Revisiting Joseph Beuys’ Most Famous Work.
By Alex Stubbs: Arts Columnist
In 1974, German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys set out on an audacious experiment: to spend three consecutive days in the same room as a wild coyote.
Landing in New York City Beuys was met by his assistants, who proceeded to wrap him in felt and drive him by ambulance – sirens and all – to Rene Block Gallery in SoHo. It was inside the gallery’s white walls that Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me would be actioned, and it was there that Beuys would spend the following days attempting to coexist with the coyote.
Beuys, shepherd’s crook in hand and cloaked in his felt blanket, communed with the coyote in a flux of submissiveness and aggression. There are moments in the film footage of the performance where the coyote even appears as a companion to Beuys; there are other moments where, unsurprisingly, the coyote rips and claws at Beuys felt covering, a reminder that we are in fact witnessing a wild animal dropped into a severely urban and un-wild environment. In a quasi-shamanistic ritual that put Beuys at the centre of one of the most provocative performance pieces of the 1970s, what was capable in art – particularly conceptual and performance art – was once again redefined.
As far as Beuys was concerned, there were no boundaries in art making. To him, everyone was capable of making art: “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST,” he wrote, a position he would remain vigilant on for the rest of his career and one that would heavily inform I Like America and America Likes Me. Through his work, Beuys aimed to encourage the collaboration of the audience with his materials. In I Like America it is the audience’s spectatorship rather than any physical intervention that defines their collaboration.
With the audience physically removed from the encounter, we are left to question the position of their gaze. The idea of the gaze has dominated art history for the past century, and is a question that Hal Foster examines in his book “Bad New Days,” where he writes: “For Lacan, animals are simply caught in the gaze of the world; they are only on display there.” In I Like America, the coyote is indeed on display. Though Beuys is able to break down the barrier between display and interaction, the audience cannot; they are left to gaze at the animal, treating it as both subject and spectacle.
Foster continues: “Humans are not so reduced to this “imaginary capture,” for we have access to the symbolic.” With this understanding, Beuys is able to “moderate and manipulate” the gaze. By remaining intertwined with the coyote in a performative and physical engagement, Beuys manipulates the audience to interact with him and the coyote. This manipulation is a tool he used to encourage collaboration, but also one that was powerful in addressing socio-political struggles he saw as fundamental to the American problem.
“Only art,” he wrote in a statement from 1973, a year before his encounter with the coyote, “is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline.” Art, he thought, was the only tool that would eventually change society for the better. It makes sense then that Beuys’ performance would take place in the US. American writer Jack Burnham considered that Beuys “saw the same sicknesses, or similar sicknesses, in the United States as he did in Germany and in Europe.” Beuys was acutely aware of the socio-political problems in the US. The Vietnam War was still fresh on the nation’s collective conscience, and the Watergate scandal was emerging as the latest political saga to strike the nation.
Of course, sitting in a room with a coyote for three days wasn’t going to fix these problems; for Beuys, though, it was a way of engaging critically with them. The action brought attention to the need, as Beuys saw it, to rehabilitate the relationship between America and its native people, with the coyote acting as the symbol of a restored order.
Now, almost 50 years on from the performance, what can Beuys’ performance teach us about contemporary American society? There is certainly an argument to be made that society hasn’t really changed all that much at all. Last year’s summer of social unrest was an indication that the US is still struggling with its history, whilst governmental decisions over land ownership and the exploitation of native peoples is indicative of a nation divided.
By sitting alone with the coyote, Beuys believed he would be able to view America nakedly; a nation exposed to itself and innocent in the flesh. “I wanted to isolate myself,” he claimed, “insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.” In 1974 Beuys saw a divided nation, one that it was still possible to heal. Looking at America today we see much the same. Art needs its modern Beuys, much like America still desperately needs its coyote.