Joseph Beuys was not only a founding member of the German Green Party but most importantly a pioneer of ecological thinking. The materials he used in his art, very unorthodox at the time – such as felt, animal fat and wax – were eminently organic. For Beuys, however, they held a much deeper symbolic meaning: they represented life-sustaining forces.
Their meaning derived from a plane crash in the Crimea in 1944 in which he had sustained serious burns. According to Beuys and the artistic myth he built around the events of the Second World War, he was rescued by Tatars who saved his life with natural remedies. Thereafter, natural materials in his art would symbolise healing, renewal, shelter and care.
Many of Beuys’s performances were about urban ecology. Beuys was convinced that the understanding of the complex interaction between nature and culture is the first step towards ecologically sustainable development. The famous performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974, René Block Gallery, New York), was a three day-long event in which a coyote that had been brought to the gallery represented “dynamic interactions of nature” while Beuys stood for “culture”.
Beuys’s best-known environmental work is undoubtedly 7,000 Oaks, created for Kassel documenta. The project was launched in 1982 and was not completed until after Beuys’s death. As the title suggests, the work consists of 7,000 oak saplings that are accompanied by two-metre tall basalt stone columns to illustrate their growth. At the same time, the work was a performance – or as Beuys himself put it, art-as-action. The purpose of the project was quite literally to improve the urban environment.
“Small oak trees grow and life continues.”
Beuys believed that trees and animals are able to understand “suffering”. He did not see himself as a gardener who plants trees for their esthetic values; trees were for him a gateway to saving humanity. In a radical move, Beuys also demanded legal rights for trees and animals.
In 1974 Beuys made a series of sand drawings on the African coast in Kenya, adding his signature to ephemeral drawings of animals and alchemical symbols. The drawings were documented in photographs that were later released as a print portfolio. The drawings are an elegant expression of Beuys’s spiritual and aesthetic relationship with nature.
The roots of Beuys’s ecologically oriented art reside not only in his political activism but also in the actions of Fluxus group in the 1960s. Fluxus defined itself as “an attitude rather than a movement”. It was open for all, a counterpoint to academic art circles. Along with Beuys, other artists in Fluxus included John Cage, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik. Fluxus produced happenings, immaterial conceptual art and large-scale land art.
Photo: Sandzeichnungen III (Sand Drawing III), detail, 1978, from the collection of Muzeum Sztuki w Łodźi, Poland