Beuys Will Be Beuys

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Okay, I said I would get back to the Joseph Beuys/Matthew Barney compare-and-contrast exhibition at the Venice Guggenheim. A useful show, obviously. The line between them is as straight as a crooked line could be, and I haven’t seen this just-begging-to-be-mounted comparison mounted anywhere else.

In one room there are artifacts from Beuys’ 1977 performance, Honey Pump at the Workplace. (Good name, that.) These include two ships engines that, back in the day, had pumped two tons of honey via various pipes and tubes through galleries where discussions, seminars and films were being held under the sponsorship of Beuys’ Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, a kind of Black Mountain College with the brakes off.

In another room you find artifacts from Vacuum/Mass, which he performed in Cologne in 1968. (Actually, in the official title there are arrows, not a slash, between those two words. If you know where I can find arrows on my keyboard, you know how to reach me.) At that performance, lumps of fat, which was to Beuys what Vaseline would be for Barney, were attached by Beuys to the ends of pneumatic tubes. Then he flung them away. In the same performance he used the fat to “sculpt” the corners of the gallery, which is interesting when you remember that not long after Richard Serra would be doing something similar with molten lead. Then Beuys put everything in an iron chest ans sealed it up. That chest is one of the things you see at the Guggenheim.

All of this puts Matthew Barney in the obvious context. In a nearby gallery there’s a room filled with things made from cast concrete, cast petroleum jelly, cast thermoplastic and “internally lubricated plastic”. Those are all derived from Barney’s Cremaster 5, the scene where a bunch of 1967 Chryslers gang up and do a demolition derby on a 1930 Chrysler in the lobby of the Chrysler building, which as I recall was a bit like watching Prince Philip being gang banged at Buckingham Palace. You will remember from that film that parts of the crushed car were re-purposed as chrome dentures, which were fitted into the mouth of the character played by Barney after his own teeth were broken for flouting the rules of the Mormon initiation. Don’t breathe a word of this to Mitt Romney.

By drawing out the Beuys-to-Barney influence trail is plain, the Guggenheim show casts light on Barney’s methods and intentions, but also his shortcomings. Barney’s films, exasperating as they may be in their length and obscurity, at least produce magical passages. (That Chrysler mash up is one.) But the sculptural output associated with them, the remnants in petroluem jelly and cast thermoplastic that commemorate bits of the Cremaster films, never fail to bore me, which also tends to be my response to the physical remains of Beuys’ performances. The Cremaster series is already a vast personal comology, which means that its meanings are to some extent always locked away within his own head. (And yes, thanks to Barney, I now know what the cremaster muscle does and so on. Does it help that much?) The sculpture that emerges from his films ends up being just as obscure and self-referential as the films, but almost never as dazzling to look at.

In short, I recommend the show, but you’ll be glad that the Guggenheim’s gratifying permanent collection is just across the courtyard.