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Post-human and Pre-modern
Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys Meet at the Deutsche Guggenheim

At the Deutsche Guggenheim, Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys will be presented together in a single exhibition for the very first time. All in the present must be transformed – Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys draws attention to surprising aspects the superstar of American art and the social visionary from Germany have in common. Harald Fricke on Vaseline, surreal stagings of the body, and changing states of matter.

Matthew Barney, from Cremaster 3,
©Mattew Barney, Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery,
Photo: Chris Winget

The idea came about by chance. When Matthew Barney concluded his Cremaster Cycle in 2003 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York with a spectacular résumé of his previous work, curator Nancy Spector noticed a surprising similarity between this presentation and Joseph Beuys' first retrospective in America. Beuys had also used the entire museum building in order to frame a kind of overview of his artistic biography in 24 stages. In Barney's case, the single episodes of the five Cremaster films made between 1994 and 2002 seemed to unite to form a gesamtkunstwerk.

Portrait Joseph Beuys, 1979,
Photo: Mary Donlon,
©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Do other links exist? Three years later, in close collaboration with Barney, Spector developed an exhibition for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin that formulates a number of parallels between the superstar of contemporary art and Beuys, who died in 1986. It begins with the vitrines of relics Beuys and Barney have used to document their performances. Both have frequently used drawing to formulate instructions and create detail studies for sculptures, installations, and actions. And there are even similarities between the materials each of them have used: Beuys' fat, and Barney's abundant use of Vaseline.
Additionally, both Beuys and Barney have staged themselves excessively before the camera: one as an unreachable master of ceremonies with a touch of Zen , the other in continuously changing masquerades of an imaginary artist ego. There's no question: just as Beuys had a preference for grand gestures during his performances in order to conjure up a utopia that reconciles nature and spirit, so too does Barney, student of Post-modernism that he is, savor the deconstructionist game of costume and quote.

Matthew Barney during the installation of The CREMASTER Cycle at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2003,
Photo: David Heald,
©Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

At the same time, the current exhibition is also proof of the consistent collecting efforts of the New York Guggenheim Museum, which possesses over 70 works by Beuys as well as a number of different objects Barney produced while realizing Cremaster 3. In addition, the museum was a concrete component of the film: in Cremaster 3, the entire spiral-shaped building serves as a stage over which the artist moves as though in a computer game, presented at each floor with new difficulties that he has to overcome. Barney presumably chose the location for its symbolic content: at the highpoint of his career, the artist conquers the center of the art world.

On the other hand, in 1979, Beuys smilingly accepted the museum coronation as "greatest European artist alive," as critics wrote in reference to his New York retrospective. He had long since understood that what counted in his work wasn't its success in the art establishment or on the gallery market, but its continuous transformation into "social sculpture." For this reason, his project 7,000 Oaks of three years later challenged Rudi Fuchs, director of documenta 7, far more than any solo exhibition could have: 7,000 basalt steles were to be unloaded in front of the Fridericianum in Kassel. Slab by slab, the gigantic mountain was then dissembled over the next five years – with each stele acting as a marker for a newly planted tree. The last basalt slab was removed at the opening of documenta 8 in June of 1987. Beuys had already been dead for 18 months, yet his vision of an art that extends into life and its social processes had survived him.

Matthew Barney, CREMASTER 2, 1999, Photo: Ellen Labenski
©Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York,
©2006 Matthew Barney

Luckily, in the Berlin show, Spector has done without all the legends that can crop up in the context of this particular coupling. The result is neither an homage – either to Beuys or to Barney – nor a struggle among giants, but a circumspect approach. The influences in Barney's work are far too vast to allow for a direct comparison. His films and performances abound with references ranging from the water ballet of a Busby Berkeley to an MTV aesthetic to splatter films; his drawings evince surreal bodily fantasies, while his sculptures and installations are influenced by Minimal Art. Barney clearly wasn't thinking of Beuys when he appeared in the role of the executed murderer Gary Gilmore for his Cremaster films, or as an apprentice who would like to be accepted to the Freemasons. Asked at the opening talk about this juxtaposition with Beuys, his response was unmistakable: "Without Nancy, I wouldn't have felt very comfortable."

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