Tag Archives: re-enactment

Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel Gallery

(Nov 23 2003)

Egad! The cult of Joseph Beuys lives! Today’s so-called “symposium” on the late artist was pure hagiography. Three of the office-bearers of the JB Fan Club were up on stage, and there was no shutting them up, nor was it possible to get through to them with an even slightly uncelebratory remark (let alone critical). Richard DeMarco, Robert McDowell, and Ken McMullen released so much hot air it seemed for a moment that they meant to exhort the young audience to march en-masse and exhume Beuys from his grave (wherever that may be).


(Excuse some of the following, as I can't remember which of the experts said what. Sheesh. I am trying to find out for the purposes of not appearing sloppy). – see below for comment about the 3 "experts"…

(?) was the director of the ICA during the 1970s, and also ran the Edinburgh festival, organising several Beuys shows during that time. (?) was a gallerist who now runs the Royal Academy Gallery, and (?), an artist who was involved with setting up the International Free University together with Beuys and others in the early 1970s. All three speakers reported at length on their personal relationships with the artist, emphasising his charisma, his inspirational presence and his ability and willingness to teach, as an integral part of his art practice. All agreed in one way or another that he was a genius, a Da Vinci of the 20th century (in fact, one of the speakers even claimed that Beuys was “the first artist of the 21st century”, whatever that could mean, given that he died in the 1980s).


With all this eulogising, you might expect that the discussion might eventually turn to the work itself, or even his teachings, or exactly what influence or impact that he has proved to make on the (art)world. But despite obvious and insistent interest from the audience, and an evident desire to dwell upon more critical responses to Beuys’ ouvre and aura, those with the microphones constantly returned to focus upon just how much “LOVE” this man had for the world. Jesus Christ himself hasn’t had such a glowing review as this, possibly since Vatican II.


And as for the show itself, which was a temporary installation set up in the Whitechapel gallery downstairs, it consisted of “performance relics” such as blackboards mounted behind perspex, as works of art, seized and “fixed” the moment that Beuys’ various lectures were over, as well as video and film documents of discussions between the artist and various audiences between 1972 and 1980. Only the videos yielded actual information about Beuys’ work of teaching, for they showed him in intense and earnest discussion with students and artists, genuinely trying to answer questions and nut-out a way forward, developing as he went, his now-famous notion of the “social sculpture”. The preserved blackboards, I must say, nauseated me – contrary to what (which one of the "experts"?) had said in his speech, I did not find them to be “fascinating drawings in themselves”, nor did I find them to yield any but the most rudimentary information that may assist us to pursue Beuys’ arguments further. By being encased in plastic glass, they were converted to the status of religious relics, and (worst of all) lost their very nature as blackboards, that is, as mutable surfaces for the transmission of information. Certainly, it can be argued, that Beuys cleverly exploited the fetishising nature of the artworld, in selling the blackboards (and other relics) in order to fund his more expensive, and progressive projects (such as the 7000 oaks in Kassel) – however, we must not be fooled by this into granting them more importance than they would have had at the moment of inscription – that is, they are as useful as any filled blackboard from a previous lesson, upon entering the lecture theatre (ie not very useful).


One astute audience member pointed out that, until 1983, the Tate Gallery's Beuys Lecture Blackboards had been in the archive of the gallery, whereas, in that year, they were transferred to the “art collection storage area”. What change had occurred, she asked, in respect to these objects, that they were suddenly transfigured from one category of object into another? No answer from the fanclub.


Full respect to Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick, who chaired the discussion, for her attempts to bring some critical points to bear in relation to Beuys, and whose voice was ignored and drowned out by the fan club. Both she and Gustav Metzger, a contemporary and friend of Beuys, urged caution when considering the charisma of the artist, for it was a charisma, they argued, that he cultivated and nurtured, and which ultimately took control of him. Blazwick referred to two texts, critical of Beuys and his aura, and they were by Benjamin Buchloch, and Kristine Stiles. I have not read either of their arguments, but after today’s love-in, am keen to get my hands on both of the essays.

some questions about Rabbit Proof Fence and re-enactment of historical events…

Rabbit Proof Fence


The whole movie is a re-enactment of events which happened in the 1930s.


The stealing of "half-caste" Aboriginal children from their mothers,


to be taken to "homes" and brought up institutionally.


These particular children escaped the institution and walked all the way home,


several hundred miles north.


How might this filmic re-enactment relate to the re-enactment of key performance pieces from the 1960s?


How important is the re-enactment of a "performance"


(eg Carolee Schneeman's Meat Joy) when we might re-enact “real life events” instead?


Such as Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave from 1984, re-enacted in 2001.


Deller staged a full scale re-enactment of a historical union-police battle –




Other things to consider here – what is actually involved in the re-enactment, and for what purpose?


Is it an "experience" for the people involved?


Is it a pantomime performance to “bring to life” a piece of history?


In Rabbit Proof Fence, consider the real weeping of the women re-enacting the stealing of their children by white police.


(The DVD edition has a documentary which shows the development of these scenes).


They (the actors) were all devastated, channelling the grief of that history through their own bodies.


And: the general preparations of actors for a performance


(loosening exercises, character building games), how similar are these to fluxus activities/participations?


Play and body play. Allan Kaprow’s classes at Como for the Fondazione Ratti.-



The doco about the making of Rabbit Proof Fence makes the activities of film actors seem fascinating.


The preparations they go through.


Their lives must be very interesting lived processes.




Re-Enactment of Meat Joy

The re-enactment of key historical performances seems to be a growing phenomenon. I found reference to a season at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, called “A Short History of Performance”, which included Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964).

of the original Meat Joy, Schneeman has written:

Meat Joy is an erotic rite — excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, ropes, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic — shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent. Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, in which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience. The original performances became notorious and introduced a vision of the “sacred erotic.” [quote found here at http://www.eai.org/eai/tape.jsp?itemID=6892]

Below is a reprinted excerpt from an article by Alex Farquharson called “Action Replay”, from Frieze magazine, [Issue 77, Sept 2003, p 52], about the Whitechapel gallery re-enactment:

Over the course of a week the gallery hosted re-enactments of seminal performances from the 1960s, each for one night only. Together they brought into focus a set of philosophical questions more or less particular to our relationship with a historicized, ephemeral medium. With most art the notion of the original is tied up with an object that usually undergoes little physical transformation over time. But where does the original reside in performance? Is it gone once the performance, in its original location, overseen by the artist, is over? Are film and photographic documentation, relics and physical residue – of the kind Paul Schimmel assembled for “Out of Actions” at MOCA in LA (1998) – the most authentic connection we now have with the original event, or do thse fragments pale next to a faithful re-enactment? Is the reconstruction still a copy or appropriation even if the artist performs or directs it, or should performance be regarded as a reproducible medium, like a play or musical score? If the latter, then the work probably won’t have undergone any immanent change. Instead, differences in the ways it is now interpreted would ve attributable to changes in historical circumstances. Then again, wouldn’t these changes equallay affect readings of a Roy Lichtenstein painting or an Ed Kienholz tableau, say, of the same period?

Meat Joy, for example, answered all these questions with an ambivalent “yes” and “no”. On one hand, seeing the full performace made you realise that your understanding of the work, based on black and white images of the climactic scene, was extremely slanted. Its slow, mesmeric quality, its long narrative arc, its references to gestural painting and Jungian archetypes, and its olfactory intensity are absent from the photographs, whose static iconography and documentary edge have transplanted the work form the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s happenings to feminist action-based works of the 1970s. On the other hand, the artist had made slight but significant alterations to the content of the piece for its re-enactment. Her own role changed from main orgy protagonist to party hostess or cult leader, reflecting her maturity, while the young men and women were no longer naked, because the nude body, according to Schneeman, has been drained of its emancipatory significance since the original event, and now operates as little more than prurient spectacle.

A more radical transformation had taken place on the level of audience reaction. The return of Meat Joy felt triumphant, a cause for celebration, like the reunion of a legendary rock group. The entrance of the meat and fish to the music felt as if it should have been greeted with applause, like the apprearance of a special guest during an encore. Meat Joy, this time around, functioned as entertainment, albeit for a relatively rarefied audience.

Jonathan Jones agreed. He wrote (in British Newspaper The Guardian):

Meat Joy was a spectacle, but I’m not sure it was anything more. We did not get involved. A few people were enticed to dance at the end, but only a handful out of hundreds. We sat upright and uptight. And there was more than repression rooting us to our seats. There was a gulf between audience and performance that could not be bridged, as if the action we witnessed were elsewhere. Time stood between. This was repetition, and while on its own terms it was a triumph, it was also as pointless as restaging Gettysburg. It could only be a breathing waxwork.

*pictures of the 1964 Meat Joy can be seen here. at http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/meatjoy.html

*it seems another “re-enactment” (or performance) of Meat Joy took place in 2003… see http://www.amherst.edu/~pubaff/news/news_releases/02/meatjoy02.html

A hard-hitting review of the Whitechapel re-enactment, by critic Jonathan Jones, is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/story/0,3604,686046,00.html


[for related posts, visit the re-enactment category in this blog…]