An Action as Spiritual Exercises


"All the questions asked by man", said Joseph Beuys in an interview with Bernhard Johannes Blume and Heinz Günther Prager, "can only be questions of form, and this is the totalized concept of art. It refers to everybody`s possibility to be in principle a creative being and to the questions of the social whole."[i]

In his actions this idea finds its artistic form. Here Beuys understands the movement as the central point of reference for art. In the sense of Rudolf Steiner`s anthroposophy he sees the Christ-Impulse as the inner source of this movement. Consequently the Christian aspect plays such a crucial role in all of his work, but particularly in his actions. In an interview with me he puts it unequivocally: "The form in which the personification of Christ manifests itself in our day is the element of movement itself. The person who is moving."[ii]

The outer figuration of this element of movement is especially represented by the cross in Beuys` work. It is present in all periods of his work, but permanently changes its outer appearance. In his early drawings it can be found in classical forms determined by Christian iconography. Later it is more and more transformed and generalized and in the end it merges with the extended notion of art.

In this context the most important formal impulses are The Division of the Cross and the subsequent construction of a New Cross. Particularly in the following actions this process is executed: EURASIA, 1966 in Copenhague and Berlin; MANRESA, 1966 in Düsseldorf; EURASIAN STAFF, 1967 in Vienna and 1968 in Antwerp; VACUUM <----> MASS, 1968 in Cologne; and CELTIC, 1970 in Edinburgh and 1971 in Basel.

In the two actions, EURASIA and MANRESA, Beuys uses two halves of different crosses. In EURASIA an equilateral cross cut in half is drawn on a blackboard; in MANRESA an upright wooden cross cut in half longwise and wrapped in felt leans against a wall. In the course of these actions Beuys underlines the original wholeness of these partial forms by sketching lines with chalk.

In the light of its historical context the first half-cross hints at the political divisions between East and West, at the artificial separation of cultures and populations. The second alludes to the inner cracks of modern man and society. The original unity has been disrupted into factions, denominations, nations and into all the other forms of alienation.

This process, however, also leads to positive spiritual achievements: in particular to the development of the consciousness of oneself and to the appreciation of scientific and technical thinking. But one has to pay a high price for this "success". It is the loss of unity and consequently the loss of spiritual energies which formerly conveyed the feeling of unity: intuition, religion, any kind of spiritual sensitiveness to the things in everyday-life. Under these circumstances man also loses his appreciation for the humane and Christian dimensions of the cross. It is no more a sign for man, but it appears almost exclusively in economic terms as plus and minus, in scientific contexts in the coordinate system or in the field of weapons as the sight in a machine-gun. "But even today, many people perceive that a different idea of the cross exists within the coordinate system", he says in an interview.[iii]

It was this insight that made Beuys find his New Cross. It becomes concrete in the half-cross which longs to be a whole again. A spiritually sensitive and alert human being is able to discover the whole in its parts. Even the title of the action EURASIA suggests the necessity of restoring the unity lost; it is the task of reuniting Europe and Asia on a spiritual level. The Fluxus-Demonstration MANRESA impressingly reveals concrete possibilities of achieving this aim. The historical processes of modern history and the development of modern consciousness in their ambivalent and ultimately unbalanced results shall be revised. Beuys, following the ideas of Steiner, sees the culminating-point of this evolution in materialism. This phenomenon represents a culture which has come to a standstill by the fascination of the personal self, which has lost its roots and the appreciation of spiritual possibilities. Although developing one`s personal energies and one`s logical faculties is positive, its one-sided exaggeration is dangerous.

"If this restricted concept of science becomes binding for our culture", he explains to Rainer Rappmann in an interview, "culture will disappear because this principle stands for death. Materialism has worked out this principle of death".[iv]

Along with Rudolf Steiner Beuys conceives this spiritual death as the present-day repetition of the "Mystery of Golgatha". In this event the divine substance of Christ has been put into the earth und thus transformed all its energies. Steiner calls this phenomenon phármakon athánasis[v], a medicine guarantering immoratality. Menaced by death man tries to discover possibilities of rescue just as he finds them in the "Christ-Impulse". It is the power which inables man to develop a higher consoiousness of himself. "There is no other possibility for the individual except to asume the role of ChrisT:"[vi] After climbing down to the physical conditions of the earth he will climb up to a new, emancipated life through the energy of Christ.

In the light of such perspectives the half-cross in the action MANRESA appears as the sign of present-day man. He is aware of his situation. At the same time he gets ready to regain the forgotten dimensions of sense through the energy acquired by Christ. It is the deed of the sovereign mediation between two elements, the rational and the intuitive, the modern and the mythical, the enlightened and the religious. These contrasts are illustrated in Element 1 and in Element 2. In the spirit of Ignatius of Loyola (1491 - 1556) they are going to be reconciled in this action.

What made Beuys take an interst in the life and thinking of this Basque saint? There are two approaches: on the one hand the attempt at coping with a crisis in his life, and on the other hand the efforts to come to terms with it also for the benefit of man in general.      

When he was young, Ignatius wanted to become a brave, combative and victorious soldier in the service of his king. But a war injury made it impossile for him to stirive for these ideals. Although confronted with deep depressions and the idea of suicide he finally managed to overcome his crisis by summoning up all his spiritual energies during a nine-months-stay in the Catalan town of Manresa. The result was: He brought himself to finding a new perspective in life. He started studying, grappled with spiritual problems and founded the Order of Jesuits years later. He wrote down the experiences of those years in his Spiritual Exercices. In this literary work he accounted for the stages and structures of this process. He did so in order to make others take advantage of them in comparable situations.

The fascination this biography of Ignatius had on Beuys may be due to parallels in their lives. Beuys, too, underwent several personal crises. And at least once he totally put his existence into question. In the mid-fifties Beuys suffered from a long shock which he later reflects over and over again. This stage of existential doubts lasted almost two years. It started in the autumn of 1955, when two years after his studies he lost his strength.[vii] This condition resulted in heavy doubts about his work and ultimately led to a condition of depressive exhaustion.[viii] But it also became a source for revival.

"Diseases", he later said, "are mostly spiritual crises in life, too, in which one gets rid of old experiences and ideas; one remoulds them to bring about positive changes. <..> Such a crisis <...> is a decisive appeal to correct some things and to look for new results in a certain direction".[ix]

Ignatius of Loyola wrote down his experiences to benefit others. In the same spirit Beuys organises his action MANRESA. On the 15th of December in 1966 it takes place in Düsseldorf`s Gallery Schmela. Beuys performs it along with artists from Copenhague, the composer Henning Christiansen and the sculptor Björn Nörgaard. There is a numerous audience which follows the action with high concentration, in part inside, in part from outside, crowded in front of a window.

In the gallery room painted in black the half felt-cross, Element 1, leans against the wall. Its other half has been drawn on the wall with chalk. In front of it is a copper staff of approximately the same size which has a felt-handle at its centre. Element 2 in form of a wooden box is opposite it. It is packed with electric equipments, a plate, toys and other things striking as strange which one usually would not pay any attention to.

Beuys squats in front of Element 2, takes a photograph of a double-aggregate and carries it to Element 1. He holds the photograph in front of the two parts of the half-crosses and thus marks them as two sources of energy. Then he goes back to the box and takes a disc of cardboard out of it, puts it with a piece of string round his neck on his back and goes with it to Element 1. He symbolically carries the circle as a sign of the wholeness of the two divided parts. Finally there is a plate with a model of Christ on the cross. He carries it to the same spot to suggest that the divided can only be put together with pain, sacrifice and the risk of death.

A toy bird on a stick has a mechanism by which it can move its wings. Beuys lifts this bird from the box and lets it flutter towards the cross, a sign of departure and movement. Several times Beuys shouts the mysterious sentence: Where is Element 3?

For the first time Beuys then puts the high-voltage-generator into operation. This apparatus changes the 12 volts of a lorry battery into 50 000 volts. That is why in plain darkness there are sparks at the open ends of the copper wires; the sound of sparks can also be heard. With these teaching aids of a physics lesson he demonstrates the awakening of invisible energies.

A drawing with six hares in the box is than placed at the generator and thus put under live wire. Obviously the perception of these energies is realized in it and it is the cause of an impulse to act.

On a board are lying the intestines of a hare. Beuys takes them out of the box an fixes them at the centre of Element 1.

Beuys then approaches two bottles one of which is of lead; the other one is filled with milk. He opens it and drinks a mouthful from it. He draws vital energy from nature in order to transform it into practical action.

Subsequently Beuys takes a glass-tube filled with neon gas, and rubs it at one of its ends. He thus causes a movement of electrones and the gas starts glowing. He establishes a contact of light between the plate with Christ on the cross and his heart. Again he shouts: Where is Element 3?

A small toy is taken from the box; it is a tiny military ambulance car. It is placed near similar looking, massive iron parts of a machine lying outside the box. The two piston-like forms rise from a kind of cylinder. Their ends are connected by a gauze bandage at their contact spots. Again Beuys shout: Where is Element 3?

Sparks reappear from the generator; other elements of the action are ritually repeated. In regular intervals you can hear Beuys` voice from the recording tape:

                          "Now - has Element 2 climbed up to Element 1?

                           Now - has Element 1 climbed down to Element 2?

                           Where is Element 3?"

The answer to the last questions: It is the on performing the action.

With regard to the so-called scores for the action the abstract meaning of the up and down movements is not only filled with philosophical notions such as rational and intuitive, scientific and artistic..., but by the marks of the South and North of Europe also with geographical concepts. The North is present through the Scandinavian countries, the South by two towns: Rome and Manresa.

The Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen worked in Rome in the 19th century and incorporated the ideas of Antiquity into his classicism. Thus Mediterranean and Northern ideas of form were amalgamated. In Manresa during Ignatius` lifetime the Humanist thought of Erasmus of Rotterdam was present in neighbouring monastery of the Benedictines. It permitted Ignatius the emancipation from the collective bonds of the individual and the evolution of the so-called devotio moderna, a consciousness based upon the subject and the ego. Northern reflexion combined with Southern emphasis and Spanish militance. Beuys was fascinated by Ignatius` radicalism and its consequences in practice, although they had to be remoulded for spiritual life:

2The intire militant disciplin must apply to the person himself. It must be an inner war < ... > it must be an argument for the attainment of this consciousness. And this cannot be reached without discipline, and without this militancy.2[x]

In the action MANRESA the copper staff plays a symbolic role as so to speak a shamanistic instrument of mediation. The vertical mark such as it is drawn from the North to the South on a map finds its complement in a horizontal one from the East to the West. Now this staff reaches from the Far East to the West in early drawings for MANRESA; it reaches up to "Ostende". The name means the end of the East as the epitome of the West! This idea is expressly demonstrated in the following action EURASIA-STAFF. Along with the North-South-axis in MANRESA the staff with its East-West-axis forms the "New Cross". This crossing is a sign of activity, a sign of mediation between historical and cultural opposites: "Therefore the cross has thoroughly become a part of culture", he later says.[xi] He thus combines the divided, he connects the disparate, he reconciles the contrasts.

Beuys set out as a wanderer with the crosier. Again and again he had himself photographed as a guide of stags, as a nomad, as a demonstrator in the desert of Western society, as one always in search of the economic, spiritual and cultural energies lost. This search is practice, is sculpture. It is at the same time a departure and an escape from old securities. It is an escape from all crystallized form. And - at the same time - it is an artistic seizure of the amorphous that man takes into his moulding hands. This is his artistic activity; it is sculpture which originates from the continuous quest of a wanderer who does not stop his evolution until it is incorporated into a social sculpture.  



[i]. In catalogue: documenta 6, vol. 1, Kassel 1974, p. 156.

[ii]. BEUYS, JOSEPH Dialogue with Friedhelm Mennekes, in: MENNEKES, FRIEDHELM (1989), Beuys zu Christus / Beuys on Christ, Eine Position im Gespräch / A Position in Dialogue, german and english (Stuttgart, Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk), pp. 12 - 67, p. 59.

[iii]. PFISTER, ELISABETH (1989) "Dialogue between Joseph Beuys and Elisabeth Pfister" in: MENNEKES, F. (1989), op. cit. p. 130.

[iv]. BEUYS, JOSEPH Dialogue with Rainer Rappmann, in: HARLAN, VOLKER; RAPPMANN, RAINER, and SCHATA, PETER, (Eds) (1984) Soziale Plastik. Materialien zu Joseph Beuys, (Achberg, Achberger Verlag), pp. 10 25, p. 17.

[v]. WEHR, p. 97.

[vi]. Pfister (n. 3) p. 130.

[vii]. ADRIANI, GOETZ; KONNERTZ, WINFRIED; THOMAS, KARIN (1973) Joseph Beuys (Cologne, Dumont), p. 32.

[viii]. Ibid.


[ix]. Ibid., p. 34.


[x]. Pfister (n. 3) p. 129.


[xi]. Ibid.