View of “Beuys Brock Vostell,” 2014.

View of “Beuys Brock Vostell,” 2014.

“Beuys Brock Vostell”

View of “Beuys Brock Vostell,” 2014.

This ambitious, extensively researched exhibition, “Beuys Brock Vostell,” curated by Peter Weibel with Eckhart Gillen, takes as its starting point several collective actions in which Joseph Beuys, Bazon Brock, and Wolf Vostell participated. These include the international Fluxus Festival der Neuen Kunst (Festival of New Art) in Aachen, Germany, in July 1964, a pioneering live television broadcast from Düsseldorf in December of the same year, and finally the Happening 24 Stunden (24 Hours) at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany, in June 1965, which also included Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Eckart Rahn, and Tomas Schmit. Throughout this midnight-to-midnight performance, each artist engaged in a signature action—Beuys interacted with a wedge of fat, Vostell stabbed pieces of raw meat, and Brock performed one of his hallmark headstands.

The trio’s explicit collaborations between 1964 and 1965 were really the crossroads of their individual, and in many ways distinct, trajectories. The show thus offers with its triple focus an arresting perspective on the political and artistic contours of West Germany as refracted through the practice of these three artists, who were working at the intersection of art, activism, and pedagogy. The inclusion of Brock, the least known of the three, whose work may best be described as that of an engaged thinker and critic, highlights pedagogy in particular, shifting the frequent emphasis on Beuys’s and Vostell’s materials to a more theoretical expression of the artistic and political milieu out of which their work emerged. A time line running down the center of the gallery floor indicates key events, among them the first television emissions in the Federal Republic of Germany (1952), the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961), the height of student activism (1968), and the Vietnam War (1964–75).

Attention to each artist’s reflection on the Holocaust is a conspicuous aspect of the curation. Most significantly, the complete installation of Vostell’s first environment, Schwarzes Zimmer (Black Room), 1958–59—a darkened, semi-enclosed space illuminated by blinking a spotlight from Auschwitz—wrestles with what he then called the “German outlook.” From the same perspective, a three-channel video installation documenting the Festival of New Art, at the thematic and spatial heart of the show, emphasizes how Brock provoked the student audience by playing a recording of Joseph Goebbels’s speech on total war; Vostell in his Happening Nie wieder – never – jamais, 1964, evoked the photographic documentation of Nazi atrocities published in the book We Have Not Forgotten, 1939–1945; and Beuys’s experiment with fat, a hot plate, and chemicals culminated in the well-known photographs of his bloodied face.

However, it is clear that the immediate context of West Germany in the 1960s and ’70s was the artists’ primary preoccupation. Perhaps the most striking component of the exhibition is a realization of Vostell’s environment Das Ei (Das Flugzeug ist das Ei in der Hand des Himmels) (The Egg [The Airplane Is the Egg in the Hand of the Sky]), 1977, fulfilling for the first time much of the artist’s original conception. When proposed for Documenta 6, the installation of a Starfighter jet atop the Kunsthalle Fridericianum was rejected. Here in Karlsruhe, the aircraft hangs dauntingly over the entire show. Like the visitors to Documenta could, one can step into the shallow water of a twilight environment plastered with a picture cycle adapted from Goya’s so-called black paintings. On these walls, fourteen televisions are mounted, playing—now as then—current international news. Within this show’s provocative curation, today’s news on yesterday’s TVs vividly juxtaposes the conflicts between both Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Gaza, and the devastation wrought by the Ebola virus in West Africa with the “German Autumn” of 1977, depicted in the then-current footage that accompanied the original exhibition. Such tensions are altogether appropriate to the ZKM, a former munitions factory and today a center for the study of art and media. “Beuys Brock Vostell” is historic, especially insofar as it achieves the extraordinary and unsettling conjunction of history, politics, and artistic production to which the artists themselves were devoted over half a century ago.

Caroline Lillian Schopp