Beuys is an engaging documentary biopic of the provocative visual and performance artist Joseph Beuys. Premiering as part of the Berlinale competition, the film makes a pretty strong case for the artist’s preeminent importance in the post-WW2 art world. Yet, Beuys was not only an artist, but a politician, too, believing that all people could use art as a social tool within which to change the world. We talked to the director Andres Veiel about what inspired him to make the movie, how Beuys was ahead of his time and how his ideas are still relevant today.
Beuys was provocative. He says in the film to throw away the pieces of art and think about the ideas of art.
SLEEK: You say that Beuys was like “a hero” to you. Can you explain why?
Andres Veiel: I grew up in a suburb of Stuttgart. Petit-bourgeois. Everybody was taking care about clean roads. So to think about a “fat corner,” in Stuttgart is impossible. Beuys was provocative. He broke up the walls of the museum. He says in the film to throw away the pieces of art and think about the ideas of art. This challenged me and my friends. Beuys was behind like a godfather, inspiring us to provoke these stiff and stubborn structures of this suburb of Stuttgart.
He was also an antipode during these years to the RAF. In Stuttgart at that time, the trial of the Bader Meinhoff gang took place. People were very dogmatic. He was opening the windows, in a way, putting oxygen into both reaches of the bourgeois and this dogmatic, left, radical way of thinking. This was a good impulse for me and my friends to find our own way in-between.
Do you think Beuys was ahead of his time?
Yes, that was one of the reasons to make this film. For me it was a rediscovery in 2008/2009. There was a show at Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof. It was an inciting moment when I saw two or three films of his on the monitor. He was talking about money flow and describing the conditions of the financial crisis. Money flows increasing by themselves, detached from the production sphere. And we have bubbles, and these bubbles will burst. Profits are privatised, very few will take the profits, and losses are socialised. And that’s a sphere out of our democratic control.
So he was encouraging me to go into the issue. Even if it’s economics. I couldn’t say I was dealing a lot with economics before. I felt that the financial crisis was like a wake-up call that I had to deal with as an artist. Then I thought, why not just make a film about my godfather?
We’re in gloomy dark times, so its hard to laugh. But I think sometimes humour is not only an escape but a source of strength.
What would Beuys do now? Would he be on Twitter?
He would argue. He believed in the very end that even if it took hours, months, years, he could convince somebody. I think he would find a new party, but at least he would go to Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) and talk to them, believing in the better argument. It’s a question of “how do you want to spend your lifetime?” He really believed, that by his presence, he would reach someone who was lost in other spheres of prejudice.
Do you think that the left-wing and the art world, unlike Beuys, has lost the ability to laugh?
Ja. OK we’re in gloomy dark times, so it’s hard to laugh. But I think sometimes humour is not only an escape, but a source of strength. If we laugh, we are not stiff and stubborn. Humour, even if it’s close to the abyss, to the black hole, is a source of energy.
The Seven Thousand Oaks is an example of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Do you think there are any artists today who are carrying on this spirit and sense of scale?
In fact yesterday, I learned in Chicago, someone will plant 7000 oaks. The spirit of Beuys is still floating by itself. It’s still present in many parts in the world. This is good, because we need this Gesamtkunstwerk. If people are willing to pick up something, willing to get connected to what I call this battery, then this film is a good chance to get connected to this battery. From dealing with Beuys and dealing with new things. Not just celebrating a hero of the past century, but taking his spirit and taking it to the next century.