When is a Beuys not a Beuys?

To what extent can a work of art – like this Joseph Beuys – be rearranged? This is the Joseph Beuys from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, currently on loan to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. One of the NGA’s many many masterpieces. Now compare the arrangement above with the image from the NGA website below – which was first installed under the direction of the artist himself, down to the fine details of how the entrance to the space was to be (re)built.

I have it on good authority that the floorplan of the space is the same as the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London where it was originally displayed in its 1980 manifestation, and from whom it was purchased. And that Beuys required the NGA to take down a wall/door and rebuild it before it was opened for viewing. Then how at first you could walk through it (as it was in London), but within a few days the viewer was constrained, and it became a bit like viewing a diorama, from a limited space at the end of the room. This work, titled Stripes from the house of the shaman 1964-72, (1980) is now on show in Europe now for the first time, according to the KN-W.

The complicated dates suggests that either there was an earlier version, or that Beuys had thought about it for eight years, and then taken another eight years to get around to making it (in London, finally). At first I wondered whether it was another version, because (a) it looks a bit different and (b) I could find no reference to the NGA in either the website text or the slideshow of this Beuys exhibition at the KN-W. Something seemed not quite right…

The image above is how the NGA last installed it, in the Droopy Fluffy Liquid Plastic Puffy Squishy Moulded section of its the recent Soft Sculpture exhibition. Not its finest hour. And so I’m having an authenticity moment here. It’s a work of (visual) art, right? So how it looks must be significant, yes? But how much can you vary how a work of art looks before it becomes a different work of art, or not a work of art? Yes, you could argue that this is a work of art that comprises 15 (or so) elements and that the important thing is the material and fetishistic/symbolic qualities of the elements, and that their spatial relationships are relatively immaterial to our aesthetic response… But would this still be a Beuysian concept? Maybe, but where’s the evidence? Given that he was pernickety about the first arrangement, it seems unlikely.

Hands up those who think it’s OK to take such liberties with the installation? I guess it all depends what the artist had to say about such things, or whether there are examples of him allowing others to arrange his works. It seems unlikely to me, given that we know he was very specific about spatial effects when it was first installed at the NGA. So is this another one of those (usually posthumous) curatorial decisions? As, more infamously, in the case of The Aboriginal Memorial. So when is a Beuys (or any other work of art) not a Beuys (or any other work of art)? Answer: when you fiddle with it too much…