At the opening of his landmark show at the Schmela Gallery in 1965, Joseph Beuys could be seen whispering inaudibly into the ear of a dead hare that he cradled in his arms like a Madonna and child. With honey and gold leaf stuck to his face, he moved from one picture to the next, his muffled words drowned out by the scrape of a metal sole he’d tied to his right foot. Beuys’ seminal performance, ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’, was not meant to be interpreted by words or linguistic expression. Instead, it aspired to a more natural form of communication that required the viewer to feel their way into his ideas.
This so-called ‘Action’ was typical of the imaginative, complex and idiosyncratic manner that Beuys approached communication: to lead humans beyond the rational and to expand their potential for thought and expression. “Even a dead animal,” Beuys later wrote, “preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings.” Communication and language is at the centre of Starting From Language: Joseph Beuys at 100, a new exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof that’s been timed to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the artist’s birth.
Everyone can be an artist, as long as they act in a conscious way and with conviction then everyone has the potential to create and potentially change society.
“Language was very much a sculptural tool for Beuys,” says Nina Schallenberg, the curator of the exhibition. “And at the beginning of his artistic process was always an idea, which needed to be expressed through language.” Beuys believed that every time the human mouth spoke and moved air it was producing “real sculptures”. It ties in with his most famous and revolutionary belief that “everyone can be an artist”, says Schallenberg, “as long as they act in a conscious way and with conviction then everyone has the potential to create and potentially change society”.
Beuys was a mercurial figure in part because of his self-mythologising, elevating himself and the role of the artist to a kind of modern-day shaman with the power to heal the world’s ills and re-energise spiritual thinking. After his death in 1986, he left behind an extraordinarily eclectic body of work which despite its huge significance is often considered abstract and impenetrable to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre.
To address this and to allow visitors to get a foothold into his back catalogue, each room in the exhibition has been thematically choreographed to bring some coherence, starting with ‘Silence’ until finally reaching ‘Speaking’ in the final room of the museum.
This language-focused exhibition, which brings together sculptures, drawings, installations, films and posters from the Nationalgalerie’s own collection, is coming at a critical moment, according to Schallenberg: “The discourse on language can so easily take a polemic direction. It seems that now you are either for something or against, when with Beuys he is always in the in-betweens! Instead of seeing two separate positions, we need to think about what connects them.”
This is where Beuys comes in, revealing language’s plastic possibilities, moving beyond binary oppositions to connect to a deeper, more spiritual existence.
Starting From Language: Joseph Beuys at 100 | From June 13 through September 19 Hamburger Bahnhof, Mitte