Studio: Kino Lorber

May 23, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Say the name Joseph Beuys to any well-versed artlover and odds are good one particular image will immediately come to mind: the iconic photograph of the German artist playing tug of war with a coyote. A still photo from Beuys’ 1977 performance art piece I Like America and America Likes Me, it depicts Beuys hunched over and wrapped up in a piece of felt, holding up a cane, while a coyote across the room hungrily tugs away at a piece of Beuys’ body armor. The famed sculptor and performance artist looks like The Hermit from the Tarot being accosted by a wild dog.

Watching Andres Veiel’s documentary on Beuys’ life and work, one gets the sense that the coyote and Beuys are one and the same. While those three legendary days Beuys spent locked in a room with a wild coyote only gets about ten minutes of screentime in Veiel’s film (ten harrowing minutes at that: we see how often the coyote tries to turn Beuys’ legs into a chew toy), the composite image of Beuys the film puts together gives the impression that the artist was a kind of trapped wild animal too.

So much of Veiel’s film depicts Beuys in conversation about his work: at press conferences, TV shows, classrooms, and panel discussions. And time and time again, we see Beuys as a zoo animal on display: poked and prodded and gawked at by people who can’t understand his all-encompassing theories of art.

“Anything can be art, especially anything that conserves energy,” Beuys opines, outlining his ideas about using sculpture as a form of communication and how any action can have the weight and beauty of art. “But the concept of art has been expanded so far that everything is art,” one of his critics sputters in disbelief. No wonder so many of Beuys’ fellow art teachers and professionals hated him: his work and philosophies questioned the necessity of their role as gatekeepers and interpreters of art. If everything can be art, why do we need people to tell us what is and isn’t art?

Veiels’ documentary is at its most engrossing when it lets its titular subject loose to spar with his critics. With his sad eyes and weary grin, Beuys comes across as a man who knows just how far ahead of his time he is and is resigned to bear that cross with dignity. In 2018, in a year where folks are defending Kanye’s embrace of Trump as a Beuys tribute and where Andy Kaufman has been (rightfully) enshrined as a prankster god, ol’ Joe’s impish views of art and performance would be right at home in the zeitgeist. But people in the post-WW2 era weren’t ready to hear it, which is why the film spends so much time delving into the professional backlash and controversy that dogged Beuys through so much of his life.

Where the film falls short is giving us a sense of who Beuys was before he became an artist. It briefly explores the foundational myth that Beuys often shared about himself: that his “real” birth came after crashing his plane on the Crimean front. The Luftwaffe pilot was allegedly rescued by nomadic Tatars, who wrapped his mangled body in animal fat and felt so he could recover from the crash. It talks about his post-war recovery, his struggles with depression and loneliness, and hints at the extensive physical reconstructions his body had to undergo while healing from that calamitous fall. But even after all that backstory, Beuys still feels like a walking question mark, like a being who sprung fully formed after the war.

Most of the story in Beuys is told through archival footage (including extensive bits from John Halpern’s 1988 film Joseph Beuys/TRANSFORMER, depicting the German maverick prepping for his show at the Guggenheim). Occasionally the film breaks its retro spell by cutting to talking head interviews in the modern world, and it’s here where Beuys falters. The commentary these experts offers rarely adds anything truly new or dynamic to what we’ve already seen Beuys do and say throughout the doc. One can imagine a vastly superior version of Beuys where all the modern interview segments are excised and the film is nothing but period footage of the man himself.

Watching Beuys perform public actions surrounded by huge crowds, it’s hard not to wonder if being the subject of all that gawking planted the seed that would flower into I Like America and America Likes Me. One interviewer comments on Beuys’ ever-present fedora hat and pocket-strewn vest (it’s as impossible to imagine Beuys without that hat as it would be to imagine Dali without the ‘stache or Warhol without his glasses and white mane), suggesting that Beuys is wearing it as a form of protection. Of course it is: like an alligator’s scales or a hippo’s thick hide, every wild animal needs some kind of defense.


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