Art Statement on Vietnam
Speaks in New York City, May 1974
Who Was Joseph Beuys?
artist Joseph Beuys, born in 1921, became known internationally as a visual
artist and performance artist in the 1960s, and died in 1986. In 1940
he was drafted into the German Luftwaffe to become a radio operator
and dive bomber pilot. Although he lived through the excruciating war
as a soldier and developed a critique of Nazism in his postwar art and
philosophy, sparse information has been released by the Beuys industry
about the young man's experiences, political and ethical attitudes towards
Stachelhaus's biography, published in 1987, skims over the war years and
mentions that Beuys described the war as "a learning experience"
as he held philosophical debates with fellow soldiers in between the bombings.
Stachelhaus also mentions that Beuys "never complained about the
war although he was severely wounded"(Stachelhaus, 1987: 19). The
new and expanded biography by Frank Gieseke and Albert Markert, Flieger,
Filz und Vaterland (1996), contains a detailed history and geography
of German warfare, and also explores the discrepancy between historical
war documentation and Beuys self-constructed nomad-warrior identity,
which was built on carefully selected memories, mythologies and stories.
was a Stuka Diver in the German army, whose plane was hit by Russian gunfire
in 1944 and crashed in the Russian Ural region. Beuys was cared for by
ethnic Tatars who healed him by wrapping him in felt and smearing his
body with fat and yoghurt substances. Even though Beuys was unconscious
during this very brief episode with Tatars, he carefully reconstructed
his crash and the Tatar rescue mission in his art works, suggesting that
this encounter with non-Germanic tribes and healing methods enabled him
to make a radical transformation as an artist and political thinker. Beuys
was taken into a German military hospital after his brief stay with the
Tartars, only to be sent back to front line duty. At the end of the war,
Beuys ended up a total physical and emotional wreck, compounded by incarceration
in a British prisoner-of-war camp in Germany until 1946. Regardless of
his political ideology as a young soldier, he was physically and mentally
wounded and altered by the war.
this paper I would like to discuss how the post-Vietnam performance, Coyote:
I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), was an attempt to clarify
his trauma and the culture of German nationalism and Nazis. His staged
journey from Germany to the United States in 1974 was a crucial moment
in opening up a search for post-fascist aesthetics in dialogue with other
species and other nations. Beuys had been invited several times to show
his work in the USA, but had publicly announced that he refused to enter
the USA as long as the Vietnam War was on. His arrival right after the
Vietnam War was an art performance which can be seen as a mythic/romantic
anti-salute to US imperialism.
arrived as the main character in an art performance, which he carefully
staged from his moment of arrival in John F. Kennedy airport until his
departure one week later. Upon arrival in JFK, his motionless body was
wrapped up in a felt blanket (notice the reference to his legendary crash)
and placed on a hospital stretcher. He was carried into an ambulance and
transported to René Block gallery, downtown New York City. Beuys
spent his journey inside the gallery in the company of a coyote and he
traveled back to Germany, first inside the ambulance to JFK, right after
Who is Coyote?
is an important trickster figure in native American mythology, and also
plays a role in diverse accounts of shamanic initiation rites where a
young apprentice has to find contact with an animal in order to partake
in a healing process. Beuys action consisted of a staged arrival
and attempt to make contact with a mythic animal - coyote. Beuys made
primal noises and minimal sounds of music during the performance, he also
fell to the ground as if in a trance state. He closely mimicked the ordeal
of the young apprentice as described by anthropologist Mircea Eliade in
his study of shamanism:
had to go into the mountains and pass through a number of performances.
He had to build a sweat-house, in which he stayed every night. In the
morning he was allowed to return to the village. This was continued, sometimes
for years, until he dreamt that the animal he desired for his guardian
spirit appeared to him and promised him its help. As soon as it appeared
the novice fell down in a swoon. The animal gives him a certain song with
which to summon him up. If an animal initiates the novice it teaches him
his language. One Shaman in Nicola Valley is said to speak "Coyote language"
in his incantations ... If the heir does not take the "power", he falls
"ill" (Eliade, 1972: 42).
particular scenario was repeated several times in Coyote: I Like America
and America Likes Me, which resembled the shaman's journey to death
by means of silence and identity transgression, or carnival. Beuys attempted
to undergo the status reversal of traditional trickster figures by exploring
the boundaries between human and animal identity and communication. A
steel-mesh barrier was placed in between the performers and the spectators,
hence the performers were encaged in a zoo just like animals. Because
Beuys stood still most of the time, suffocated in his felt as in a straight-jacket,
the spectator's perception focused on the swift and quirky movements of
coyote. Coyote seemed to be the most vivid actor in this zoo and s/he
was admired as s/he outsmarted Beuys.
Caroline Tisdall recalled, Beuys was presenting his human background to
the coyote, demonstrating his petty habits, his elations and upwards stances,
his illnesses by means of lying down, suffering and dying. According to
Tisdall, Beuys never imposed his own energy cycle on that of the animal:
The man never took his eyes off the animal. The line of sight between
them became like the hands of a spiritual clockface measuring the timings
of movements and setting the pace for the dialogue through time. The man
carried out his sequence of movements, a choreography directed towards
the coyote, the timing and mood regulated by the animal (Tisdall, 1979:
order to view Coyote: I Like America and America Likes me as a
larger effort towards cross-cultural communication (or Beuys statement
on the Vietnam War) I would like to mention a example of historical Native
American attempts at peace-making in the early Encounter era.
instance of ritualized peace making was delivered in 1645 by an Iroquois
chief, Kiotseaeton, who had to negotiate an end to a long-running war
with French Canadians over the North American fur trade. In the essay
"Linking Arms Together, Constitutionalism in a North American Indigenous
Vision of Law and Peace," Robert Williams writes that Kiotseaton drew
upon an ancient sacred performance ritual to communicate his message of
peace to the French. He knew that there was a good chance that he was
going to get killed, and he used indigenous performance modes to reflect
on the endless continuation of barbarism.
arrived on Canadian territory in a river boat, almost entirely covered
with porcelain beads, and he motioned with his hand for silence. He stood
high in stature and cried out:
Brothers, I have left my country to come and see you. At last I have reached
your land. I was told on my departure that I was going to seek death,
and that I would never again see my country. But I have willingly exposed
myself for the good of peace. I come therefore to enter in the designs
of the French, of the Hurons, and of the Algonquins. I come to make known
to you the thoughts of all my country (Williams, 10).
to enter the socio-political design of the other?" was the major question
addressed by Kiotseaeton when he appeared in full indigenous costume and
acted out stylized symbolic gestures before starting his speech. Beuys
took up a similar approach to cross-cultural communication when he arrived
in New York wrapped up in a shamanic felt cover to comment on the end
of the Vietnam War in collaboration with a Native American animal.
Condolence Council of Kiotseaton started with a wiping, clearing and requickening
of vital communicating organs - eyes, ears and throat. Then followed an
exchange of gifts of wampum strings and belts, each containing the words
of a message which was explained in word or song by the performer. To
Williams, Kiotseaeton's approach was "so unlike anything brought by the
Europeans to America":
usually viewed the sacred rituals upon which Indian tribes relied to
negotiate their treaties, such as the Condolence Council, as strange
and oftentimes inconvenient ways to conduct vital matters of trade,
diplomacy, and survival (Williams, 12).
writes that Kiotseaeton's performance did persuade Europeans into performance
participation. The French Canadians mimicked the indigenous performer
and after two days decided to present to Kiotseaeton and his embassy fourteen
gifts which carried special meanings and messages. The Iroquois received
each of the gifts with three loud cries uttered from the depths of their
Condolence Council embodied traditions of Great Peace between
several Iroquois tribes and intended to preserve and renew "a natural
state of communication, connection, solidarity, and trust between all
peoples, linking them together in reciprocating relationships of trade,
friendship and goodwill"(Williams, 13). Peace meant improved communication
between different peoples, which involved serious efforts at listening
to the other and the creation of "feeling as much as a reality"(Williams,
Condolence Council was a ceremony for condoling the loss of dead chiefs
and installing new ones. Beuys evoked a history of Native American suffering
and established condolence by placing honor upon coyote. He focused the
performance on the physical and mythical space of coyote (victim of rancher
killings and symbol of Native American genocide, if not the Vietnam War).
Beuys extended the performance over several days so that the spectator
could take enough time to visit and sense (smell, hear and see) the physical
specificities of coyote.
main purpose of Coyote: I Like America and America Like Me was
to carry out an identity transgression and to comment on a revitalizaton
of the senses in cross-cultural art and peace-making. Coyote as
a performance art piece highlighted the shortcomings of de-sensitivized
systems of representation in conveying a history of international warfare.
I will refer to Klaus Theweleit's study of Nazi culture, Male Fantasies, to argue that Beuys work on the senses entailed a thorough critique
of the Nazi subconscious and Fascist culture.
work is important for Beuys studies as it demonstrates that the collective-mythic
unconscious of Nazis, of soldiers and military men, is primarily characterized
by a desire to be freed from all that can be identified with the female
body, fluidity, blood, warmth and sensuality. Theweleit describes the
phenomenon of Nazism as an organization of the armored male self in a
world constantly threatening its disintegration. Thus, fanatical discipline,
the military goose-step, solidity, the leather jack-boot, provide most
effective shields against ideological decay, and the only legitimate explosive
union of passionate bodies is the moment of military battle itself. Repudiation
of one's own body and its 'feminization' in the cyclical biological body,
feminine physiology, and the suppressed female psyche within the soldier
becomes a mass compulsion which associates masculine bodies with hardness,
mechanization, destruction and self-denial. According to Theweleit, the
decomposing masses which the Nazi despises, are characterized under Nazi-culture
in the following way:
mass of diverse consistencies from fluid to viscous, in which the soldier
male sinks and is irretrievably lost. All that is hybrid within, across,
or emanating from the body; everything 'filthy. The emergence of revolutionary
masses... threatens to undermine the internal damns of these men, and
the external mass comes to embody their own erupted interior. The man
is "inundated'(Theweleit, 1985, vol.2, 4).
Jessica Benjamin and Rabinson Rabinbach explain in the introduction to Male Fantasies, the idea that a Nazi subconscious would express
a desire to fuse with the mother, or pursue a reunion with the maternal
goddess, is inverted by Theweleit: "The fascist soldier's wish to destroy
the mother, his desire to fuck the earth is not so much a wish for incestuous
union with the mother as it is a wish to rid himself of all those maternal
qualities of warmth and sensuality that could be called mother" (Theweleit,
1985 vol.2: xxii).
Theweleit finds evidence that the Nazis associated danger with various
animals - aggressive, poisonous and hot - Beuys explores the range of
animal consciousness as a valid substitute for human consciousness. Standing
erect as an upright and immobile individual, looking down from high above
the masses, is another component of military identity building which Beuys
carefully reverses in the opening scene and various 'bowing' and 'lay
down' poses of Coyote. Beuys also wrapped himself in a felt blanket,
an amorphous substance which he had frequently used around the body to
establish or simulate processes of death and regeneration.
dissolving object in Coyote was the Wall Street Journal,
which was Beuys 'worst enemy' and was brought daily to the gallery. According
to some spectators, the best moment of the performance consisted of the
coyote urinating on the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street
Journal was framed as a repulsive object while the bodily fluids of
coyote were endowed with healing magic.
had often used abject materials such as dirt, hair, excrements,
dead animals, and rotting food and pointed to their regenerative potential.
Beuys was one of the first artists to provoke the German (and international)
art world with 'anti-noble' and 'abject' allegories when he promoted a
return to the body and ritual modes of dismemberment and disintegration.
Since the early 1960s Beuys showed a strong compulsion to inundate German
sites of public interest with decomposing entities, and he probably would
have been considered a first-rate entartete Künstler (degenerate
artist) by the Nazi regime. For example, Beuys often filled the corners
of a rigidly composed buildings with blocks of solid fat in order for
it to slowly melt soil the floor and surrounding walls. He mentioned that
these fat sculptures were metaphors for 'amorphous healing'(Tisdall, 1979:
90). In Fat Chair he placed a block of fat on a chair, inviting
the spectator to place his rear into this melting area. The chair, more
than the corner, reminded the spectator of human anatomy, the area of
digestive and excretive transformation, and sexual organs. Beuys wrote
that this particular art work started an almost chemical process among
people that would have been impossible if he had only worked more theoretically.
took up the critique of the Enlightenment and declared that the artists
body needed to be healed by means of ritual performance, by surrounding
and infesting the body with base materials. In 1949, Max Horkheimer's
and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment had been published
in the Netherlands after leading an exile existence in the United States.
A short essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Importance
of the Body, addressed the intellectual's need to rewrite de-corporealized
Enlightenment narratives after World War II. A shift had occurred between
an official history and an underground history, which revealed the "fate
of the human"(Horkheimer and Adorno, 1993: 8). Horkheimer and Adorno
believed that "the body had been maimed" by the official state narratives
of industrialized countries and that this repression had helped produce
the event of Fascism. They equally believed that the artist's body continued
to be effaced and maimed in mechanized production processes of consumerist
art and pop culture.
Beuys, the emergence of the performance art body was tied to a collapse
of nationalist or fascist leadership models, which he replaced by romantic
versions of international socialism and visionary healing. Coyote can thus be understood as a cross-cultural dialogue as well as neo-shamanic
ritual, which was a grandiose attempt to reform the rigid contours of
the fascist subconscious. The performance involved a thorough critique
of Enlightenment reason and a mind-body dualism that had come to a peak
in the mechanized bodily imaging of Fascism. Klaus Theweleit's analysis
of the Fascist subconscious in Male Fantasies focuses on the tendency
to reject any forces that could disrupt the soldier's sensation of inner
hardness, integrity, unity and solidity. The mind-body dualism in Fascism
was taken to an extreme as organic sexual and excremental functions of
the body were constructed as a main threat to mental discipline. By using
coyotes mythic healing function and corporeal entities, Beuys offered
an anti-vision to the devastating compulsions of armored soldiers, which
had surrounded him during the war. Beuys critiqued Fascism by recuperating
the organic body and by framing waste products and shamanic modes of bodily
disintegration as works of art.
performance also signified a breaking out of the planned architecture
and governing ideology of the nation-state of West Germany. He highlighted
the Native American coyotes physicality and mythic history in order
to complement his own legendary life: the famous airplane crash in WWII,
physical and mental breakdown and struggle with German officials in post-war
years. By writing cross-cultural histories he took up the philosophical
predicament of Walter Benjamins Thesis on the Philosophy of
History written on the brink of WWII. Benjamin wrote that "that
the fragments and remains of a perishing culture would only ever flash
up again in dialectical relation to the present
For every image
of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns
threatens to disappear irretrievably"(Benjamin, 1969: 255). Benjaminian
historiography enables a commemorating and filtering of past events through
a specific overlay with the present, which can be experimentally researched
in modern cognitive sciences and reproductive technologies.
believed that citations of his own past and coyotes past would be
filtered through performance technologies and specific myths governing
a culture, that historical events did not live and die according to historical
time, but appeared and re-appeared as illuminations, a-synchronous memories
which "flash up in moments of danger" and "blast open the
continuum of history"(Benjamin, 1969: 155, 262). According to Benjamin,
the conception of history is one sundered from the notion of progression
through homogeneous, empty time. History cannot be written as time-in-progress
but "as a time filled by the presence of the now" (Benjamin, 1969: 261).
Within the imminent presence of present time, specific historic configurations
crystallize before our eyes like "Messianic cessations of happening"
and they evoke a "revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed
past" (Benjamin, 1969: 262-263). A study of the present confrontation
of cultures can be formulated through our optical unconscious and its
journey into 'fetishistic' appearances of the past.
constructed a dialectical relationship between the 'primordial past' (pristine)
and the 'historical past '(flawed) in order to construct a cross-cultural
encounter. He welded a nomadic image which critiqued Germany's national
past, the construction of nazi architecture, the Holocaust, the repression
of the "feminine" and control of mental illnesses. The nomad image was
stylized and consciously delivered across national boundaries to "flash"
such histories as genocide and marginalization of Native Americans, as
well as US involvement in the Vietnam war.
historiography is also in tune with Deleuze and Guattari's 'Treatise on
Nomadology --The War Machine' from A Thousand Plateaus (1980).
Beuys' postwar oeuvre, his visual art and performances, social
sculptures, statements on television, theories and teachings were a 'war
machine' against the state apparatus. They were a machine "of another
species, another nature, another origin than the State" (Deleuze and Guattari,
1987: 382) and Beuys as warrior "bears witness, above all, to other relations
with women, with animals, because he sees things in relations of becoming
rather than implementing binary distinctions between "states": a veritable
becoming- animal of the warrior, a becoming-woman, which lies outside
the dualities of terms as well as correspondences between relations"(Deleuze
and Guattari, 1987: 352).
fought the German state as a radical artist and political activist throughout
the postwar era, but his major contribution as an artist was to fight
distinctions between states and to materialize moments of becoming. "Decomposing"
the rigidity of the German warrior, the state institutions, he smeared
the walls of square buildings with butter and wax object. He hid in a
felt blanket and registered the changing environment through his body
heat, odors and fluids. Beuys believed that body art and material decomposition
provided a healthy space for the warrior to explore the repressed feminine
consciousness and animal impulses, and that artist's incorporation of
pre-modern 'war machines' would enable the interruption of historical
narratives issued by the state.
Stephen Muecke's application of nomadology to Australian spatial organizations
in the essay "Discourse of Nomadology: Phylums in Flux," we can start
to see two complementary cultures of time-space which have informed 20th
century art and culture. The first one is city culture and subcultures,
vertical lines and lego blocks surrounded by chaotic swarms and street
life, multiculturalism as a phantasmagoric reality and a promoted state
practice, and other such social phenomena sustained by the nation-state.
The second culture of time-space is nomadic and positioned outside the
walls of the city-state:
smooth space of the nomad is a space of infinitesimal contact between
bodies, rather than a visual space, which can be broken up into grid-squares.
Its multiplicities are rhizomatic (going in all directions, any point
connecting with any other point, as opposed to the branching structure
of the tree). These multiplicities occupy the space without counting
it and can only 'explore it in the act of travelling across it' (Deleuze,p.460)
It is rapid rather than grave. The State has 'gravity'(Muecke :32).
to Muecke, one can see a sharp ideological rift between the urban science
machine (shopping mall culture) and the war machine (desert area populated
by aborginal groups) in contemporary Australia. Muecke sees a difference
in performative travel movements: "In the aboriginal science of tracking,
following someone's footsteps means to 'know' them. To walk exactly in
their footsteps means that there is an imitation -- not a reproduction
--of the whole movement of their bodies. And for this reason Aboriginal
groups know how to walk together, a technique which will assure that they
stay together over long distances" (Muecke: 32). The walking styles
of city people, in Muecke's comparison, are less concerned with commemorating
the body politic and adapted only for short displacements and individual
is Deleuzian as s/he lives in the plateaux, hinterlands, deserts and s/he
wanders across vast, unmapped environments. When s/he walks inside the
city environment, s/he presents the complementary cultures of time-space
to the audience causing curiosity and/or cross-cultural coexistence within
the context of art.
a performance artist Beuys explored artistic and philosophical modes of
becoming. By entering the state of becoming coyote, he constructed a powerful
critique of the political struggle between US officials and Native American
mythologies. Beuys did not arrive as a privileged expert on such political
matters, but related his action Coyote to his own biography, his
involvement in the war, his ongoing mental depressions, the event of Fascism,
and ongoing 'dissolutions' which he had frequently demonstrated in Germany
art spaces and was more than ready to enrich with the coyotes fluids
in post-Vietnam America.
Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Shocken, 1969)
Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
Eliade, Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, Bollingen
Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New
York: Continuum, 1993)
Gieseke and Albert Markert, Flieger, Filz and Vaterland. Eine
Erweiterte Beuys Biografie (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1996)
Muecke, "Phylums in Flux" Art and Text, 41
Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys (New York: Abeville Press, 1987)
Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979)
Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol 1 & 2 (University of Minnesota
Williams, "Linking Arms Together: Multicultural Constitutionalism
in a North American Indigenous Vision of Law and Peace," In California
Law Review, vol 82: 981.