PRINT December 2007

Tacita Dean

AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER, the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt closed for renovation. Among its natural history displays and eclectic art collection are the seven rooms devoted to an installation by Joseph Beuys referred to, by the artist himself, as Block Beuys, 1970–86. The whole museum is being redeveloped, but it is the decision to remove the brown jute wall coverings and gray carpet of the Block Beuys rooms that has caused disquiet in so many quarters.

The Landesmuseum is an old-fashioned cultural museum, and Block Beuys is to be found on the second floor. Before getting there, you can wander through rooms of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons, shabby suspended birds, and stuffed rodents—not inappropriate bedfellows for an artist known for his love of the natural sciences. There are also famous dioramas where zebra stripes have faded to dull monochrome and long-caught mammals are bunched together in dusty herds. Protected by the state, these natural history anachronisms are also posing a conservation nightmare for the museum.

Installed by Beuys himself over many years, Block Beuys has to be his most important grouping of works. The seven rooms house many major sculptures, including Fond III, 1969, for which he layered large pieces of copper and felt; Das Erdtelephon (Earth Telephone), 1967; Jungfrau (Virgin), 1961; and Auschwitz Demonstration, 1956–64, one of the twenty-three vitrines that occupy the smaller rooms. Every wall, corner, or piece of floor has been considered by the artist; works lean, hang, or are placed against the jute, so that brown felt is often set against brown wall: Nothing is incidental. In fact, it feels complete and uninterrupted, precisely because of the cohering effect and atmosphere created by the jute walls and carpet. They also—and this is especially important to Beuys—mute the rooms acoustically: no live reverberations but a dull and satisfactory cushioning of all movement, a literal deadening of the space.

Beuys’s work was first installed in Darmstadt in 1970 as part of the collection of Karl Ströher, a local resident and the cosmetics manufacturer behind Wella hair products. The rooms allocated by the museum were provisional, pending the building of a brand-new annex that Ströher had insisted upon for his collection. They were redecorated, and the Bordeaux red jute of the former medieval and baroque painting galleries was replaced (in some places merely covered over) with a more sober brown hessian and the floor newly carpeted in pale gray. When the annex was eventually built, Beuys, tellingly, refused to move from the rooms on the second floor. He continued to visit his installation many times over the following years, adding and changing things. In fact, after Ströher’s death in 1977, when most of his collection was sold to the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Beuys took over a seventh room, which had previously housed paintings by Andy Warhol. The space was redecorated in a jute paler than the other six rooms, and here Beuys felt settled enough to install his Transsibirische Bahn (Trans-Siberian Railway), 1961, and to paint a yellow line directly onto the carpet. Following some doubts about its future, Block Beuys was eventually acquired by the Hessisches Kulturstiftung in 1989 and has remained untouched ever since, down to the finest detail.

Although the installation has lost most of the pungent smell it apparently once had, it is still a visceral and intense experience. Apart from the comparative emptiness of the first gallery, the rooms are packed full. You feel the excess and freedom the artist allowed himself within the parameters of these spaces, and the intimacy they afforded, too. The installation is a public manifestation of thought and practice, uncurtailed by the sort of considerations that stymie artists today—the interventions of the market, questions of ownership, and the unlikelihood of ever being allowed back to meddle with your own work after it is in the hands of the museum. Of course, these were freedoms born of the times—but this is exactly what these particular rooms carry over: a sense of the private space in a public realm where all the contemporaneity and energy of the making is imbued in the walls that house it. I will admit to never having been a particular follower of Beuys’s work—aesthetically, I was drawn elsewhere—but these rooms were a revelation to me and made me think again; they turned my head, as it were, because I found myself attracted to his work through the place. It is, or was, a place quite unlike anywhere else.

So this is the Hessisches Landesmuseum’s appalling dilemma. It is faced with a conservation crisis. Beuys’s work does need some restoration. The walls throughout the museum are damp and need sorting out. The jute is bare in places and has been patched at varying times and with varying hues of jute. The carpet, which in the first room bears Beuys’s yellow line, is wearing out. All architectural and conservation opinion points to a major overhaul of Block Beuys. The museum has a responsibility to protect the work’s legacy and feels compelled to act. On November 30, 2006, it announced it would take down the jute, paint the walls with white Gargano lime, and uncover the parquet floor, although the issue of the painted line on the carpet is still unresolved. The museum would then bring back the newly restored Block Beuys and reposition every piece exactly as it was before. The announcement has caused such upset and discussion in Germany that there is now going to be a symposium, in February, on its restoration.

The museum has always stated categorically that Beuys never made mention of the jute walls in any existing documentation, and that therefore they are not pertinent to any restoration decision. It may well be the case that Beuys never mentioned the walls, but this should not be relevant. Artists, particularly an artist like Beuys, have always worked in relation to their environment, especially with such a gradual and deliberate installing of works as Block Beuys. And brown was his color, after all. Are we not a bit dissatisfied with the denatured whiteness of many showings of his work? The museum argues, perhaps correctly, that if it were to renovate the jute on the walls, it would imply intent on Beuys’s part, that the jute was part of his decision for the work. So the debate becomes about the increasing indeterminability of intent over time and the implied amnesia. Of the three options being discussed—to leave it as it is, to re-create the jute walls and carpet, or to paint the walls white and uncover the parquet floor—I would wish for the first, where both art, and the hessian world that surrounds it, are left to fade away gently at the same rate of change: discreet museum entropy of the early twenty-first century. But it seems unlikely that the museum will agree to do nothing. Therefore, I would favor the remaking of the jute walls—the faux intent of Joseph Beuys. Acoustically, it is essential, but also because I feel strongly that Block Beuys is no longer separable from its earth brown world. A painted white space is just wrong; it would mean the tragic stripping away of the uniqueness and completeness of a great work. Intended or not intended, it’s a small lie to tell.

Tacita Dean is a Berlin-based artist.