whitehot | December 2011: In Conversation with Henriette Huldisch
8 Days in Japan and the Utopia of Eurasia
Asia played an important role in Joseph Beuys' art philosophy. More in particular, it was Eurasia, the continental block that links Europe and Asia, that was key to his utopia. The fusion of Western and Eastern culture that Beuys had in mind, would effect a social revolution and save a world that was being subsumed by materialism and rationalism. Yet, 1980s Japan, which at that time was experiencing an economic boom, must have been far removed from Beuys' idea of Eastern spirituality. Visiting the country in 1984, he was then also critical and warned for the possible consequences of, for instance, the neglect of ecological issues in economical development. Beuys' trip to Japan was extensively documented by a film crew. This exclusive material, which was only rediscovered in 2005, documents Beuys' engagement with Asia and provides an unusually detailled account of the philosophical impetus underlying his art.
Henriette Huldisch: We watched all of the material but we divided it up between Eugen Blume, the co-curator, and myself. It is actually more than 30 hours, almost 50 in total. We needed to get a sense of the material and to see if there were things that were omitted from the show at Art Tower Mito but were important for our purposes. We wanted to retain the documentary character of the material to some extent, and we wanted to take people through his eight-day visit day by day. Some of the compilations that Mito put together focused on an individual day but others didn’t so we compiled certain edits on our own and used some of theirs. From the beginning, we planned to highlight two important elements of the visit and show them in a large projection in a central black box space in the exhibition, while the other videos are shown on monitors. Those are the lectures Art and Society at Asahi Hall, which was completely unknown, and also the entire documentation of the Coyote III action, a major work which Beuys performed together with Nam June Paik.
Paenhuysen: Was there always a clear-cut collaboration between Beuys and the ones who were recording his performances?
Huldisch: It differs from case to case. In some earlier films Beuys teamed up with a camera person, for example, as in Transsibirische Bahn (1970), which was shot by filmmaker Ole John, or Eurasienstab (1968), a collaborative film to which musician Henning Christiansen contributed the music and which was filmed by Paul de Fru. This case is yet different in that a camera crew was following him around for the duration of the visit, clearly with his permission. He agreed to do that and he allowed them to produce an hour-long documentary of his visit.
Paenhuysen: Did Beuys decide about the final cut of the documentary?
Huldisch: No, it was the director, Naoya Hatakeyama, now a famous art photographer, with an editor. Hatakeyama was then just out of art school and not known at all. He had a part-time job at a production company and was assigned to do this project without knowing much about Beuys beforehand.
Paenhuysen: It was done very well.
Huldisch: Yes, you can tell that this is somebody who has an eye for composition and knows what footage he needs to get. The original video was titled A Document. 1984. Joseph Beuys in Japan. It was sold at the Japanese store WAVE, a cutting-edge retail outfit that sold CDs, tapes, and books. The documentary was on Betamax cassette and came in a package together with a book. One copy of the edition is on view in the exhibition.
Paenhuysen: There is quite some humor in the documentary. For instance, during the conference talk the curator sitting next to Beuys was falling asleep and the camera focused on this. I guess it was a very intensive trip ... Actually, also for the viewer of this exhibition it is a very intensive viewing experience to which we are not really accustomed anymore. To quote Beuys' warning in Japan: “The unbridled use of electronic media, as in Orwell's big brother, diminishes the independent activity of listening and looking.”Was that challenge of watching and listening part of the curatorial concept?
Huldisch: I rather like your description of the exhibition as a sort of endurance performance but I do not know that this was a curatorial objective for us. We knew that we had to compress a huge amount of footage into something much smaller but knew that even those fewer hours can hardly be seen in one visit to the museum. We assumed there were some people with a really sustained interest in Beuys who would come back for repeat viewings. Fortuitously, even when dipping in and out of the videos you get a sense of how incredibly intense and exhausting this visit must have been. Beuys at this point was already quite ill but he came to Japan and went a hundred miles a minute: he got off the plane and he went straight to the press conference. He gave a long lecture the following day, installed his show into the night the one after that, and held a discussion session at the Tokyo University of the Arts. On the same day he performed Coyote III, which was very demanding physically. I think that the exhibition brings all this out nicely and I do hope that you can see as much or as little of the exhibition as you like and still get a sense of him and his work.
Paenhuysen: There is, of course, the language barrier: Beuys talks in German, which is then translated into Japanese and these translations always seem to take much longer than Beuys' original response. So once again, the visitor of the exhibition needs to have the endurance to sit through the long translations,be patient and accept the fact of not understanding.
Huldisch: In the original footage, the Japanese translations were far longer. He was traveling with a interpreter who speaks German extremely well. There are periods when Beuys says something quite short and there is a very long Japanese translation, in which the interpreter apparently also explains some of his concepts. It does give you a clear sense of that experience of being in a different place and talking to an audience that does not understand your language. You probably noticed that there are Japanese subtitles in some of the videos that were done by Art Tower Mito in 2009. They had the material at hand; unlike somebody who is translating simultaneously. Unfortunately, I don't speak Japanese so it is hard for me to evaluate the different translations, but I would be curious to know how they differ.
Paenhuysen: How important was this trip for Beuys? One could say that it was his second encounter with Asia – the first one being the legendary story of his plane crash during World War II in the Crimea.
Huldisch: It seems clear that it was important for him to go to Japan as he had postponed this trip twice before because of poor health. I think it was critical for him to not just have an exhibition of objects there but to express his ideas, to introduce his discursive practice as well.
Paenhuysen: He also did advertising for Japanese whiskey. You didn't show this video in the exhibition. But it's a really good ad, isn't it?
Huldisch: It is (laughs). It is extremely interesting because Beuys appears as this iconic figure. He doesn’t say anything about the product, Nikka Whisky. We thought about including it and we spoke with Mizuki Takahashi, who curated the show in Mito. She told us that the ad video was not actually shot in Japan. So it did not have anything to do with his visit and didn’t fit the scope of the show.
Paenhuysen: I was also amazed to see how popular Beuys was in Japan. He was given a huge platform to present his art, with press conferences, etc. ... it would be unthinkable nowadays.
Huldisch: Yes, you really get the sense he arrives as a star. Wherever he goes, people are queuing up to see him. It’s astonishing since in Japan his work wasn't that well known at the time. For example, Hatakeyama wrote in an email that he had not really heard of Beuys. When he was at the art academy, contemporary art was focused on the United States to a large extent, specifically on New York. So Nam June Paik who had lived in New York for a long time, was far better known than Beuys. Yet somehow Beuys' reputation and his fame preceded him and people were just curious to come and see him.
Paenhuysen: Was this massive interest connected to Beuys' use of eastern philosophy in his art?
Huldisch: I'm not sure, probably to some extent, yes. People wanted to see the iconic figure Beuys and they wanted to learn more about his work. Beuys is one of two artists that are as recognizable as a pop star. The other one is Andy Warhol.
Paenhuysen: Although Beuys was very critical about Japan, there seems to have been no clash or confrontation during the conferences.
Huldisch: Not really, although he is very vocal in his criticism, warning about the effects of materialism and consumer culture, particularly in relation to environmental destruction. There are a few moments in the discussion with the art students where he is asked very critically about his philosophical background and his interpretation of eastern philosophy. And Beuys then responds quite forcefully to that.
Paenhuysen: What was especially interesting for you in this documentary material?
Huldisch: I think it was the quite direct experience of accompanying him on this visit. And that he explains some of his thoughts somewhat differently. For instance, he talks a lot about his interest for the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. And it does feel as though he is very much trying to make an audience understand without knowing what they are hearing. On a second level, which is due to my being a video dork, there is the fact that the footage looks amazing. When the video was taken in 1984, Japan was on the verge of becoming an economical super power, there was a lot of money and this documentary was filmed with top of the line, professional equipment. And by some strike of good fortune, it has been preserved incredibly well. It is in a much better shape than a lot of things from the eighties, even projected large it looks very good. So it was a treat to see it.
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