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As an artist, teacher, and activist, Joseph Bueys is one of the major figures in postwar German art. His theories on the social utility of art influenced a generation of artists. Beuys created conceptual works, objects, drawings, installations, performance actions and lectures within an intricate system of meaning. Beuys explored the role of artist and shaman and engaged his audience in unprecedented and provocative ways. The profoundly experimental nature of his work established him as a founding father of German avant-garde.
Joseph Bueys is widely understood to be the most important German artist of the post-world war II period. He was highly provocative and he and his peers reinvented a thriving avant-garde after the long period of Nazi repression.
After the war, Beuys entered the Dusseldorf academy. During this time he questioned traditional academic parameters and sought to expand his artistic range, technical abilities, and his understanding of art through his subject matter, sculptural techniques and the use of non-traditional materials.
Beuys matured as an artist in the sixties with the Fluxus group (which was an international movement based on an absolute connection between art and life), Fluxus objects and performances are characterized by minimalist but often expansive gestures based on scientific, philosophical, sociological, or other extra-artistic ideas. This type of art became increasingly anti-establishment, personal, and idiosyncratic. In the case of Bueys, the boundary between art and life was very fine.
As a German who shared in the devastation and guilt following world war II, Beuys was able to draw on his experiences and transform them, just as he transformed common materials into art. Beuys choice of materials for his sculpture was famously eclectic. He viewed certain substances as having important associations, and through repeated use they attained a personal symbolism.
Fat appears in many of Beuys sculptures. He chose it partly to stimulate discussion, as a 'material that was very basic to life and not associated with art'. Also, the flexibility with which it changes from solid to liquid form, according to changes in temperature, made it a potent symbol of spiritual transcendence. Felt was also an important material to Beuys for its ability to absorb whatever it came into contact with. As an insulator, it became a symbol of warmth. It also appears as a muffler, like when he wrapped a piano, television or a loudspeaker in it. Like fat, the use of felt was one of Beuys's personal signatures.
SLIDE - FELT PIANO
SLIDE - FELT SUIT
In 'Felt Suit', Beuys plays with the idea of felt as a protective, magical material. This felt suit is no ordinary suit, it is contemporary armour made out of humble cloth. It is also no ordinary suit since it is not a suit at all, it is art. An empty shell, without the human presence. Bueys stated that the suit represented a way of protecting an individual from the world. It also acts as a symbol of the isolation of human beings. There are connotations of the suits worn by prisoners, in particular those in Nazi concentration camps.
In his work, Beuys developed many ideas about harmonizing the forces of nature and civilisation, man and technology, and art and life.
SLIDE - ROSE IN CYLINDER
One of his most famous works consists of a single rose in a graduated cylinder. This simple image expresses the importance of uniting love and knowledge, passion and science. The rose, a flower that gradually blossoms from within, is also a symbol of revolution for Beuys.
Beuys political activism came to the forefront during the 1970's. Believing that everyone could participate creatively in reshaping society, he advocated a theory of social sculpture, in other words, society as artwork. Beuys was motivated by a utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. This translated into this formulation of the concept of Social Sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art which each person can contribute creatively.
The idea as everyone is an artist, that every person in every deed is a social sculptor, is very powerful. Its power lies in the fact that it is a living imagination of our human potential and future evolution.
SLIDE - DEAD HARE
In "how to explain pictures to a dead hare' Beuys cradled a dead hare lovingly in his arms for three hours, walking it around and showing his drawings to it while explaining them to it in an inaudible whisper. The hare symbolises birth for Beuys because it is born and burrows underground, later to emerge from the Earth. Whilst carrying around the hare, he also had his head covered in honey and gold leaf. Beuys states, by putting honey on my head I am clearly doing something involved with thinking. This may emphasize Bueys opinion that western society is too rational. Bueys claimed that he preferred to explain pictures to a dead animal than to other people.
Beuys answered a need of a population waking up from the shock of its economic, social and cultural lethargy following the war, and showed a way to rise from the ashes that was as fun as it was holistic and spiritually challenging. Beuys work served, in it's initial contact with the audience, an a diversion. His work should not be regarded simply as entertainment and should be considered amonght the realities in which it was created.
SLIDE - HARE CLIP
Beuys's most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: 'I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.' The title of the work is filled with irony. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the control of American art.
Beuys's felt blankets, walking stick and gloves became sculptural props throughout the Action. In addition, fifty new copies of the Wall Street Journal were introduced each day, which the coyote acknowledged by urinating on them. Beuys regularly performed the same series of actions with his eyes continuously fixed on the coyote. At other times he would rest or gather the felt around him to suggest the figure of a shepherd with his crook. The coyote's behaviour shifted throughout the three days, becoming cautious, detached, aggressive and sometimes companionable. At the end of the Action, Beuys was again wrapped in felt and returned to the airport.
For Native Americans, the coyote had been a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and the spiritual world. After the coming of European settlers, it was seen merely as a pest, to be exterminated. Beuys saw the debasement of the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white men to the American continent and its native cultures. His action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds. 'You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted', he said.
SLIDE - AMERICA CLIP