Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 4 - 'Plight' by Joseph Beuys

This was my first 'primary experience' with the work of Joseph Beuys and one of those pieces that ‘woke me up’ to the potential of what art could be. I had already seen his work in a book at my University (then a Polytechnic) Library and came across this installation during an Art Department trip to London in 1985. The Anthony d’Offay gallery is a small, but hugely influential, private gallery just off New Bond Street. I always checked it out when on art trips to London – it is now open ‘by appointment only’, which is an elitist shame – but back in the day I saw the work of quite a few artists that would become firm favourites of mine, including Richard Long, Cy Twombly, Howard Hodgkin and Maurizio Cattelan.

After a long coach journey followed by the then novel experience of the London Tube, the traffic noise, the hustle and bustle of the streets, the vibration and low roar of the city – then entering this little gallery and as the door swung closed behind me: absolute quiet… The entire space was lined, floor to ceiling, with thick vertical rolls of grey felt that completely sound-proofed the gallery. The still silence gave the impression of being elsewhere, and the thick rolls of felt implied the tree trunks of a dense woodland. The only other components of the installation were a grand piano, with a blackboard on top of it and a small medical thermometer on top of that.

Plight does what an installation should do. It completely alters the space, both aesthetically and emotionally, whilst working with it. This then alters anyone entering the space, and in this case the presence of the viewer(s) directly affects the space and the installation… The piano is locked closed (though I thought I had seen it open on my visit) and the blackboard is blank – these elements seem to represent unrealised potential, or ideas that will never become things… and then you think about what the thermometer may mean. Well, thermometers are used by doctors to diagnose fever and a raised temperature usually implies sickness of some sort. Also, thermometers respond to their environment, but without sentience.

To me, the thermometer is at the core of this work’s genius. After thinking hard, you become aware that although it is cold outside, it is really quite warm in the gallery, because felt is such a good insulating material, not only against sound but for heat too… then you realise that there have been other visitors before you and each one has left behind their body heat, raising the temperature just a little. The thermometer records this tiny and gradual increase and becomes a form of memory for the installation.

Joseph Beuys was a founding member of the Green Party in Germany and was a very politically active artist, though he was more akin to a shaman. In light of this, you then realise that Plight is an environment, and our very presence within it has altered that environment. We have not interfered, we have not ‘done’ anything except exist with the environment. Just by being here, we alter our environment. On a small scale, Plight is a metaphor for global warming and the incremental impact that the human race has on our entire environment.

Plight is good art at its best.

In my humble opinion, Joseph Beuys could be the greatest artist of all time (depending on what day you ask me), and although I think he created works that are even better than this, such as his 'Coyote' performance in 1974 and its related works, I have chosen this piece for My Top Ten Pieces Of Art because of the whole experience I had of it, first hand, during the formative years of my artistic consciousness. In the autumn of 1985, I left the Anthony d’Offay gallery with a lot of profound thoughts, and in exchange, I left a little of my body heat – Plight remembered me and I remember Plight very clearly to this day.

There is a lovely website hosted by the Walker Arts Centre about 'multiples' by Joseph Beuys.

I also talk about the work of Joseph Beuys in the book Evolution of Western Art

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