Margins in Joseph Beuys’s philosophy are not simply geographic boundaries of a divided world but cultural places divided and determined by race, gender, social class, religion, politics and history.
At the time of Polentransport 1981, the world was still divided into East and West, into socialist and capitalist spheres. The Berlin Wall was still standing. In Beuys’s vision, Central Europe should serve as the decisive actor that unites East with West and North with South. The utopian undivided land harmonious with nature was represented by the idea of Eurasia. Beuys made a number of works on the theme of Eurasia that attest to wish to use art to blur the boundary between Europe and Asia, East and West. Works such as Transsibirische Bahn (1961) represented a combination of Eastern intuition with Western rationality.
Beuys’s goal was to eliminate all bipolar tensions and differences in the world through live collaboration, solidarity, fraternity, freedom, art and creativity. In his vision, people would unite their mental resources. New centres would emerge in places where people had the freedom to work creatively for interpersonal good. Beuys took interest in such motifs as war, fascism, nationality and trauma because of their potentiality to transform destructive behaviour into good through art. To Beuys creativity was not the exclusive providence of humanity, however: thoughts, emotions or volition could just as well be expressed by plants through their energy field.
Geographic peripheries, island states, such as Ireland, held a special fascination for Beuys. The home of James Joyce’s Ulysses appealed to him because of the Irish way of handling matters “organically”, one chaos at a time, in direct opposition to the systematic German approach. When he first founded the Free International University, Beuys intended to locate it in Dublin.
Alongside geopolitical issues, Beuys was also fascinated by everything that was marginal. During a period in the 1950s, when he suffered from depression, he began using “poor” materials that were at the time regarded as peripheral in art, such as animal fat and felt. The use of objects resembling ritual debris of a native culture propelled Beuys towards the status of a star artist.
However, as the hub of the art world after the Second World War was America, a German art dissident like Beuys was seen there as a marginal artist, and a long time would pass before he was accepted in America.
Photo: No title, 1978, from the collection of Muzeum Sztuki w Łodźi, Poland