Culture

The genius beneath Beuys’ hat

BEIRUT: The black-and-white scene opens upon a wiry man in a hat – the sort of headgear common in gangster movies – as he walks on set. “It’s like Hollywood here,” he quips before sitting. Taking a minute to compose himself before the lens, be begins to address the anonymous viewer on the other side of the camera.

Figures whose lives were formed while serving in World War II played a prominent – perhaps disproportionate – role in shaping the second half of the 20th century. German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) belongs to this generation.

Without ever saying it explicitly, Andres Veiel’s 2017 doc “Beuys,” which had a one-night stand in Lebanon Wednesday evening at the Beirut Art Film Festival, suggests that the artist was remarkable for the physical and intellectual energy he invested in his time and place.

“I nourish myself by wasting my energy,” the artist remarks at one point in “Beuys.”

Later, as he sits before another camera, an off-frame voice wonders whether he isn’t concerned about exhausting himself with his incessant schedule of teaching, art production and activism.

“Things have to be used up anyway,” he shrugs. “You have to wear yourself out. It doesn’t matter what work you do.”

Beuys’ life and practice engaged with the confluence of disparate elements that formed the great rupture of 20th-century history. He was a Luftwaffe pilot in World War II, made art throughout the Cold War and helped create Germany’s Green Party – an early effort to move beyond the bipolar discourses of communism and capitalism.

The artist knew psychological trauma. The decade after he graduated from art school he isolated himself in the countryside and was hospitalized later in his career.

As a theorist, teacher and artist, he was a driving force behind the conceptual revolution within contemporary art, provoking hostility from art educators, condemnation from critics and jovial mockery in the media. He vilified the engorged global art market – the organ of the capitalist economy that made his gallerists wealthy.

Beuys’ oeuvre has not become quaint with age. Individual pieces issue the same challenge to the art of overpriced objects as it did to the sclerotic aesthetics of decorative art.

Veiel’s film focuses on the artist’s professional life from the 1960s to 1983, when he failed to secure the Greens’ nomination for the general election, three years before his death.

He assembles his documentary in fairly conventional terms. Most of the film draws upon a wealth of archival footage of the artist – whether mounting his work and performing or during interviews and roundtable discussions with critics and educators. These images are complemented by World War II-era footage of youngsters in the Hitler Youth learning how to build airplane models, before taking flying lessons.

These representations of Beuys are supplemented by the recollections of younger contemporaries who knew him personally – critic and author Caroline Tisdall, who made her own film on Beuys, is a prominent voice, as are art historians Rhea Thonges-Stringaris and Franz von der Grinten, as well as Beuys’ former pupil Johannes Stuttgen.

Veiel’s main innovation – after introducing his subject via archival footage – is to apparently track the camera back until the frame is filled with rows of photo strips recording Beuys’ life and career. A torchlike shaft of light moves over the strips, selecting what chapter of Beuys’ life will be illuminated next.

The film references and names significant pieces from Beuys’ career but forgoes any sort of academic discussion of them. The camera lingers over each, and audience responses to it, but just long enough to suggest the atmosphere of the era and the newness of the work.

Naturally, layers of implicit advocacy and pedagogy underlay “Beuys” and those new to his oeuvre receive enough titles and background to investigate the work more closely afterward.

The one project to which Veiel and his informants do return is “7,000 Oaks,” which he unveiled at Documenta 7, in 1982. Noting the increased urbanization of Documenta’s host city Kassel, Beuys and an army of volunteers began planting 7,000 oak trees, each accompanied by a roughly hewn basalt stone.

“I think the tree is an element of regeneration,” Beuys remarked, “which in itself is a concept of time.”

Using found time-lapse footage, Veiel shows how the expansive mound of basalt stones gradually dissolved over the years as adolescent oak trees were planted.

Inaccessible as Beuys’ work was – and, in some cases, is – considered to be, Veiel’s film is quite accessible.

At one point in the German-language roundtable the filmmaker revisits, a disapproving commentator turns his attention of Beuys’ 1965 work “The Pack.”

A frowning critic describes the work – 40 children’s sleds, each bearing a rolled-up blanket and flashlight, are shown filing out the back of a VW van.

“It is amusing,” the critic acknowledges, then tries to backtrack. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

“Exactly!” Beuys interrupts with a triumphant laugh. “You don’t want people to laugh? I want to get my money’s worth from this revolution.”

“Why not baby buggies?” the critic interjects.

Beuys pauses to cast his eyes over the table top, then gazes back at the critic. “You should do something with baby buggies, yourself,” he grins. “See if you can make something that interests people!”

Much of the audience, by this point, has dissolved into laughter.

BAFF screenings at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil continue through Nov. 19. For scheduling, see www.metropoliscinema.net/.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 17, 2017, on page 16.

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