Beuys, Brock & Berghain
The Christian Boros Interview
Christian Boros on Beuys, Brock and the Berghain
»Beuys’ art of omission has shaped me to this day.«
When Joseph Beuys died (in 1986), you were 21 years old and just beginning your studies at the University of Wuppertal where Bazon Brock was professor. Did Beuys have an influence on you at that time?
Yes, Beuys was incredibly important. He was the shining light of the scene, the old guru, the grand master and number one person to provoke discourse. Although there were many interesting younger artists around at the time, they all measured themselves against him.
Not many people know that my passion for collecting really began with the purchase of a work by Joseph Beuys. He was the same age as my father at the time, whereas today we only buy artists of our generation. I bought the box ‘Intuition’, a Multiple that you could get for a relatively affordable price. So, I got interested in Beuys early on.
I met him when I was 17 years old at an exhibition opening in Cologne, where I lived at the time. In the four years that followed and until he died, I tried to build up some sort of a rapport with him and to enter his realm.
Is there a work or a piece of performance art by Beuys that you consider particularly unique and fascinating?
I still think it’s his ‘7,000 oaks’ in 1982 at the documenta 7 with the wonderful subtitle “Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung” (“City Forestation instead of City Administration”). You can still find his basalt steles in urban spaces in Kassel and even in New York, and next to them, 40-year-old oak trees that have changed the urban environment and made it greener.
And let’s not forget, initially, it seemed almost grotesque that an artist who was a professor of sculpture had been invited to the documenta and preferred to plant 7,000 oak trees instead of casting something in bronze. This was and is, even today, such a great programmatic achievement to realise that sometimes ‘not doing’ is a more active and wiser move than doing something. Beuys’ art of omission has shaped me to this day.
»Bazon Brock was definitely the smarter of the two, but Beuys was so much more intuitive.«
Can you describe the relationship between Bazon Brock and Beuys? The two of them also carried out happenings together, didn’t they?
The most famous collaboration was the ‘24-Hour Happening’ in 1965 – Beuys spent 24 hours mumbling something, while Bazon Brock tried to do a headstand for 24 hours so he could view the world from a different perspective. I have always felt that Bazon Brock clearly saw himself as a “co-perpetrator”. When he speaks of types of artists, he always talks about types of perpetrators, so he was a co-perpetrator of Beuys. Whether Beuys saw it that way is questionable.
Beuys often laughed at Bazon and called him a chatterer. Of course, with an artist like Bazon Brock who sees his artwork as a theoretical construct, this is hardly surprising. Incidentally, ‘Bazon’ is Greek for ‘the chatterer’. So, Brock, whose first name is actually Jürgen, used this name as a shield.
Beuys shared his humour and brazenness, so one might think he would have perceived Brock as an equal. But is it true that there was also an element of rivalry at play?
Yes, Bazon Brock was definitely the smarter of the two, but Beuys was so much more intuitive.
Do you think Beuys is still an influential artist in the German or the international world of art? Or is his role primarily linked to post-war times? Do you think he will lose relevance in the medium term?
His theories and truly radical perception of art are still extremely relevant. Of course, Beuys was not necessarily captivating through his work alone, but his presence, his habitus and his shamanistic appearance gave a highly charged meaning to his work. Whenever he entered a room with his fur coat, his waistcoat and his hat, he parted the air. This presence is now missing of course, and today his works often resemble leftover crumbs of his legacy, or dead matter. That’s why you don’t get Beuys by simply looking at him. You need to engage with him and work at understanding him. But it’s worth it, because it’s still incredibly important.
Beuys was the first to coin the phrase in his uncompromising way: ‘every human being is an artist’. His intention was not to proclaim that everyone is a good painter, sculptor or draughtsman. It’s about the simple truth that there is creative potential in everyone, even in a branch manager of a local bank. Creative potential is there to be used. Every human being has something divine woven into them and is able to create something.
You began collecting contemporary art at the age of 17 and today you have one of the most prestigious collections of contemporary art. It includes works by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin as well as Ólafur Elíasson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ai Weiwei and many others. Which artists from your collection who come from democratic societies see themselves as political beings and as active commentators on the present?
Almost every artist who really interests me MUST have a political message, because artists who work purely aesthetically don’t interest me at all. I always want to see an element of a world-improving approach in the artist’s works. That can be in the context of nature as in Ólafur Elíasson’s case, or in the context of society and marginalised groups, as in Wolfgang Tillman’s photography.
I see a particularly strong reference to Beuys in Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist from Thailand who lives in New York and Bangkok. Rirkrit is an artist who always starts cooking and gives out food and drink to guests at his exhibition openings. Rirkrit’s statement is “art is service”. Of course, this challenges the very concept of the art business in an intriguing and subtle way that I like.
What about artists like Ai Weiwei who come from politically difficult contexts? Do they have a connection with Joseph Beuys or is he not on their radar?
Of course, there are connections but very few artists like to follow in other artists’ footsteps; they prefer to make their own marks. For example, there are the Polish artists we collect. They naturally rebel against an incredibly conservative and rigid government and address the treatment of homosexuals or the role of women in Poland.
It would be really surprising if artists within difficult political or social systems would not address these difficulties. They wouldn’t be artists they’d be nothing more than yes-men with decorative talents.
»Today, a 20-year-old young artist can only oppose this kind of art power shopping.«
Politically turbulent times often offer an opportunity for art to disrupt and challenge the status quo. Where is the next iteration of Fluxus, when we need it?
It will come, I’m sure. Art has become a substitute religion for the rich and beautiful. Today, there is hardly a start-up millionaire or investment banker or anyone who is wealthy who isn’t interested in art. That’s simply because there are no real opportunities left for rich people to distinguish themselves anymore. If someone buys a Ferrari, people turn away in embarrassment, and when the yacht gets too big, everyone knows what kind of pollution it causes. So, the poor millionaires have no choice but to enter into a competition for the Warhols and Basquiats of this world, and show off their $50 million painting at home to gain some respect from their guests.
The way prices have developed and how the market has evolved is pretty obscene. Today, a 20-year-old young artist can only oppose this kind of art power shopping. I am pretty sure that there will be a new generation of artists who want to and will be uncollectable in order to consciously avoid pleasing the wealthy few.
What about the artists who you’re currently working with? How are they dealing with the Covid situation?
Artists are generally not afraid, they are more productive than ever before. I just spoke to Ólafur Elíasson who spent 60 to 70 per cent of his time travelling before Covid. But in the last year, he’s been sitting in the studio with more than hundred employees and is able to focus again. This leads to a tremendous productivity that can be seen in all artists’ studios, because there are simply far fewer distractions from the art scene.
I believe that in future we will see this as an abundant art phase, where several artists have changed their styles, their content, partly through an intensive reflection on the present. Artists pursue the central question again: ‘What is really important?’ It’s like a paradigm shift that will definitely be noticeable in a hundred years and I believe that extremely substantial works will emerge from this.
What are the current post-Covid plans for the STUDIO BERLIN exhibition? And what about the current Boros #3 collection at the Boros-Collection-Bunker in Berlin?
Over the past year, my wife and I have observed that in challenging times like these humanity splits into two archetypes: There are people who are very understandably worried, who are afraid and hope that they will get off reasonably lightly. And then there are people who see this as an opportunity to tackle things that seemed previously unthinkable and impossible. In the first period of the lockdown we were busy with the Berghain exhibition (home of world-renown techno club), which became the Studio Berlin project. It was an initially unthinkable approach in pre-Covid times to imagine such a project in such a closed place with the toughest door policy in the world.
Opportunities like these only come up very rarely or when the world is in an unprecedented situation like the current one. We got in touch with the owners of the Berghain club because this is a place where freedom is practiced quite literally, it’s a special breed of freedom. To open up this place for art, artistic freedom and for everyone, that was unthinkable at first and all the more wonderful when the idea took shape. Since then, we have incorporated further changes into the Studio Berlin project. When we reopen, we will also present works that were created during the Covid period. That’s why we are currently looking at interesting new artists, visit studios and exchange ideas with artists. We will also be using additional rooms at Berghain – cellar rooms, other side rooms and the rooms of the so called “Lab.Oratory”, Berghain’s gay-only zone.
With regards to the Boros-Collection-Bunker, we really look forward to opening the current collection to the public once again this year, so that we can then present a completely new collection next year.
And how’s the mood in Berlin in general?
Before Covid, up to 35 million people visited Berlin every year, and now the city is of course at a standstill. I live in Berlin-Mitte and from early in the morning you could always hear the tok-tok, tok-tok, tok-tok…. the sound of wheeled suitcases rolling over the granite cobblestones. Now there are no visitors and no more wheeled suitcases and like in Venice, you can sense a certain emptiness.
Which of your agency’s current projects are particularly worth mentioning?
The really pleasing thing about the last year is that our clients are radicalising. They are radicalising in the sense that mediocre communication tasks are no longer on the agenda. They want to develop radical, cutting-edge digital solutions with us, or if they decide to go the other way, then it has to be super-analogue and a highly collectable approach. We’re creating books and brochures with an enduring fascination and effect in terms of their look and feel. A certain attitude must be perceptible, it must be worth printing on paper. And this radicalisation in both directions is great fun.
What are your plans for 2021?
Being able to travel again is naturally one of my greatest desires. As much as one enjoys a certain inner peace and re-alignment, one needs food for thought. At least I do. (smiles)