Beuys is a catalyst.
Today in the gallery I decided to record what people told me about Beuys. But what they mostly told me wasn’t about Beuys. It was about their lives.
I never found out the name of the man who didn’t want to talk about art. At least he didn’t want me to record his thoughts. But he did tell me that he and his wife were in Bexhill to see a 100 year old relative. “Her life has spanned all of Beuys’ - and more. I wonder what she’d think of all this. She’s very alert and vivacious.” As we gazed out the gallery window at the gleaming white colonnades in front of the Pavillion, I thought about this old woman and her long life. She was already 2 when those colonnades were built in 1911. I thought about all the things she’s seen and heard. I thought about the contributions she has made to the world around her. I thought about her creativity.
I never found out the names of the 2 grandparents or their 2 grandchildren, who stopped in front of Rose for Direct Democracy. “If only I’d known this was here,” said the woman. “I was searching for a red rose to look at for an embroidery I’m making.” I told her about a piece of embroidery I have, made in Ireland by an elderly relative of mine in the 1950s. “That sounds beautiful,” she said. “I do all mine by hand you know. It’s all hand-stitched. Not like lots of people these days who want to use machines.” “You must be very skilful,” I said. “Oh I don’t know,” she said.
I asked the children if they thought Beuys’ rose was real or not. “How would you find out without touching it?” I asked. “Wait until it dies,” said the boy. ‘Then you’d know.” He was about 8 years old.
His grandfather pricked up his ears when I said something about Sled and Beuys being in the German air force during World War II. He started talking about the experience of being bombed out 3 times when he was a youngster in Kensington. He described being evacuated and all the schools having to close down. His grandchildren liked the sound of this! They asked him to tell them more. He did. When he talked about the great loss and pity of it all, I pointed out Beuys’ Samurai Sword, a sword-like length of iron ‘safely’ wrapped in felt. The man paused for thought and then quietly said, “This is very different from the kind of art I was brought up with.” But we hadn’t really been talking about art, had we?
WENDY who invigilates in the gallery told me this: “Most people are mystified. Many deride the work and laugh at it saying, ‘I could do that.’ So I sometimes say, ‘Yes, you probably could.’ And then a conversation begins and life-stories emerge - like the man who said he couldn’t understand these objects but then went on to tell me all about his collection of stones from every place he’s ever visited. For him, it was about the journey of his life. Or the man who scoffed at Neapolitan Ladder but then described in great detail all the technical challenges he had faced in fitting a recycled old garden gate into its new position! Once you help people find a way in then ... then they realise that the work chimes with something in their own life.”
GARY is a total Beuys fan! He said, “I work in a gallery in London. I’m what they used to call a gallery warden but then they decided that sounds too much like a prison. So now I’m called an attendant. I’ve followed Beuys around for years. Madrid, Paris, London ... all over the place. It’s my birthday tomorrow and my wife said, ‘What do you really want to do?’ Well, we both love Bexhill and we both love Beuys. So it was an easy choice! It’s an absolute joy!”
PETER talked about Beuys’ fantastic eye. “It’s the real thing. Every object is beautiful. It’s top, museum-quality stuff. He’s a fraud of course. But he’s got such a good eye!” I asked what he meant by that but he didn’t want to say any more. Just this: “Every object is magnificent.” Peter’s friend wanted to know how the posters were mounted on to their backing. I said I didn’t know. But in the space of a few exchanges I felt I knew something about their lives - that like Gary, they live and breathe for art! You can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm and attention to detail.
GEORGINA has observed all sorts of extreme reactions to the work in her role as invigilator. “Beuys is like Marmite,” she said. “You either love it or you hate it! But I think it’s better to provoke strong reactions than just be all on one level. Some people are coming back again and again.”
STEPHANIE was very self-effacing about her own creativity. But standing in front of Beuys’ Sled, she told me this: “The other night, I put together on a table a little collection of my own things - things that mean something to me: my glass, a CD from my son for my birthday, found objects from the beach, all sorts of things. They say a lot about my inspirations. They’re a snapshot in time. In Majorca, I collected bits of broken glass on the beach. The sea had polished them like jewels. The sea did its job. Then I played a role.” I said, “So you’re an artist, are you?” Stephanie laughed shyly and said, “No no. I ... dabble. Isn’t that what they say?”
Is it? Why?
Please feel free to add your comments here. How does Beuys connect to your life-story?
Just because a story isn’t true, doesn’t mean it lacks truth!
Julian Porter is curator at Bexhill Museum and author of Bexhil-on-Sea: a History as well as a collection of archival photographs of Bexhill and the surrounding area. For Speakers’ Corner today, he took as his theme the fine line between truth and fiction that circumscribes so much of what we think we know about local history. This linked very nicely to Beuys' famous tendency to blur the boundaries between ‘real’ biography and personal mythology.
According to Julian, even the science of etymology is a little hazy when it comes to the place-name Bexhill. It might mean ‘a wood or clearing where box trees grow’ or it might be derived from words meaning ‘windy hill.’ Nobody really knows.
Linking to Beuys and the German connection, Julian talked about “the barrack phase” of the town’s history when, in the early 1800s, thousands of Hanoverian soldiers were billeted in the area. There’s plenty of historical evidence for this. But he also mentioned the local belief that during World War II, a German spy lived in the roof spaces of the De la Warr Pavilion and at night opened the blackout blinds so that the German pilots could see their targets more clearly! It’s a great story. But is it true?
I particularly liked Julian’s account of the ‘discovery’ of coal in the Bexhill area during the early 1800s. In fact, it wasn’t coal at all but that didn’t stop the promoters of this venture insisting that it was! In the end, they lost all their money but not before they’d persuaded many otherwise sensible and rational people to invest in a seam of coal that didn’t even exist!
Most of this fascinating conversation centred on the theme of smuggling - a form of ‘alternative’ economy that I can’t help thinking Beuys would have applauded. But as Julian pointed out, it’s easy to romanticise a trade in contraband goods that in reality was underpinned by violence and intimidation.
There’s plenty of hard evidence for the existence of smuggling networks in the Bexhill area. Some of the main smuggling families even kept account books, which can be seen in Bexhill Museum’s collection. (I couldn’t help thinking about our contemporary Banking trade with it’s meticulous records and dodgy principles!) But there’s also a good deal of folklore surrounding the subject as well as plenty of just plain nonsense! Julian was careful to emphasise that local folklore is a precious thing and should be recorded and celebrated. Actually, the word lore means ‘knowledge.’ But it’s a very different kind of knowledge than the stuff we derive from documentary evidence.
On the question of the complex network of secret underground tunnels that are said to have enabled the traffic of contraband goods from place to place in the Bexhill area, Julian said that he has yet to see one with his own eyes! A woman from the audience said, “We have a passage leading to and from our cellar but it’s been filled in.” Julian pointed out that Bexhill’s geology wasn’t conducive to the digging and maintaining of extensive tunnels but the woman wasn’t deterred. “Our house is built on sandstone!” she said. Interestingly, she described deeds she has in her possession which name the owners of her house in the Old Town going right back to 1733. She wondered whether any of these names might match the names of known smugglers as recorded in the Museum’s collection of records. Julian thought this was worth looking into but he also pointed out that some of these so called ‘tunnels’ might well be the remains of a sophisticated system of drainage channels in the area.
Smuggler’s tunnels or drainage channels? Rescued by nomads or found by a search commando? Which makes the best, most resonant story?
Beuys claimed that his 1961 series of drawings Ulysses Extension was carried out “at James Joyce’s request.” Joyce died in 1941!
As the Irish storytellers used to say at the start of a story, “I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s a lie. But if it’s a lie, it wasn’t me that made it up. So you can’t call me a liar!”
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a major influence on Beuys’ thinking wrote that we can only contribute to the progress of humanity when we give up our dependence on ‘proofs’ in favour of ‘the unfathomable dreams of truth.’ On the other hand ... if you DO know of any hard evidence for the existence of a smuggler's tunnel in the area, please get in touch with Bexhill Museum immediately so that Julian can see it with his own eyes!
Please feel free to tell your Bexhill story here. Don’t worry if you can’t provide evidence!