Currently The Elephant in the Room – Sculptures of the Marx Collection and of the Collection of the Nationalgalerie on display at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin amongst major names such as Absalon, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, Rachel Whiteread includes lots of work by Beuys, including the famous Das Kapital Raum.
By the mid-twentieth century the concept of the shaman had been transformed into a metaphor for the artist. One of the most ancient of human practices is driven by an authentic internal source in order to move human consciousness forward. Some artists have found the ideas behind shamanism liberating and the resurgence of shamanic tradition as a necessity to solve contemporary issues on a personal and planetary level. The artists can ascend or descend into realms of unconsciousness unavailable to others and bring back gifts for the community in the forms of works of art. This recent phenomenon of alternative forms of shamanic practices is referred to as Neo-Shamanism.
Joseph Beuys, a major figure of the postwar German avant-garde, was the most famous neo-shaman in Western art history. Self-identification with shaman role is clearly visible in his installations and performances were Beuys actively uses ancient materials such as felt, fat, honey, blood, and dead or live animals. The artist’s commitment to felt was inspired by his thoughts of the insulation properties of this material not only ‘for the physical warmth… namely spiritual or evolutionary warmth or a beginning of evolution’.
In 1974 with the action I Like America, America Likes Me the artist highlights our alienation from. nature and questions the purpose of humanity. The artist explained:
“My intention is obviously not to return to such earlier cultures but to stress the idea of transformation and substance. That is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic … while shamanism marks a point in the past, it also indicates a possibility for historical development”.
On a personal note, I have been fascinated with his felt pieces – always embracing rough, undyed wool, just like directly from a nomadic yurt, stuck in rolls just like they are ready to be moved, basic stitching ready to be removed; viscerally permeated with rods.
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