The year 2020 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, a concrete barrier that physically dived one city, while mentally dividing the whole nation. This particular structure was erected by the German Democratic Republic in 1961 to prevent its citizens from becoming exposed to fascist elements.
The wall was perceived as a symbol of the ideological division expressed in global terms throughout the Cold War but was also a signifier or various social and cultural processes inaugurated by an array of young people coming from various disciplines. When it comes to visual arts, at the approximately same period one particular character started developing into the most significant artist of the second half of the 20th century and that was Joseph Beuys.
The crucial element that defined the entire practice of this notable figure, who was also an incredible lecturer and theorist, was shamanism. Although this method was already embraced by the Modernists such as Picasso, or during the early post-war period by Jackson Pollock, it was Beuys who exploited it to the full extent. By appropriating shamanistic and psychoanalytic techniques, the artist examined natural and social sciences and plunged into a continued multidisciplinary exploration of what humanity is regarding social and political systems which inevitably tend to moderate, form, surveil and control.
To be more specific, Beuys usually worked with sculpture based on Duchamp’s concept of ready-made while engaging himself often in performativity. One of the first performances he conducted was the groundbreaking How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, or Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt, its original German title. Namely, this particular performance happened in 1965 at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, at the opening night of his first solo exhibition in a private gallery.
By the time the performance was released, Joseph Beuys was already an established figure, primarily because in 1961 he became the professor of 'monumental sculpture' at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. One year later, he met Nam June Paik, who was already a member of the Fluxus; the two became good friends, and Beuys naturally participated within this international movement, but only for a short since he perceived the effects of art's economic and institutional framework differently. Fluxus was rooted in the legacy of radical Dada activities emerging during the WW I, and Beuys himself initially felt inspired by Marcel Duchamp from the 1964 television broadcast; he said "Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet" (The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated), and this relationship with the legacy the readymade represents a key aspect for understanding his practice.
Gradually, Beuys started operating on four fields that are constantly intersecting, spanning from traditional artworks (painting, drawing, and sculpture), and new media such as performance and installations, to contributions to art theory and academia, and social and political activism.
Regarding his shamanistic approach, it is important to underline the artist’s enchantment with the esoteric philosophy of German mystic Rudolf Steiner. Believing in the transformational potential of art, Beuys developed a shaman-like persona as a sort of an agenda controversial enough for criticism to be applied to relevant political subjects.
In the context of his art-making, this was expressed through a usage of unconventional sculptural materials such as fat, bee wax, felt and dead animals, while in a more philosophical and political sense Beuys proclaimed that everyone is an artist, and launched a concept of a social sculpture as an important element aimed to transform the society. His performative approach was based on the combination of thought, speech, and form, which was emphasized by the artist in his last speech Speaking about Germany (Sprechen über Deutschland, 1985).
For the purposes of How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys locked the doors of the gallery making the performance visible from the outside through a shop window. His head was covered with honey and gold leaf while explaining pictures to a dead hare positioned in his hands.
The artist performed a sort of a guided tour by showing/explaining each work to a dead animal; he would stop from time to time and go back to the center of the gallery where he stood over a dead pine laying on the floor. The public was invited to step inside after three hours while Beuys just stood like a sculpture with the hare on his arm.
The selection of this particular mammal was affiliated with its symbolical meaning present in various myths and traditions; for instance, in Greek mythology, the hare was related to the love goddess Aphrodite; in Christianity, it stands as a symbol of the Resurrection.
The honey mask Beuys wore during the performance indicates gold as a symbol for the sun, and purity, and honey as a Germanic symbol for rebirth. Another aspect he wanted to underline is the creative power of bees and the way they organize and maintain their community (according to Rudolf Steiner bees represent an ideal society of warmth and brotherhood). Beuys once stated:
For me, the Hare is a symbol of incarnation, which the hare really enacts- something a human can only do in imagination. It burrows, building itself a home in the earth. Thus it incarnates itself in the earth: that alone is important. So it seems to me. Honey on my head, of course, has to do with thought. While humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas. Therefore the stale and morbid nature of thought is once again made living. Honey is an undoubtedly living substance- human thoughts can also become alive. On the other hand intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: one can talk one's mind to death in politics or in academia.
The composition recalls two important art history references - the most frequent painting motif of Western art and that is Pieta holding Christ in her arms, as well as the memento mori theme present in the 16th century still life genre. Some scholars even described the performance as "the Mona Lisa of our time".
Looking from the contemporary stance, this piece marked Joseph Beuys’s entrance in a more articulated performative period; as a professor, he was already highly regarded and adored by the students, but as a performer, he was just coming into the spotlight.
This mature phase, if we could call it that, was further extended with the celebrated performance with living coyote titled Like America and America Likes Me. The performance was an immediate success although it did operate with an eerie, ritualistic kind of aesthetic. It was provoking and intended to support transcends for the sake of mystery or questioning.
Regardless of the spiritual aspect, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare was also a socio-politically charged critique of the German society that passed through an outstanding transformation with the erected wall and the Soviet model on one side, and the process of Americanization and the influx of consumerism on the other.
This kind of interpretation is important in the light of Beuys’s later development and the increment of his political engagement. Already in 1967, Beuys co-founded a few of political organizations - the German Student Party (1967), the Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), and the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (presented at documenta 6 in 1977 and elsewhere), one of the organizations that established the German Green Party in 1980.
The artist also contributed to the proliferation of the student protests in 1968 and gradually became publicly recognized as the spokesperson for the environmentalist issues, as well as a strong opponent to nuclear weapons. Beuys’s artworks from the later years resonate with political convictions of the groups he was affiliated with; the best example is the song and video Sun Instead of Reagan! From 1982 which directly opposes the American president as the leading representative of nuclear politics.
The reason why his activism was mentioned here was to show how focused Beuys was while articulating the reality. The impression is that that he used shamanism more for the purposes of theatricality than as a tool for spiritual transcendence. Although the entirety of his practice is often hard to grasp with a single text, what makes How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare so important is that it encapsulates practically all the layers of Beuys’s approach from his interests in crafting an artist persona, myths and storytelling, anthropology, psychoanalyzes and philosophy, dematerialization of the art object (a determining element for Conceptual art), and spectacle. In addition to this claim is another quotation from the artist:
Even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality. Human thinking was capable of achieving so much, but it could also be intellectualized to a deadly degree, and remain dead, and express its deadliness in the political and pedagogical fields.
The final confirmation that this is one of the most important pieces of performance art ever created came after Marina Abramović reenacted it within her series Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2005.
Editors’ Tip: What is Art?: Conversation with Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys’s work continues to influence and inspire practitioners and thinkers all over the world, in areas from organizational learning, direct democracy and new money forms to new art pedagogies and ecological art practices. Here, in dialogue with Volker Harlan - a close colleague, whose own work also revolves around understandings of substance and sacrament that are central to Beuys - the deeper motivations and insights underlying ‘social sculpture’, Beuys’s expanded conception of art, are illuminated. His profound reflections, complemented with insightful essays by Volker Harlan, give a sense of the interconnectedness between all life forms, and the foundations of a path towards an ecologically sustainable future. This volume features over 40 b/w illustrations.
Featured image: Joseph Beuys - How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt), 1965. © Joseph Beuys. Image via WikiArt.