EXHIBITION REVIEW | On the Art Trail of Joseph Beuys

Artist: Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was one of the artists with the greatest influence on the concept of art in the 20th century. For Beuys, creating art represented a humanitarian potential to transform society and build independent, self-governed communities. Beuys believed in the healing power of art through harmonizing societies and tackling social injustice. He was also a founding member of the Fluxus movement, which later became important in the rise of ecological art and land art.

Exhibition: JOSEPH BEUYS Outside the Box | EMMA | 8 February – 21 May

Images: Exhibition views – Outside the Box, Josef Beuys, EMMA | Photo credits: Ari Karttunen / EMMA (click images to enlarge)


Outside the Box showcases the content harbored inside one very particular box: Polentransport – a compendium of works by Joseph Beuys that the artist personally delivered to Museum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland in 1981.

At that time (1980-1981) Poland was experiencing a momentary release from the grip of the Communist party and Beuys decided to donate part of his artistic archive to the Polish museum as an act of solidarity with the country’s new wave of uprising.

The original box that Beuys used for the transport by strapping it on top of his personal car is on display in a dark room at EMMA. It sets the context of the works presented across different rooms: printed material, posters, photos, drawings, prints, objects and sound pieces – all small-scale items that could fit into a box. Despite this seemingly modest collection, the works compile an archive documenting 30 years of Beuys’ artistic production. The museum gallery walls are covered in raw wood, simulating the appearance of a wooden box inside-out.

Thus the discovery of Beuys’ micro-universe begins, in sections organized according to the main themes that made the subject of his work: politics, ecology, economy and margins. A video screening of a documentary and interview with Joseph Beuys himself gives a red thread to the exhibition. The documentary sheds meaning onto the seemingly disparate works that are at times difficult to approach or understand without prior knowledge of the artist’s practice and philosophical ideas that set his work in motion.

In the annals of art history, Joseph Beuys is an artist of the same caliber and importance as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Although he employs similar mediums in his art – the readymade of Duchamp, and the multiples (commercial, repetitive posters or images) of Warhol – for Beuys it is not the static end-result that constitutes an artwork. It is the action, the process that stirs up change, progress and healing that Beuys is ultimately interested in.

The art of Joseph Beuys is for the most part conceptual. Its aesthetics is deemed unimportant. In fact, it may well be completely and purposely negated in his artistic practice, where focus is kept at all times on the creative action for social change.

One parallel that perhaps explains his way of working is Beuys’ definition of sculpture. To Beuys, a sculpture is not the physical item skillfully carved out of a specific material, but it is represented by the entire creative process. As Beuys himself explains, there are three elements that compose a sculpture: the undetermined, the determined and the action/movement. Cross-referencing with some of the unusual materials that Beuys used in his work such as wax, animal fat and honey – we can remark how they all have an organic, active behavior previous to being moulded into a static form. They progress from a formless or undetermined state, to a moving process of transfer or moulding, and finally settle into a determined, specific form or shape.

Sculpture thus becomes a broader artistic concept rather than a fixed physical art work. However extreme it might seem, the act of preparing dinner and eating together with the family is considered a social sculpture by Beuys. Rather than placing art on a pedestal, Beuys brings it into the every day life, proclaiming that ”everyone is an artist”. He encourages us all to use our creativity in a way that can transform the societies we inhabit into a world where fairness and equality is paramount.

It becomes easily apparent how Beuys’ ideas are as present and relevant today as ever before. I see his concept of sculpture as an endless possibility for social action and change. The same sculptural process can be restarted and repeated until our societies reach the desired state. Also, it might well be that what is determined now will not serve us right in the future – so the process can start anew, moulding generations to come into their own form of social sculpture.

Most of Beuys’ works presented in Outside the Box stand for artistic performances and actions that have already happened: photographs of long-gone sand drawings, scribbled-over posters announcing the artist’s multiple art performances, watercolor prints showing copies of the original works. Perhaps they serve more as memorabilia of his work rather than a full expression of his artistic practice. Nevertheless, they do provide a glimpse into Beuys’ universe and philosophical preoccupation.

Beuys donated his works to Museum Sztuki at a time when he had already achieved his internationally-acclaimed status as an artist. The small Polish museum on the other hand had virtually no influence on the international art scene. Beuys’ simple, personal act of giving away his works without any compensation defies not only the rules of the exchange economy, but also those of the art establishment – it is uncommon for a recognized artist to personally deliver and unpack his own works at a museum.

Whether it is arts, economy or politics, Beuys bends the rules and pushes the limits of preexistent structures. This freedom of action makes his legacy incredibly meaningful and inspiring, maybe more so today than in his own time. The question almost inevitably arises – how do we as individuals and societies re-mould our social, political and economic realities into a better ”sculpture” in this time of unrest and division across countries, cultures and races?

Choosing art as a conversation platform for social change is both instrumental and essential in this effort, but does art really provide egalitarian access to absolutely all audiences or is this still a utopian dream?