Beuys – or the myth, still
Beuys died more than thirty years ago and, in more than thirty years, his legacy has not been properly researched. Which is not the outcome of the indifference or disinvestment in such endeavor. Actually, there have always been people who wanted and tried to understand Beuys. However, everything remains open. Beuys is still – until when? – a case that needs to be filed, a wound ready to be healed. After all, what do we know in 2018 that we didn’t in 1986?
Right off the bat, one needs to say that Veiel’s documentary adds little or nothing to this work of research – as far as we are concerned, that is not the intent either. It is fundamentally a propositional exercise, which does not go beyond the mere hypothesis. (This is the director’s hypothesis, at this particular moment). It is a half-essay half-documentary and, therefore, the surpassing of this innate need for completeness – perhaps the only exit of Veiel, when confronted with such a wide and rich amount of archived material or, ultimately, with the complexity and the fallibility of an assembly that goes after the beginning, the middle and the end of a story that was actually lived. It should be noted that the essay-like approach, although it appears as the most comfortable option, always involves a certain amount of risk – and, especially, when the intention is not properly clarified.
But, all of a sudden, the sequence by thematic association is suspended: abruptly, just because, a glimmer of chronological linearity confuses those who had been convinced with the dilettantism that had happened so far. Well, given the inconsistency and having to rate it, I would immediately decide to give it two stars – or two and a half stars, who knows, something better thought. However, diverging from the great critical mass, the deviation does not afflict me, the imbalance or the reverie in question do not affect me that much. I’m sure that I’m not the only one longing for the shakiness of the epiphanic failure, that absolutely vital fall – the imminence of disaster, as Deleuze would say. However, and converging here now, I’m considerably afflicted by the absence of the contextualizing matter (actually, not as much as the idea of quantitative evaluation, the typical star-based deliberation). Beuys seems to have fallen from the sky, disciple of no one, turned into a master without a reason why – no free spirit is as free like that. That is to say: and what about Steiner, the beginning? Mataré, and so forth… and, even before, the beginning of the beginning: where is Goethe, Schiller, Novalis? I knew it afterwards. Which is commendable – Veiel’s merit, the stimulus.
It is chaotic, but it doesn’t lose its fascinating appeal because of it. It is fascinating, more or less fascinating, to the extent that is Beuys. One should say, moreover, that the documentary grabs us by the presence of the artist, an uber, shamanic, even magnetic figure. Beuys is, by himself, half the battle to reach Veiel: although the plan is anything but clear, the bet is basically won before the kickoff. It is likely that the director realized this already in an advance stage of the process. Something that would justify, perhaps, the reformulation of the first montage: according to him, the initial version included only thirty-five per cent of archive material of and with the artist, prioritizing what had been designed for the purpose, plentiful in interview, giving the word to the intermediary; the final version, which now reaches us, has about ninety-five per cent of that material, reducing to a minimum the time dedicated to indirect speech (to the point where, in one or another moment, it warps contribution of the interviewee).
Beuys dominates, enthralls: the dug and invariable hallucinated gaze, the asymmetric nose, the huge smile, one that transfigures him – an almost cadaveric semblance, visibly wretched, which only favors the mystification project. It must be said that, in Veiel, Beuys is all myth: the narrative uncritically plunges into that original myth, a war trauma that one supposes to be manufactured – or, at least, dramatized – by the artist. Crimea, 16/3/1944: a serious accident at the service of the nation, his aircraft is shot down, not much was left of the other soldier. At that time, he flies as a radio operator for the Luftwaffe. There he is, literally falling from the sky – shot into shape, he says – and then saved by the Tatar community, who had covered him with animal fat and wrapped in a blanket of felt (when told by him, we want to believe, we can only believe). Because life feeds art, art feeds life, all of that: the fat in the corner of the room, placed on the chair, the father’s margarine plant, the theory of sculpture, of the determination by the action of heat, the application of the force, the form; the rolled felt, that suit, the wrapped piano, the Jew who had his hair stolen, always the body, the guilt, a trial for the cure; in any case, this presence, the performative act, the principle of communion, another form of mourning, of fighting, the laughter – the revolution is only done with laughter, he guarantees. It’s the art of politics, that is what is written – but is there another?
Veiel revives a story already told, but never solved – that thing of being ahead of time is to be, during and after, a case that needs to be filed. This is the usual compliment of transgression, the eternal unfolding the myth: l’enfant terrible, l’agent provocateur, the clown, difficult to resist. It is a documentary about the persona before the work, 107 minutes of the man who made the artist – between photography, video and audio in German or in English, mostly in black and white. In the end, just one work: life itself, the open wound. Der Mann am Haupthebel.
Beuys died more than thirty years ago, and for more than thirty years, all art was Beuys. And if today we get goosebumps, perhaps it still is – somehow, more or less as a paradigm, turned into a starting axiom.