Art Statement on Vietnam
Coyote Speaks in New York City, May 1974
by Katrien Jacobs
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German 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 Nazism.
Heiner 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.
Beuys 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.
In 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.
Beuys 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 the performance.
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:
A 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.
As 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:
In 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
Kiotseaeton 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:
"How 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.
The 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":
Europeans 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).
Williams 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 chests.
The 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, 14).
The 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.
The 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.
Theweleits 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:
A 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).
As 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).
Where 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.
The 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.
Beuys 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.
For 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.
Beuys' 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.
Beuys 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.
Beuys 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).
Beuys 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.
Following 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:
The 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).
According 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 journeys.
Beuys 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.
As 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.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Shocken, 1969)
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, Bollingen Paperback: 1972)
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1993)
Frank Gieseke and Albert Markert, Flieger, Filz and Vaterland. Eine Erweiterte Beuys Biografie (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1996)
Stephen Muecke, "Phylums in Flux" Art and Text, 41
Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys (New York: Abeville Press, 1987)
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979)
Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, vol 1 & 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 1985)
Robert Williams, "Linking Arms Together: Multicultural Constitutionalism in a North American Indigenous Vision of Law and Peace," In California Law Review, vol 82: 981.