The first time I encountered an artwork by Joseph Beuys was at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf during the visit of an American friend that is absolutely worth a deep conversation and a decent pick at his brains. Up until that point I had been sceptical about conceptual art and ignorantly I was predisposed to call the whole thing a big joke. And what I learnt in that Saturday night as the largest exposition of his works was for the first and maybe last time in his native town is that his proposition was that art should not be judgedby the quality of the craftsmanship, but by the quality of the idea – the concept.
Yes, all right, but the idea has to be more than a one-line joke. It needs to have substance and depth; it has to have something important to say. I hadn’t witnessed any conceptual art that had succeeded in doing this until I came across Beuys’s Homogenous Infiltration for Piano, which is part of the Pompidou’s permanent collection. To make this artwork, Beuys covered a grand piano in felt: legs, pedals, keys lid, case – the lot. Then, on one side of the piano, towards the end where the width reduces, he had stitched a red cross. It’s a strange work. Beuys was a strange guy.
Beuys made his strangeness part of his practice. As far as he was concerned his life and his work were indistinguishable, both packed full of symbolism. None of which I knew when I first saw Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano, which meant that my first response was to laugh – it’s totally daft to cover a piano in felt. I mean, why was absolutely everything covered in fat and felt? Before my conversation with Jeff it made little sense. After 50 years you could easily say much of the stuff looked almost disgusting. A chair with a big chunk of fat on it? A subway station entrance flooded with the stuff?
With all the fat and felt, Beuys made out of himself a one brand man (while wearing a hat of course made out of felt) and unequivocally a loud voice of the post-war Germany, as a politician, an academic and an activist fighting for the free access to education, to art.
I loved Beuys since and not only for our shared love of rabbits. What I understood from that point on, is that Beuys took into his work a different dimension that no one else had: Time; and that was the whole point of his choice in materials. Joseph Beuys’ pieces are in constant evolution, continuous organic change, an unknown outcome that is never to come to an end.
Beuys survived a plane crash in 1940, he only survived because some Tartars found him unconscious in the snow and took him back to their tents to care for him. They covered his body in fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm being this the awakening of his creativity.
I invite you to search for his name on Google images. Despite the often sorrowful look in his eyes in most portraits in this first very cold morning of the German winter, I feel Beuys as a source of inspiration once again hopeful, joyful looking to create a positive impact for the world. Please enjoy the translation of: How to be an artist.
Stay loose. Learn to watch snails.
Plant impossible gardens. Invite someone dangerous to tea.
Make little signs that say yes! and post them all over your house.
Make friends with freedom and uncertainty.
Look forward to dreams. Cry during movies.
Swing as high as you can on a swingset, by moonlight.
Cultivate moods. Refuse to be “responsible“.
Do it for love.
Take lots of naps.
Give money away. Do it now. The money will follow.
Believe in magic. Laugh a lot.
Celebrate every gorgeous moment.
Have wild imaginings, transformative dreams, and perfect calm.
Draw on the walls. Read every day.
Imagine yourself enchanted.
Giggle with children. Listen to old people.
Open up. Dive in. Be free.
Drive away fear.
Play with everything. Entertain your inner child.
You are innocent. Build a fort with blankets.
Get wet. Hug trees.
Write love letters.
…and dance as much as you can!