Joseph Beuys – Social Sculpture at Belvedere 21

“Even a dead animal” reflected Joseph Beuys, “preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.” He was speaking from experience: during a 3-hour long performance at Düsseldorf’s Galerie Schmela in 1965, the German artist cradled a hare carcass in his arms while whispering inaudible ramblings on art into its ear, his head covered in honey and gold leaf. 

A large-scale video projection of How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare graces the honey-colored wall at the entrance to Joseph Beuys. Think. Act. Convey., now showing at Belvedere21. Emblematic to his approach, it fits the main thesis of the exhibit: Beuys’ Gesamtkunstwerk was his thinking and teaching on the epistemology of art that he practiced so extensively, calling it “Soziale Plastik” (“social sculpture”). 

Open since March 4, the show is the first of over 32 global events from Izmir to Osaka celebrating what would have been the German artist’s 100th birthday in May. 

Consisting of 64 artworks and 123 supplementary exhibits portraying his connection to Vienna and beyond, an ambitious schedule of weekly open discussions between visitors and on-site experts is planned from mid-April until the exhibit closes on June 13. 

Beuys was a titan of Fluxus, the celebrated artistic movement of the 1960s-70s that emphasized the creative process and pioneered many mainstays of today, like mixed media, video installations and conceptual art. Much of his output dwelled on topics way ahead of his time, like environmentalism, politics, economics and society, often supplemented by performances and public debates. A founding member of the German Green Party, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in the 20th century; but like many icons, he has his share of detractors.  

“To some,” acknowledged Stella Rollig, Director General of the Belvedere, “Beuys is a charlatan,” while others revere him as an educator and activist. She was no doubt speaking of the artist’s polarizing tendency to self-mythologize – while his contemporary, Andy Warhol, had his suit and shock of white hair, Beuys donned a fisherman’s vest and felt hat. Rollig hopes to “present his works in context of his political engagement,” with numerous videos and photographs showing his direct activism and teachings.

Storytelling After the Death of Storytelling

Once you exit the antechamber filled with biographical facts and reflections on explaining art (something about a dead hare), an assemblage of objects awaits: Among other things, a visibly worn, oblong motor; a few meters of tubing, neatly wound and containing some brown residue; and around 10 metal buckets all clutter the floor as if pending assembly. 

Die Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (The Honey Pump at a Workplace)/(C) Johannes Stoll / Belvedere, Wien

Actually, these are the components of Die Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (The Honey Pump at a Workplace), which Beuys created for the Documenta 6 in 1977Sadly, their full purpose is only revealed through framed images: As Beuys lectured downstairs at Kassel’s Friedericianum over the 100 days of the exhibition, his installation circulated 150kg of honey through the tubes, up a staircase and back down into the metal buckets. 

Bees are initiators of ecological cycles,” explained curator Harald Krejci, adding that “to Beuys, honey symbolized energy,” a belief the artist picked up from the Austrian Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. The busy bees, analogous to Beuys’ immersion with his students, produce honey, thereby transferring energy to the larger system of society. Unfortunately, the speculative potential of Honigpumpe is lost as its disembodied components simply sit idle and unassembled, demanding an explanation.  

Beuys Will Be Beuys

Later in his career, Joseph Beuys briefly taught at the Angewandte (Vienna’s University of Applied Arts), but his connection to the city began earlier, when art collector Otto Mauer of the Galerie nächst St. Stephan organized the opening of his very first exhibition in Düsseldorf. 

Many of Beuys’ early works are on display in a separate room; among them is a blood red painting on linen depicting two central symbols in his visual repertoire – A crudely shaded beehive flanked by an upright shepherd’s cane, the latter painted with one continuous brushstroke.

Aficionados will recognize the cane as the “Eurasienstab” from a 1967 happening in Vienna, when Beuys as a self-appointed shaman transferred energies from East to West using this archaic tool. It is the only piece he created at the Austrian artist Otto Muehl’s commune at Friedrichshof, a memento of Beuys’ tremendous interest in Viennese Actionism.

Friedrichshof/(C) Privatsammlung / Bildrecht, Wien 2021

Works like Basisraum Nasse Wäsche, a 1979 installation which conflated hygiene rituals with the rejection of feudal remnants, show his engagement with Austrian politics: Three iron gutters, a bucket of fat and a giant glob of soap announced his intention to repeatedly hang dripping wet laundry over the floor of the Palais Liechtenstein – the originally planned location for the Museum moderner Kunst – in order to damage its foundations. Unlike Honigpumpe, the constituent objects are aligned practically, making for a more intuitive presentation; but several unrelated displays in the room awkwardly distract from this polemic piece. 

Presenting Beuys’ Gesamtkunstwerk appears to have posed an understandable challenge: The usual suspects of honey, hares and animal fat are all in attendance, but the exhibition fails to convey the artist’s flair, with the many supplementary displays scattered throughout the show giving it a fragmented feel. And while there are several muted videos and a chalkboard with the artist’s writings – intended to “warm” the otherwise “cold” exhibits in Krejci’s words – none of them manage to channel the compelling rhetoric that softened Beuys’ highly cerebral approach – a key factor in his work and its impact.

Despite falling short of the titular ambition to “convey,” visitors can still expect a redeeming insight into the artist’s connection to Vienna’s art scene. Thematically, the selected works resonate with contemporary issues like climate protection, grassroots democracy and dehumanizing economic systems, proving that Beuys remains as relevant as ever. 

Through Jun 13, Belvedere21. 3., Arsenalstraße 1.