There was quite a steady flow of people in the gallery last Saturday at the Beuys exhibition. Some visitors were visibly enjoying studying the posters and someone told me how much they liked looking at the Braunkreuz drawings.

One question raised was how did Beuys get started as an artist? It turned out that the questioner wished to know how his career was able to take off, not how did he become an artist in the first place. Interest was also evident in Beuys’ materials, specifically felt and why he chose to use grey felt so often in the work. “I like America and America likes me” – the piece where Beuys lived with a coyote in a gallery in New York – was another work that people were keen to talk about, evidence that it has a special place in people’s enthusiasm for Beuys.

One visitor, who told me that she had spent the last twenty-five years researching Beuys’ work, when approached with an invitation to come along to Speaker’s Corner questioned the validity of the idea of this event in relation to Beuys. She found it rather ‘peripheral’ to his oeuvre and saw little connection to Beuys’ own practices of encouraging dialogue amongst people, choosing to describe his Office for Direct Democracy, for example, as ‘educational lectures’. I wondered at this and was interested in her take on his approach, having always interpreted these particular Documenta happenings as much more about a process of exchange than as lectures. I disagreed with her about the relevance of the Speaker’s Corner aspect of the gallery interpretation programme, seeing it as a lively happening with the potential to stimulate debate. When I put this point of view across I was informed quite emphatically that “Beuys was a shaman!” and felt by this instruction rather shamed myself, as if I had completely missed the point. It was a difficult, if thought-provoking exchange.

Each and every encounter with another person can be an attempt at democratic living and deserves one’s best efforts.

Eventually, I have come to realise how hugely I have been affected in my own practice by Beuys’ ideas, whilst largely – because of my own mistrust of anything deemed mystical or spiritual – being able to ignore the shamanic aspects of his persona, whether real or projected onto him with hindsight by those who have been involved in the interpretation of his work. That this has been possible speaks volumes about the concentration of concepts operating within his practice and of the approachability of his work to such a wide range of people. These ideas have made me think further about the reception of an artist’s work and how this is beyond the control of that particular artist, particularly after their death, and beyond the control of those who keep the work alive through exhibitions, interpretation and its influence in their own practice.

Speaker’s Corner, which on Saturday took place on floor 2, was an intimate affair with an audience who drifted in and out and which was eventually added to by those coming out of the Beuys ‘in context’ talk. Jane Marriner, an artist and felt-maker spoke very knowledgeably about the history of wool, giving lots of additional fascinating insights into felt: for example that the expression ‘mad as a hatter’ comes from the poisoning effects of mercury upon hatters using it in the felt-making process. Jane spoke about the significance of hand-made processes in the spinning and weaving of wool in different cultures and how, with industrialisation much of this got lost but that people are always keen to try to recover these craft skills.

Jane struck a balance in what she said, pointing out that increased globalisation was a phenomenon that we had to work with and wished to distance herself from any suggestion of being a luddite. The latter part of the conversation saw us drawing our chairs closer together in order to hear each other better over the noise from the café, which had the effect of creating a special, intimate atmosphere, which I sensed everybody particularly enjoyed. The ‘corner’ aspect of Speakers’ Corner seemed more like the cosy corner of a room, where people gather, trusting in interested conversation and each other.

Posted by Ryan Coleman on Wednesday 22 July 2009