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…


#1 ampersand duck on 11.26.10 at 2:33 pm

OK, here’s a challenge.
Write something GOOD about the NGA.
Betcha can’t do it 😉

But yes, when someone spends so much time thinking a placement through, obviously it’s a major component of the piece itself and ought not to be taken lightly.

#2 ampersand duck on 11.26.10 at 2:34 pm

By GOOD, BTW, I should have said POSITIVE… you write beautifully, of course.

#3 Nigel on 11.26.10 at 3:17 pm

I wish I could. I wish someone would, in a way that doesn’t sound like a PR spin (pace Christopher Menz, for example)… But how relieved was I when I visited the AGNSW the other day, and just about everything looked really good. Why is that? Proper columns at the entrance? No, its a combination of space and curatorial judgement. And by contrast to the NGA facelift by Andrew Andersons, Richard Johnson’s Asian Pavilion feels just perfect. And even the curatorial practices (new in the context of old) seems to work against all expectations. The spatiality of the place works for the art, rather than dominating it, reinventing it, or working against it. And it isn’t over-hung…

#4 Quentin on 11.27.10 at 9:53 am

This reminds me of a discussion around conservation of Joseph Kosuth’s work ‘One and Three Chairs’. As the physical version of the chair ages, does it require conservation to bring it back to its original state at the time the artwork was made, or can it simply be replaced by another chair, any chair? Either way the argument can be made that the actual artwork remains the same regardless of its physical parts being replaced. Different work I know. With Beuys I reckon your right – there’s a fine line between re-presenting the ‘work’ and altering it in some way. But, without the artist around to approve further installations, does it mean it can only be shown in the site(s) he established for it?

#5 Nigel on 11.28.10 at 9:46 pm

I’m sure he has an account of it somewhere, but I always understood the three elements of a Kosuth (object, photograph, definition) were all more or less just analogues to the actual dictionary definition (which is what you got if you bought the piece), cut out, adhered to a document, like a share certificate. And so the three elements could indeed be refurbished and replaced, as if they had no intrinsic value, but so long as they maintained the original relationship to each other and to the “original” definition. Then again, this could just be folklore…

#6 skorn on 02.05.13 at 2:32 am

i am late to join the party. did not see this article before.

(as a background information) while i taught at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design we did a lot of research together with curators and designers before the exhibition was installed and later i worked on the exhibition with the curators as an exhibition architect especially concerned with the installations.

please note that if you look closely at the published image from the very first installation made in australia and compare it to what was later installed by the curators – and to what was installed in London before – you can see that Beuys changed the setup accordingly to the direction where the audience was approaching the work from. the image you present here as the ‘australian original’ actually is an adaption by the curators there when they re-installed the work.

the point is that the coats are meant to be seen from the point of entrance. yet when Beuys transferred the work to australia, he added the wooden frame, where he attached the stripes to (unlike in London, where he attached them to the space). so right now stripes and frame are connected as one object. During this process Beuys ‘mirrored’ the whole installation to keep the installation’s composition in balance. he was a visual artist after all. so the problem with the ‘Australien original version’ is that the curators changed the side of the coats, but leave the rest of the installation’s composition intact. so here you neither have Beuys London version, nor the Australien update made by Beuys. therefore in Duesseldorf we designed the whole exhibition trajectory in a way that you approach the work from the left, and have the coats on the right side (where Beuys had put them first when he installed the work in Canberra).

For more details please read the article on exhibition design in the exhibition catalogue or look at the more in detail version of the text published in Displayer04 (www.ausstellungsdesign.hfg-karlsruhe.de > Displayer)

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