Explore the political and controversial works of Joseph Beuys, from sculpture to performance, at London's Tate Modern.
German artist Joseph Beuys saw creativity as central to all aspects of human existence. As well as sculpture and performance, his work as an artist came to encompass social theory and political action. This display brings together works from the ARTIST ROOMS collection of modern and contemporary art.
Beuys’s activities became explicitly politicised in the 1970s. A series of confrontations with the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf over the number of students that he could admit to his class led to wider questions about access to education and the relationship between ordinary people and authority. In 1971 he founded a Free Academy and the more overtly political Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum. Beuys argued that social decision-making should be made by the people through referendums rather than elected political parties. It was this concept of ‘direct democracy’ that he explored in his Information Action at the Tate in 1972, from which three of the blackboards shown here are taken. Later he became involved in the German Green Party and organised the planting of 7000 oak trees around the city of Kassel.
Image: Joseph Beuys, Zu demVortrag: Der Soziale Organismus - ein Kunstwerk, Bochum 2.03.1974 [For the lecture: The social organism - a work of art, Bochum, 2nd March 1974] (detail), ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008 © DACS 2017
In 1982, Beuys took part in an exhibition in Berlin, where he installed a huge mound of clay and surrounded it with sculptures as well as furniture and tools from his studio. Afterwards he made casts of some of the elements to create Lightning with Stag in its Glare 1958–85. The bolt of lightning itself was a bronze cast from a section of the clay mound, while the stag was cast in aluminium, as if illuminated by a sudden flash of light. Made towards the end of Beuys’s life, this major installation addresses themes of finality and death, but also ideas of regeneration and the transformative power of nature.
About Information Action
On 26 February 1972 Beuys presented Information Action as part of his contribution to Seven Exhibitions, a series of solo shows by different artists at the Tate Gallery.
In the Duveen Galleries, in what is now Tate Britain, Beuys lectured on humanity’s natural creative capacity and the power of direct democracy to shape society. He chalked his conceptual theories onto the three leftmost blackboards (the fourth was used in a subsequent action at Whitechapel Gallery) and engaged the crowd in a free-form and often tense discussion.
Not simply receptacles of ideas, the blackboards helped to determine the relationship between the artist and his audience, clearly signalling Beuys’s role as instructor. The format of the talk also served to position Beuys at the work’s centre. Photographs show the artist surrounded by onlookers, with a microphone to project his voice. One audience member suggested that the microphone worked at cross-purposes with Beuys’s aims, reserving for him a power of speech that had been undemocratically denied to everyone else. Others agreed, and they held a vote to decide whether to keep using it. The microphone survived, but the debate points to the work’s most profound lessons. Whatever Beuys’s intentions, democracy appeared not as an abstract ideal but as the means through which relations between people are organised. The microphone did not merely amplify or record what happened, but structured what could happen in the first place.
Four Blackboards and Information Action embody some of the fundamental problems of political and social life – who gets to speak, by what authority, and how? Beuys’s proclamation that ‘everyone is an artist’, that all people have the power to shape the world, was at its root a search for form. The legacy of Information Action suggests that he had not yet found the right one.
Display curated by Matthew Gale. Text by Jonah Westerman. Performance at Tate is a research project that aims to explore the role of performance in the history of modern and contemporary art at Tate since the 1960s. A collaboration between the University of Exeter and Tate, the two-year project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
For more information about the display, visit the Tate Modern website.
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