
bends at the waist and follows the movements of the coyote around the room,
keeping the receptor/staff pointed in the coyote's direction at all times.
When the beam of the flashlight is glimpsed from beneath the felt, we recognize
the figure of the Hermit from the Tarot--an old man with a staff, holding
a lighted lamp half-hidden by t he great mantle which envelopes him.
This card in the Tarot indicates wisdom, circumspection, and protection.
It refers to the developed mind of man, the prudence and foresight of learning,
and is thought by some to picture Hermes, the Messenger, signifying
active divine inspiration and "unexpected current." (21) Arthur Edward
Waite gives the sense of the Hermit's lantern as "where I am, you also
may be." (22) After awhile, Beuys emerges from the felt and walks to the
edge of the room, marking the end of the sequence of gestures. There is
a pile of straw, another piece of felt, and stacks of each day's Wall Street
Journal in the room. Beuys sleeps on the coyote's straw; the coyote sleeps
on Beuys's felt. The copies of the Wall Street Journal arrive each day
from outside (like the engine noise) and enter the dialogue as evidence
of the limits of materialist thinking." (David Levi Strauss from his recent
book between dog & wolf, Essays on Art and Politics, pubished by Autonomedia,
Brooklyn, NY, 1999 www.bockleygallery.com)
||Form: Performance piece involving metal wires inserted into
the artists' chest.
Iconography: Chris Burden put long metal wires into his chest and had himself photographed with these wires protruding from his chest. His performance pieces are often compared to the stunts performed on the MTV show Jackass, in which young men perform asinine stunts which often result in pain and laughter, all because they can. However, it may also be said that he is part of the sub-culture known as the 'modern primitive', in which people engage in forms of piercing, tattooing, bloodletting and ancient shamanic rituals such as suspension in order to push their physical bodies to the limits of pain in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. The argument against including him into this group is the fact that he chooses to display these rituals, there is no preparation nor meditation beforehand, and it would appear that there is a stronger argument for his work to be done for pure shock value.
Context:" Quick, can you name the American artist who famously stuffed himself into his campus locker and remained there for seven days? If your answer is Chris Burden, then you know your modern artists. Burden pulled the locker stunt as his MFA thesis project and went on to stage many other similar conceptual/action art pieces (including shooting himself in the leg as a one-off performance piece) in the course of his long and colorful career. Burden belongs to a generation of earnest, loopy, brave, comical, and visionary artists who tried to change the way we look at art. In pursuit of this mission, Burden also created installations, one of which is included in "Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996," the new exhibition at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. Burden's piece, titled The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, consists of 50,000 nickels with match tips glued to their faces lying in perfectly symmetrical rows on a platform just above the floor. It is a forceful image of order, power, and industry which rises up to fill the space and overwhelm the viewer. Up close, the nickels seem small, the explosive capabilities of the match heads comical. Paradoxically, from further away, their combined energy is cold and sinister. Using multiple perspectives to get at meaning and altering the way a viewer interacts with a work is typical of installation art. You cannot simply stand a short distance from the image and size it up as with a conventional medium like painting. To begin with, it is hard to know where to stand to really see the object. Instead, an installation requires that you cross the boundaries of a conventional art experience and become part of the work itself." (www.austinchronicle.com)
Chris Burden. Shoot. 1975
|Form: Artist, gun, bullet.
Iconography: If there were ever an argument for calling an artist
a jackass, this would be it. According to an article on www.disinfo.com,
"On November 19, 1971, 25-year-old performance artist Chris Burden had
one friend shoot him in the arm at close range, while another filmed it.
Burden made a few thousand off the sale of his accomplishment, simply titled,
"Shoot." His resulting medical bills surpassed $84,000." However, though
it may seem pointless, stupid and painful, there are many in the performance
art genre whom see it as a valid and important form of self expression.
Context: According to a synopsis found at Electronic Arts Intermix, which has documented his work on film..." Chris Burden's provocative, often shocking conceptual performance pieces of the early 1970s retain their raw and confrontational force in these dramatic visual records, shot on Super-8, 16mm film, and half-inch video. Guided by the artist's candid, explanatory comments on both the works and the documentative process, these segments reveal the major themes of Burden's work -- the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk, the aggressive abuse of the body as an art object, and the psychology of the artist/spectator relationship. This compilation is an historical document of one of the most extreme manifestations of 1970s conceptual performance art. Included are the infamous Shoot (1971), in which Burden allows himself to be shot in the arm." (www.eai.org)
Chris Burden. Transfixed. 1974
|Form: Chris Burden nailed himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and
had other artists drive it around.
Iconography: "in a small garage to the Speedway Avenue I stood
on the rear bumper of a people car. With the back on its tail lying, stretched
I mean arms over the roof. Nails were driven by my palms into the roof
of the car. The garage gate was opened and the car half from the garage
was pushed onto the road. For two minutes with full number of revolutions
constantly, the machine for me cried. After two minutes the engine was
turned off and the car into the garage was pushed back. The gate was closed."
(Chris Burden, Transfixed, Venice,California, 23. April1974) (memopolis.uni-regensburg.de)
Context: The artist is using non-living, mechanical objects and trying to infuse them with his living, organic presence. To hear his own interpretation and context for this piece, please click the link beneath the photo of the work.