In 1983 the cassette-based magazine Audio Arts published a supplement capturing radical German artist Joseph Beuys in conversation with both the magazine’s founder William Furlong and Michael Newman. The recording was made at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum on the occasion of an exhibition of Beuys’ drawings. The artist, then in his early sixties, quickly widens the discussion to his ‘goals’: ‘I decided in my life not to become a physicist but to try to make an experience with the Arts; to widen understanding of the Arts, to become able to change the social order.’ Science, whilst being highly developed so as to render us ‘even able to fly to outer-terrestrial planets,’ is however unable to make clear ‘what it means to be a human being and what the inner goal of life on earth would mean, and what would be the highest quality for the life of the different peoples on earth, and how they could overcome their inner frustration, and how they could overcome the alienation of their working places. So, in being directed to bring a wider understanding of art which is related to everybody’s labour, on every existing working place, it is on the point where it touches the economical system.’
Beuys’ vision was not of an elite art establishment for the intelligentsia but of a society where everyone is an artist. A decade earlier he had made the famous statement that, ‘Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death-line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART. This most modern art discipline – Social Sculpture/Social Architecture – will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.’ (JB, 1973)
In the V&A conversation Beuys calls for a radical rethink of the definition of capital in a true economy of human society. ‘Very soon it becomes clear that what one calls capital, or what also the Marxist and Marx was calling capital, isn’t capital at all. Since it becomes more and more clear from an anthropological point of view and also from the idea of humankind’s life quality and the point of creativity, money can’t be capital. The very true and real capital of humankind is their ability, is their spiritual quality which everybody has…a radical change of the economical system is a necessity to come to a wider understanding of art and to a wider understanding of economy. There we have the link between art and economy.’
Beuys was a co-founder of the German Green party in the late ’70s and became deeply concerned about the capacity of humans to destroy the planet and themselves. The following excerpt from the Audio Arts cassette will be familiar to Sylvian listeners from the opening track of the instrumental album from the Gone to Earth double-set:
Interviewer: One of the things that you seem to be pinpointing here is another kind of order, another kind of logic.
Beuys: That has to be the aim, to overcome the systems which are… which are on the side… which are on the run to destroy humankind’s nature, humankind’s inner-ness, humankind’s ability – what for me is the true capital – and which as a side effect, last not least, destroys nature and earth.
Just as Jean Cocteau had been a hugely influential figure for David Sylvian, so it was with Joseph Beuys. ‘I felt a very close connection with Cocteau for a while. I really felt his presence and the same happened with Joseph Beuys’ (2011). ‘I looked for relationships in culture,’ Sylvian explained, ‘as there was an absence of relationships in my life. I would find relationships through reading, or through visual arts. It was important for me – I don’t want to denigrate it.’ (1999)
The featured image above was taken in 1984 by Italian photographer Maria Mulas and shows Beuys standing before one of the portraits that Andy Warhol created of him. Sylvian: ‘An abiding interest in contemporary art eventually led me to the work of Joseph Beuys and his theories regarding the role of art in society. Again, there is this reference to the alchemical process of transforming the base elements of society. Working with ideas and a strong sense of community to uplift society, restructure it, empowering the individual via recognition of their own creative impulses, etc.’ (2004)
Incorporating the German artist’s spoken word into the music on Gone to Earth injected the presence of both the man and his ideas. ‘Beuys was used just because of what was being said, but it is also the reference to Beuys the man and his theories and philosophy – all tied up in the use of his voice, which is something I felt a strong connection with. I find Beuys to be one of the most fascinating and influential artists of the 20th Century.’ (DS, 1999)
It was an influence that was also evident in work that Sylvian created alongside the nascent Gone to Earth. The piece that became ‘Steel Cathedrals’ was known as ‘Showing the Wound (A Will to Health)’ in its original form on the Japan-released Preparations for a Journey video. This is surely a reference to Beuys’ 1970’s installation Show Your Wound. That work included labourers’ tools in the shape of pitchforks and hoes, emblematic crosses, mortuary trolleys, and photographs of these elements presented in negative form like x-rays. Beuys clarified, ‘when I say, “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development,” it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.’ To display our hurt as individuals or as society is to take a step towards healing.
As Claudia Mesch puts it in her short artistic biography, ‘in incorporating objects associated with both modern and traditional medical practice, Beuys’ artworks tie a universal need for recovery and healing to the realm of aesthetic experience.’ There is a link here with another central concept in Beuys’ philosophy, and one which strongly resonated with Sylvian, that of the artist as shaman.
Asked how he became in interested in shamanism, Sylvian responded: ‘I was reading a great deal on different cults and spiritual groups and so on, and the word shaman kept cropping up. And I bought one book – The Shaman Magician or something like that – and that really introduced me to that idea. I was always interested in Joseph Beuys’ work and the idea of the modern shaman in society and the role he has to play. It appealed to me, the idea to re-form ties between the material and the spiritual, to try and make people that much more aware of everyday things around them. And relate to them in a different way – in a magical sense.’ (1986)
The metaphor of the shaman has great depth. An individual on the edge of society but who acts for the benefit of the tribe of which he is a part. Often someone who has experienced healing themselves, they are able to traverse the spirit world – induced into a trance-like state that transforms their consciousness – bringing insight and wholeness to their community. Back to Beuys at the V&A, ‘I use also some techniques which seem to have some similarity with very old initiation forms like there were during very early history, the very primordial system where the figure of the shaman [bore] the responsibility of the social order and the responsibility for himself at the same time. So, the shaman was a representative which has to deal with the united idea of truth…It is not a hint to go back to this point of cliff-dwellers, to this time of Stone Age, but it’s showing the idea of unity; that we have to find a wider unity and a better unity for the future society, for the moulding of the future social order. That’s what I am trying to initiate or to stimulate…
‘…I try to develop this idea of the shaman into a very modern highly-developed discussion of a wider understanding of art and science.’
Beuys espoused the therapeutic nature of the shaman and this sense is encapsulated in Sylvian’s opening Gone to Earth instrumental. Beuys’ words carry the foreboding of a world order that is out of kilter with the flourishing of humankind and the planet, but there is hope in his faith in art’s capacity to overcome those dominant systems. This positivity is reflected in the track’s title, ‘The Healing Place’, and the translucent chimes of Bill Nelson’s solo guitar uplift the listener, transmitting optimism through their brightness.
Most tracks on the second disc have exact descriptive titles, drawing our mind’s eye to a clearly drawn scene. ‘The Healing Place’ is a less specific location, but there is a strong sense of renewal in the music. It was a title that emerged again when in 1988 Sylvian and Yuka Fujii put out a limited edition, hand-signed, set of postcards. On this occasion the title accompanied an image of Sylvian at the ruined Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany, Italy; the former Cistercian monastery being a physical manifestation of the meeting point between the temporal and the spiritual. A place of communion and restoration. It will have been no coincidence that the location was a prominent setting in Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia.
Sylvian’s original intention had been for Joseph Beuys to participate directly in the recording of his second solo album. ‘I was actually trying to make contact with him when I made the Gone to Earth album. I used a quote from him on it as you know, but I was actually going to try to get Beuys to come in and record throughout that whole instrumental side, just quotations coming in and out, which would’ve been amazing. But as I was driving back from the studio one evening I heard that he’d died.’ (DS, 2011)
‘I would have wanted him to speak of the main tenets of his philosophy as it relates to the earth, green movement, and spirituality.’ (DS, 2022)
Whilst they were never destined to collaborate, the inspiration burned deep for years to come. ‘Plight’ was the name of a Beuys installation before it became a title on Sylvian’s first release with Holger Czukay (read more here). Bees were a regular motif in the German’s work, on one occasion two tonnes of liquid honey being pumped around various rooms of an art gallery. The phrase ‘democracy is very merry’ from Sylvian’s deeply uneasy ‘Random Acts of Senseless Violence’ nods to Beuys’ 1973 piece Democracy is Merry, a photograph showing the smiling artist being ejected from the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts by stony-faced police. He had opened up his classes to whoever wished to attend in response to what he saw as an undemocratic policy of selective admission.
Sylvian was fascinated by Beuys’ use of unusual materials in his creations, such as the signature felt and fat that were linked with his self-initiated myth of rescue by a nomadic Tartar tribe after the (undoubtedly true) downing of his military aircraft during World War II. ‘In relation to his own physical work I respected the way that he was able to transform the most mundane of materials, lending them magical properties.’ (DS, 2004)
In fact Sylvian had ideas to adopt the approach in his music which were never completely fulfilled. Commenting on the strong architectural sound elements in mid ’80s arrangements such as Words with the Shaman, he said, ‘Well, that’s been something I’ve been trying to work with. I think I can take it even further than I have. Involving maybe sounds of the city or industrial sounds into that form of music. Something very contemporary. The reason I think about it is going back to Beuys’ work, because the kind of feeling he produces out of certain materials are very odd. You don’t relate to those materials in that way, as a rule. And some of the things he uses, whether it’s just a car battery or something like that, if he can instil in that image something magical, I think you can do the same thing with sound. I think a lot of people would find it easy to relate to if it comes from their own environment rather than taking things from other sources, from primitive sources.’ (1986)
In 1994 Sylvian donated a mixed media artwork for an exhibition organised by Brian Eno at the Flowers East Gallery in London, entitled little pieces from big stars. The event was in aid of the charity War Child which works to bring help and comfort to children in conflict-torn areas and all the exhibits were subsequently auctioned to raise funds. Sylvian’s contribution was called Intensive Care and sub-titled (For J.B.). The name may not have been spelled out in full but the allusion was clear. Among the items included within the wooden box were a toy vehicle emblazoned with a red cross, a slim earthenware container for some sort of tincture, and honeycomb. Physical and spiritual healing invoked through ordinary objects.
‘Art is, then, a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one. In my opinion only art is capable of doing it.’ (Joseph Beuys, 1982)
‘I think music can potentially give a listener a safe haven to open up to themselves. Music can be a healing place. It’s not a physical space, but music can sometimes envelop listeners and allow them to delve into emotions they don’t feel safe to explore elsewhere. In the embrace of music, they can open up, breathe deeply into these emotions, be they celebratory, sad or melancholy, and just ride with them. I think music has such a potent, healing capacity.’ (David Sylvian, 2003)
On my playlist I weave related instrumental pieces alongside the tracks from Gone to Earth disc two. Included there is ‘The Lost Years’ from Bill Nelson’s 1984 album The Summer of God’s Piano, released on his own Cocteau Records imprint. It’s a beautiful track on which Nelson displays similar restrained assurance and lyricism in his guitar playing as that heard on ‘The Healing Place’.
‘The Healing Place’
Bill Nelson – solo guitar; David Sylvian – all other instruments
Music by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986
The voice of Joseph Beuys by kind permission of Audio Arts
Recorded in London and Oxfordshire 1985-6
The complete Audio Arts recording of Joseph Beuys has been digitised as part of the Tate archive and can be listened to in two parts here.
Thank you to Maria Mulas and Antonella Scaramuzzino for permission to use Maria’s 1984 photograph of Joseph Beuys for this article. See this website for more of her work.
Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
‘Beuys is still one of the most important artists for me…He’s turned up in dreams and his presence has been very tangible…oftentimes in my life the presence of these dead artists have been more tangible than some of the people living around me.’ David Sylvian, 2011