By Lana Shafer Meador
The enactment of the term relational aesthetics, placing the beholders’ (or participants’) social interaction at the center of the artwork, has come to prominence in contemporary art over the past two decades. However, the concept itself has been presaged throughout the twentieth century with the increased acknowledgement of the viewer’s presence and role in the artwork. Marcel Duchamp’s adage, “Ce sont le regardeurs qui font les tableaux”—asserting that art exists and is defined by the beholder, rather than the artist’s intention—and Roland Barthes’ 1968 proclamation of the death of the author and subsequent birth of the reader, foretell the activation of the viewer at the heart of relational aesthetics.(1) In particular, German artists Joseph Beuys and Martin Kippenberger have been hailed as precursors to the relational aesthetics phenomenon through their expanded conceptions of art and their inclusion, or implication, of the viewer. However, these two artists take very different approaches to their work: Beuys emphasizes metaphysics and utopian universality through his use of materials and performances (called actions); whereas Kippenberger embraces wit, discontinuity, and failure. An analysis of Beuys’ action The Chief—Fluxus Chant (1963) and Kippenberger’s installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ (1994), as well as both artists’ constructed mythic personalities, reveal divergent approaches to the social aspect of art and provide context for and commentary on manifestations of relational aesthetics in contemporary art.
Nicolas Bourriaud was instrumental in delineating the attributes and impact of relational aesthetics in his book, published in 1998, of the same name. Bourriaud posits relational aesthetics as a “theory of form” in which form is defined as a lasting encounter. (2) In staging these forms, or lasting encounters, relational art and artists create experiments, models, and micro-utopias to teach how “to inhabit the world in a better way.”(3) Bourriaud interprets the generosity of relational artists, such as Rikrit Tiravanija’s cooking and serving of pad thai to gallery-goers, as the creation of a social interstice, a space of human relations.(4) According to Bourriaud, these interstices are not utopian fantasies, but rather real spaces and situations that are authentic models of reality.(5)
The idea of artwork as a social interaction is greatly indebted to Joseph Beuys and his concept of Social Sculpture. Born in 1921 in Cleves, Germany, Beuys initially had an interest in the natural sciences, but became involved in the arts after his experience as a combat pilot for Germany in World War II. In 1943 Beuys’ plane crashed in the snow-laden landscape of Crimea, then a republic of Russia. According to Beuys, he was rescued by the nomadic Crimean Tartars, “who covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in,” teaching him the ritualistic healing powers of materials.(6) By 1946 Beuys had determined that science was inadequate, in that it only presented one way of thinking, and that art was the sole way for him to find a total experience.(7)
Felt and fat became integral materials in Beuys’ oeuvre and sculptural theory. Beuys began to approach art and materials as a means for transformation in order to bring about change and development, in a therapeutic way, to begin collective cultural healing in the wake of World War II.(8) Beuys’ theory of sculpture describes the passage of all things in the world from a state of chaos into a state of order. This theory is exemplified by the physical properties of fat. In liquid form fat’s warm molecules are in a state of chaos, but once cooled the molecular movement slows, transforming the substance into an ordered, solid state. Beuys associates a state of order with intellect—as when an idea has been processed and fully formed.(9) However, a substance can also become too ordered, too crystalline, as represented by an idea that is over-intellectualized and has become pure theory.(10) Beuys proposes that there should be a balance achieved between different states of being and modes of thought.(11) The transcendental qualities that Beuys attributed to materials established his reputation as a spiritual, even shamanistic, artist. Like a shaman, Beuys felt the need to come in close physical and psychological contact with materials in order to understand their energy and to attain a more total experience of materials and life.(12)
Additionally, the physical properties and molding of substance, was not solely confined to tangible materials for Beuys. He hoped his objects would expand the concept of sculpture to include materials that everyone uses, such as thoughts and speech.(13) Ultimately Beuys aimed at promoting Social Sculpture which he defined as “how we mold and shape the world in which we live: sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone is an artist.”(14) Furthermore, Beuys asserted, “That is why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, color changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.”(15) Artworks such as Fat Chair (1964) and Beuys’ numerous felt and fat corners are primary examples of his sculptural theory. However, Beuys also confessed that, “My initial intention in using fat was to stimulate discussion…the students and artists who saw this piece did have some curious reactions… People started to laugh, get angry, or try to destroy it.”(16) Thus, a major motivating factor for Beuys was the social, or relational, component of his work. Nonetheless, Beuys did not want his work to be relational in a simply conversational way. His emphasis on the social aspect of art was both political and ontological. In a 1969 interview with Willoughby Sharp, Beuys stated, “Objects aren’t very important to me anymore. I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it. Thought, speech, communication—and not only in the socialist sense of the word—are all expressions of the free human being.”(17)
Social Sculpture was exemplified through Beuys’ actions, which he used as means for instigating social and political change. In these actions, Beuys also incorporated his signature organic materials, including felt and fat, emphasizing their physical transformation as a “metaphor for the malleability of self and society.”(18) Initially, Beuys became interested in performance through his association with the Fluxus movement from 1962 to 1965. Beuys was attracted to the Fluxus movement’s staged activities that pursued social, rather than aesthetic, ends to fuse art and life, and to create new situations out of chaos.(19) Eventually, Beuys broke away from the Fluxus group, stating that it did not take issues far enough; Beuys lamented, “They held a mirror up to people without indicating how to change things.”(20) This statement underscores Beuys’ desire to be more didactic, even dogmatic, in his artworks and also highlights the integral role of the viewer.
Although Beuys’ aim with Social Sculpture was to inspire transformation and activation of the viewer, in many instances Beuys’ audience was physically and psychologically distanced from the performance. Rather than directly provoking the audience (as in the staged, Fluxus events(21)), Beuys’ actions were meditative and ritualistic.(22) The Chief—Fluxus Chant, first performed in 1963 in Copenhagen, and again in 1964 at the René Block Gallery in Berlin, was key in laying the groundwork for all of his subsequent actions.(23) During this action, Beuys lay on the gallery floor wrapped up in a roll of felt for nine hours. Attached to both ends of the felt roll were dead hares. The room also contained some of Beuys’ signature fat corners, margarine, a copper rod rolled in felt, hair, fingernail clippings, and an amplifier connected to a microphone that Beuys held. As the microphone transmitted the guttural sounds of Beuys’ own breathing at intervals with musical scores by Henning Christiansen and Erik Anderson, the audience deciphered these acoustic cues confined in a separate room of the gallery. As fellow Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell recounted, “For the majority of the public it was an encounter with Beuys and his motives, with his opinions about sculptural form. For the rest it was another reason to meet each other. Social Life? Did Beuys’ tragic Fluxus chant really set them puzzling? It seemed so for some, then back to lethargy, personal and family talk about day-to-day problems.”(24)
Inherent to The Chief were issues of communication and transformation, underscored by Beuys’ inclusion of the dead hares. For Beuys, his own muffled coughs, breaths, and grunts were his way of speaking for the hares, giving a voice to those who are misunderstood or do not possess their own.(25) Beuys explains this matter-of-factly as “the human responsibility to all living things” implying his utopian wish for social change, giving each person a voice, and making each person an artist.(26) As Tisdall has interpreted, the indecipherable acoustic elements of the action represented an act of communication beyond written or spoken systems, thus generating a mystic communion between Beuys and the dead hares.(27) In the midst of this metaphysical communication and transmission, the audience was left out in the cold. Beuys deliberately distanced the viewers by physically positioning them in a separate gallery room—only able to hear, but not see what is occurring—and by performing the action for a grueling nine hours. It is presumable that few, if any, viewers stayed for the entire duration.
In a similar manner, Beuys’ actions How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf and Coyote ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’ (1974) at René Block Gallery, New York, separate the audience physically and psychologically from the artwork. During How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare the viewers were corralled outside the gallery and could only access the action by peering through the gallery window. In Coyote ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’ Beuys put up a metal gate between himself and the viewer during his weeklong habitation with the coyote. Using these physical and psychological barriers, Beuys placed himself in a position of authority and control as the only true participant of the actions and the only person to reap any sort of transformation from the experience.
In fact, Beuys always exerted authority and control over his presence in the art world. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, in his 1980 essay “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” deconstructs what he terms Beuys’ “myth of origin,” proclaiming the story of Beuys’ plane crash and rescue by the Tartars a “retro-projective fantasy.”(28) Buchloh first delineates that Beuys intentionally constructed the plane crash myth. He cites an inconsistency between the photograph of Beuys (conscious and healthy) next to his crash-landed plane featured in Adriani Goetz’ 1979 monograph and the photographs of a demolished plane purported to be Beuys’ reproduced in Caroline Tisdall’s book published in the same year.(29) Furthermore, Buchloh questions the validity of Beuys’ own detailed account of the experience, as printed in Tisdall’s book, due to the supposed tenuous state of Beuys’ health and consciousness after the crash.(30) This “myth of origin” was an attempt on Beuys’ part to break with his Germanness after the monstrosities of World War II in order to begin the healing process.(31) As Buchloh notes, the myth also served to establish Beuys as a national hero who broke with the past to revitalize German art and Germany’s historic identity, making Beuys destined for fame with valuable and widely collected work.(32)
Beuys’ “myth of origin” was only the beginning of his highly constructed public persona. He fashioned a fictionalized autobiography that merged real life events with metaphorical and spiritual happenings. Additionally, Beuys adopted a signature uniform of a vest and felt hat that he was hardly seen without. Beuys even widely disseminated signed photographs of himself in this garb, further crafting his image as a demagogic figure.(33) From 1961 until 1972, Beuys was professor of monumental sculpture at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. He was dismissed from his position due to the absence of traditional academic requirements in his course—an effort to spread his idea of Social Sculpture and its facilitation of free thought and expression. Students were outraged at Beuys’ discharge and protested across the campus, but to no avail. After his professorship, Beuys continued his pursuits on the German political scene.
While Beuys’ oeuvre and public persona were concerned with the social in terms of bettering the whole of society and promoting universal and utopian ideals, Martin Kippenberger’s approach to the social was more concerned with leisure activities, networking, and the social hierarchy of the German art scene. Born in 1953 in Dortmund, Germany, Kippenberger only became serious about the visual arts in 1976 after moving to Florence in the hopes of becoming an actor. Though unsuccessful, this intent portends his incorporation of theatricality and performativity in his oeuvre and public persona as a visual artist. Kippenberger’s emergence as a prolific, raucous, self-aware, and social artist can best be characterized by his role in the Cologne art scene during the 1980s. Bennett Simpson described Cologne through the 1980s and early 1990s as the “volatile epicenter of the European art world,” known for large neo-expressionist paintings (produced by artists such as the Mülheimer Freiheit group, the Cologne version of the Neue Wilde) and provocative “bad paintings” by artists including Kippenberger.(34) Simpson notes that during this time Cologne was marked by performance, not just performance art, “but artists performing themselves within the social networks of communities of their peers.”(35) As an exemplar of this sensibility, Kippenberger was a “Selbstdarsteller” (self-performer)—a term coined by art historian Diedrich Diederichsen. (36)
As many new art galleries opened in Cologne during the 1980s, an influx of artists and collectors also entered the Cologne art scene. Daniel Birnbaum described the city’s art circles as having their “own social codes,” characterized by “a certain rough sarcasm and a bullying directness. Kippenberger, for example, might be described as bad-mannered in a highly cultured way. His transgressive drinking habits were in no way unique.”(37) Art critic Isabelle Craw proclaimed, “The frankness was at times brutal. Kippenberger, for instance, would always say what he thought, no matter how sexist or insulting.”(38) Critic, curator, and painter Francesco Bonami concurs, “The Cologne art crowd was the ruling class…. Excess and abuse were part of the game.”(39)
In line with the arrogance and excess of his personal life, Kippenberger’s oeuvre is also typified by excessive production, as well as an evasion of stylistic coherence and experimentation with all types of artistic media. Although he died prematurely in 1997 due to liver cancer, in the short twenty-two years that he was an active artist, Kippenberger produced an almost inconceivable amount of paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, photographs, exhibition posters, gallery announcements, and curatorial projects. Kippenberger was in charge of all aspects of his art making, exhibition planning, and self-promotion. At the heart of Kippenberger’s varied endeavors was the construction of the self and the role of the artist in society. Whether he outsourced painting and production to other artists and assistants, appropriated images, or challenged tradition with his lacerating self-portraits (a subject he frequently returned to), Kippenberger always questioned authorship, authority, and identity. Inherent to his challenge of the status quo was an embrace of contradiction and failure. For instance, Kippenberger’s first major installation of sculpture, the predecessor for The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’, was Peter: The Russian Position (1987). To produce this series of sculptures, Kippenberger relied on a complicated chain of production, communication, and networking. Kippenberger encouraged his assistants to make mistakes, misunderstand correspondence, and to visibly show signs of failure and corrections in the finished objects.(40)
Kippenberger’s punk attitude and self-deprecating humor is a perfect foil to Beuys’ shamanism. In fact, Kippenberger creates a dialectic with Beuys acknowledging, even parodying, the infamous mystic in many of his works. Kippenberger readily enjoyed appropriating images and genres from art history and contemporary visual culture; he once stated, “Every picture I see belongs to me the instant I understand it.”(41) Beuys was a favorite subject.(42) In his painting Profit Peaks with Economic Values by Joseph Beuys I (1985), Kippenberger fuses abstract forms and painterly brushstrokes with foodstuffs appropriated from Beuys’ Economic Values (1980) display.(43) By conflating Beuys’ complex and ephemeral installations with the consumable nature of painting, Kippenberger implicates the older artist’s role in the art market through the commodification of his artwork and persona, in spite of his lofty progressive social and artistic goals. Another painting titled Every Artist is a Human Being (1981) depicts a half-nude man in a crucifixion pose leaning over an easel in a direct, and humorous, reference to Beuys’ proclamation of Social Sculpture: “Everyone is an artist.”(44) Kippenberger even wrote his own curriculum vitae, Martin Kippenberger: Life and Work, parodying Beuys’ own eccentric autobiography.
Kippenberger was not only indebted to Beuys for “source material” to execute his appropriations and parodies, but he was also indebted to Beuys’ precedent as and artist who explored and incorporated the social sphere. Kippenberger’s final work of installation art The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ (1994) most notably delves into the social realm through relational aesthetics. Taking Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (begun in 1912-14 and posthumously published in 1927) as a point of departure, Kippenbeger composes numerous vignettes—pairs of tables and chairs facing one another—on a green and white floor mimicking a soccer field, complete with bleachers situated on opposing sides of the turf. Appearing as an absurd theatrical stage set, the installation mixes furniture from different styles and periods of twentieth-century design, works by other artists, and earlier sculptures from Kippenberger’s own oeuvre.
Kafka’s version of Amerika follows the path of Karl Rossmann, a young European immigrant who has just arrived in America after scandal has forced him to leave his native country. Karl searches unsuccessfully for employment until he sees an advertisement for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which promises to find anyone employment within their company. The novel abruptly ends with over-the-top Elysian imagery as Karl, full of hope and excitement, arrives at the Nature Theater of Oklahoma to begin his career. Art historian Doris Krystof described Kafka’s Amerika as, “the first socio-critical manifestation in modernist literature of the burgeoning mass-society under the capitalist system.”(45)
In his installation, Kippenberger continues this criticality by comparing the job search and interview process to a soccer game. Each set of empty table and chairs represents a job interview. The bleachers on either side of the “playing field” are meant for the viewers to occupy. Exemplary of Kippenberger’s signature wit, the arrangement implicates the interview process and the concept of networking, as a competitive game, but also as a spectator sport—a capitalistic spectacle.(46) The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ involves the viewer psychologically by evoking humor or embarrassment since each viewer is engaged in the game/spectacle. Taking the relational concept even further, the bleachers provide an area for viewers to sit, observe, discuss, and interact with one another. As Ann Goldstein stated, Martin Kippenberger was “keenly aware of rank and position, as well as the networks that define and structure social relations, he built systems that connected his life to the lives of others and those lives to each other.”(47)
Joseph Beuys and Martin Kippenberger are widely acknowledged as two of the most important figures in post-war German art. Moreover, their legacies have proven highly influential to the shape of international contemporary art. This influence has developed most strongly from their shared interest in and activation of the viewer’s social sphere, foreshadowing the development of relational aesthetics. However, Beuys and Kippenberger stand in stark contrast to artists that Bourriaud discusses in his book (e.g. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick) who generously, but quite passively, facilitate spaces for social interaction. Both Beuys and Kippenberger were social performers concerned with building, performing, and promoting carefully constructed public personas in promotion of a fixed artistic vision. Therefore, the lineage of these two artists can be better seen from the position taken by Claire Bishop in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” Bishop describes a relational art that maintains the authority of context and artist through a sustained tension. She puts forth examples such as Santiago Sierra’s monetary solicitation of poor immigrants for Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond (2001); unlike the “democratic” relational works that Bourriaud speaks of Bishop’s examples are characterized by an antagonistic relation to the beholder.
The influence of Beuys and Kippenberger can also be seen in the work of Vanessa Beecroft and Maurizio Cattelan. Beecroft’s seminal performance VB 35 (performed in 1998) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, created an antagonistic space where viewers were confronted with nude and scantily-clad fashion models. Arranged like architectural columns, the foreboding group of models made viewers more aware of their own presence and their role as beholder, critically flipping “the gaze” on its head. In a similar fashion, Cattelan activates the space through performative installations. Take, for example, The Ninth Hour (1999), which features a life-sized wax model of Pope John Paul II pinned to the carpet by an apparent fallen meteorite. In kinship with Kippenberger, Cattelan provokes the viewer with wit and irony. In both instances, social interactions are incited through a performative, and even antagonistic, activation of space, viewer, and artwork. Socio-political issues of religion, gender, sexuality, and class are aroused in a pointed way in contrast to the experiences that Bourriaud touts, which are unstructured and fail to provide a context that facilitates significant relational interactions. Artists like Beecroft, Cattelan, and Sierra have taken Beuys’ and Kippenbergers’ approach to the social sphere as a point of departure. While these contemporary artists have not necessarily constructed theatrical personas or personal myths, a similar performative approach and unapologetic criticality is certainly present, and effective, in their art.
(1) Marcel Duchamp, quoted in Robert Lumley, Arte Povera (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 61.
(2) Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon: Les presses du reel, 2002), 19.
(3) Ibid., 13.
(4) Ibid., 16.
(5) Ibid., 13.
(6) Joseph Beuys, quoted in Donald B. Kuspit, “ Beuys: Fat, Felt and Alchemy,” Art in America 68 (May 1980): 79.
(7) Lucrezia de Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys, A Life Told (Milan: Charta, 1997), 22.
(8) Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1979), 23.
(9) Ibid., 72.
(12) Ibid., 23.
(13) Ibid., 6.
(14) Beuys, quoted in Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 6.
(16) Beuys, quoted in Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 72.
(17) Beuys, quoted in Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Art in America: 44.
(18) Richard Langston, “The Art of Barbarism and Suffering,” in Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures, ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (New York: Abrams, 2009), 248.
(19) de Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat, 28.
(20) Beuys, quoted in Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 86.
(21) For instance, Fluxus artist Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed in 1964) directly includes the viewer in the performance. Ono invited members of he audience to approach her and physically cut away her clothing.
(22) Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 94.
(24) Wolf Vostell, quoted in Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 94.
(25) Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Art in America, 42.
(27) Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 94.
(28) Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” in Mapping the Legacy, ed. Gene Ray (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2001), 203.
(29) Ibid., 202.
(32) Ibid., 204.
(33) Jodi Kovach, “Artists and Artworks in the Exhibition: Joseph Beuys,” in Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures, ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (New York: Abrams, 2009), 320.
(34) Bennett Simpson, “Make Your Own Life,” in Make Your Own Life: Artists In and Out of Cologne, ed. Bennett Simpson (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2006), 11.
(37) Daniel Birnbaum, “Ripening on the Rhine: The Cologne Art World of the ‘80s,” Artforum International 41, no. 7 (March 2003): 218.
(38) Isabelle Craw, quoted in Birnbaum, “Ripening on the Rhine,” Artforum: 218.
(39) Francesco Bonami, quoted in Birnbaum, “Ripening on the Rhine,” Artforum: 218.
(40) Diedrich Diederichsen, “The Poor Man’s Sports Car Descending a Staircase: Kippenberger as Sculptor,” in Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, ed Ann Goldstein (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 154.
(41) Martin Kippenberger, quoted in Ann Goldstein, “The Problem Perspective,” in Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, ed. Ann Goldstein (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 39.
(42) Melissa E. Feldman, “The Good Mood Side,” Art in America 97, no.3 (March 2009): 130.
(43) In this work a display of various goods (basic food items, tools, etc.) purchased from East Germany (formerly the German Democratic Republic) are presented on open shelving units. Hanging on the gallery walls behind the installation are paintings drawn from the museum’s collection. The dates of the paintings roughly correspond to Karl Marx’s life (1818 – 1883) and bear gold frames. For Beuys, the simple products on display represented anti-capitalism, while the paintings conversely signified the bourgeois capitalism of the West.
(44) Jessica Morgan, “The Exhibitionist,” in Martin Kippenberger, ed. Doris Krystof and Jessica Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 18.
(45) Doris Krystof, “The Biggest Theater in the World: Complexity and Vacuity in The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’ 1994,” in Martin Kippenberger, ed. Doris Krystof and Jessica Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 26.
(46) Goldstein, “The Problem Perspective,” in Martin Kippenberger, 87.
(47) Ibid., 39.
Reproduction, including downloading of the Beuys works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Lana Shafer Meador received a Bachelor of Arts in English at The University of Texas of Austin and a Master of Arts in Art History at Texas Christian University, where her studies focused on contemporary art. Her Master’s thesis investigates the installation work of Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff and discusses themes of abjection and decadence in the context of postmodernism.
Lana currently lives in San Antonio where she is the Curatorial Assistant for Modern and Contemporary Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art.