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After arriving at the airport for his first visit to America in 1974, Joseph Beuys was promptly wrapped head to toe in felt, strapped to a stretcher, loaded into an ambulance and, under his own direction, whisked away to the New York City gallery where he would spend the next three days locked in a room with a coyote. "I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself," the German artist explained later, "see nothing of America other than the coyote."
The video of this now famous stunt, which Beuys ironically titled I like America and America likes me (1981), occupies the aesthetic foreground of the exhibit "German Video from the Collections of the Kunstmuseum Bonn: Joseph Beuys to Today," which opens at the Slought Foundation on Wednesday. The exhibit, curated by Dieter Ronte, director of the Kunstmuseum Bonn, features German video art from the late '60s to the early '90s, a period marked by lingering postwar anxieties and the desire to play catch-up with the international avant-garde. This wasn't an easy task. As exhibit organizer Osvaldo Romberg describes, "With the rise of fascism leading up to the Second World War, all the [German] avant-garde was practically destroyed by the Nazis." The country's artistic development having been violently interrupted, many German artists in the 1960s were lacking the kind of tradition that their U.S. counterparts — still riding the wave of American Modernism — had going for them. They needed a leader, and they found it in Joseph Beuys.
Beuys "was a very charismatic person," explains Romberg. "He had a great sense of performance." He also had a knack for personal mythology. Beuys had been a pilot during World War II, and was shot down near the Russian border. As the story goes (or as he tells it, at least), he was rescued by some compassionate locals, who treated his burns by covering him in animal fat and wrapping him in a felt blanket. That incident figures into much of his performance, installation and video work, which often includes copious amounts of lard and felt.
In his 1970 performance Filz TV (or "Felt TV"), which also appears in the exhibit, Beuys sits in front of a television screen that is covered by a layer of felt. At his feet is a ring of blood sausages, and a television personality can be overheard discussing the rising prices of milk and meat. Beuys lifts up a corner of the felt, revealing the static underneath. He then puts on a pair of boxing gloves and proceeds to hit himself vigorously in the face.
Considering the fact that, one year later, American artist Chris Burden would videotape his assistant shooting him in the arm, this was not a particularly brutal or bizarre act for 1970s performance art. But for the growing circle surrounding Beuys, the aura of his art, his philosophy and his personality made him a difficult influence to avoid.
Most of the artists in this exhibit, including Ulrike Rosenbach, Klaus vom Bruch, Marcel Odenbach, Christof Kohlhöfer and Sigmar Polke among others, experienced the strength of that influence. Many of them were students of Beuys at the Düsseldorf academy, and for these, says Romberg, Beuys was like a father figure. If they didn't follow him, they tried to define themselves in opposition to him.
In Einwicklung mit Julia (1972), one of four short videos by Rosenbach that are included in the exhibit, the artist's primary act of wrapping her face in gauze seems to point to Beuys' symbolic use of felt as a form of protection. Only in her case, the symbolic "wound" she bandages is her face: her identity. Rosenbach used video to challenge the representation of women in the media and other art forms. Video, at that point a relatively new and unexplored medium, didn't carry with it the representational baggage of older forms, and allowed identity to be something that could be performed, not fixed as in an image.
Like Rosenbach, Sigmar Polke and Jochen Gerz also combine performance art with a focus on the new medium of video. Klaus vom Bruch's Das Duracellband (1980) explores the power of video montage, as clips from a Duracell battery commercial are cut with shots of a mushroom cloud. Other artists in the exhibit, such as Imi Knoebel, make video itself the subject of their investigations. Knoebel's Projektion X (1972) was recorded at night from a moving van with a projector strapped to its roof. The video captures the projection (a bright light in the shape of a large X) as it illuminates passing buildings, trees and cars, its symmetry occasionally disrupted by competing light sources such as street lamps.
Beuys, who died in 1986, once argued that "every human being is an artist," and with that philosophy, he was bound to have a considerable following. On its first trip to the United States, this rare collection demonstrates the strength and variety of that following, and traces its bizarre path through two generations of video history.
Opening reception Fri., Sept. 28, 6:30-8:30 p.m.; exhibit runs Sept. 23-Oct. 13, The Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut St., 215-701-4627, www.slought.org.