M HKA senior curator Nav Haq explains why Antwerp's contemporary art museum decided to devote an exhibition to this German artist: “Beuys is one of the leading figures of the post-War avant garde and was active in Antwerp in the Sixties and Seventies together with Flemish greats like Marcel Broodthaers and Panamarenko. A native of Kleve in the German Rhineland he looked towards Belgium and the Netherlands rather than towards the rest of Germany.”
“Beuys was active in Antwerp, greatly influential, but in Belgium unlike in Germany he is largely forgotten. With this exhibition we hope to show that Joseph Beuys is still relevant today. This isn't an exhibition for the Beuys generation, but rather for people today. He's a very political artist. He was involved in the setting up of the German Green party Die Grünen. Ecology is central to his work as is his concern for education for all.”
Beuys designed several posters for the fledgling Green Party and even got Andy Warhol involved. Posters supporting the German Green Party are on show in Antwerp.
The Antwerp link is emphasised thanks to the screening of the 'Eurasienstab', the Eurasian staff, an 82 minute film that was recorded on 16mm film and shows a performance in Antwerp in 1968. Beuys exhibited at the Wide White Space gallery that served as a meeting point for the avant garde in the city and it is here that this performance, one of his most important of his career, was recorded. In his performance during which Denmark's Henning Christiansen provided the musical accompaniment Beuys uses four staffs representing each of the four wind directions that he symbolically tries to reunite. It symbolises an attempt to reconcile Asian spirituality and European realism. The staff is used by the shepherd, the shaman and the priest. Beuys uses a copper staff in an attempt to bring opposing energies in balance.
The exhibition also includes the video of a second important performance, the Trans-Siberian Railway, a railway that connects East and West. Nav Haq: “Eurasia was an important concept throughout his career. He says that we all belong to the Eurasian landmass, an approach that is at odds with the nationalist sentiments that have come to the fore in recent years and which promotes a free exchange of ideas across the continents.”
As part of his political commitment he also urged a rethink of education. He lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf in Germany. At the time access to the academy depended on selection. Beuys thought everybody had the potential to become an artist and wanted to allow everybody into the academy. He clashed with the powers that be and got the sack, but he wasn't the man to let things be and decided to found his own Free International University. He ran the FIU for one hundred days organising lectures and lecturing himself on creativity, political progress and economics. The first FIU to be established abroad was in Antwerp and the exhibition displays much of the documentation as well as a letter of support for the artist facing the sack signed by Flemish greats Marcel Broothaers and Panamarenko.
'Honey Pump at the Work Place', a work usually on show at the Louisiana in Denmark, features prominently at the M HKA exhibition. It formed the throbbing heart of the FIU and was displayed in one of the auditoria. Two ships' engines pump two tons of liquid honey through pipes in an example at social sculpture.
Nav Haq; “Bees and bees wax are important symbols of social processes. The bees' wax keeps people together, while bees also represent a well-organised social structure. Other animals feature prominently in Beuys's work: swans reminiscent of Wagner's Lohengrin set on Antwerp's River Schelde, but also stags, a German symbol of protectiveness, which feature in the work 'Monuments to the Stag' . Animals like hares symbolise a boundless freedom that is not restricted by national borders."
“Beuys is a very political artist. He was disillusioned with both Capitalism and Communism and believed in a Third Way. He had faith in the emancipation of the individual, but also believed that this individual has a responsibility to society. He believed in social sculpture and that it was the artist's role to bring people together.”
Beuys believed in free will. Enter the exhibition and you arrive at the seminal work, the Eurasian Staff, but there is no correct itinerary to visit the exhibition. You can wander off and admire his drawings, 'Sonne statt Reagan' (Sun instead of Reagan), a video of a pop song that Beuys recorded in protest against the Reagan presidency. In Antwerp you can also listen to several other musical productions that Beuys was involved in. The artist also believed that everybody should be able to own art, witness his series of postcards. The exhibition also includes several works the artist made especially for Antwerp.
'Joseph Beuys Greetings from the Eurasian' includes works from the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, the MoMA in New York, the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the S.M.A.K. in Ghent and countless other private collections. The exhibition runs at the M HKA in Antwerp until 21 January 2018.