In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: It’s time we went upstairs, I think. The Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is a generous refurbishment of a sumptuous town house in Dover Street in Mayfair – one of the most expensive areas in the world. But we are swimming in space as we go up the double staircase. There is a ‘sparse hang’ along the corridor of a few multiples and drawings, with the white walls and the oak floors it all feels very much as it should do – the works have plenty of space, but you can still get close. Then we arrive at the end room…

Richard: Having seen Feldbett (Campaign Bed), 1982 on the ground floor, which has a quiet but authoritative power (and that familiar sense of commemoration that accompanies a lot of Beuys works), I was expecting something good for the last room of the show. The Library Gallery – the main room on the first floor of the gallery contained five works: Tisch mit Aggregat (Table with Aggregate), 1958-1985, Hirsch (Stag), 1958/1982,  Boothia Felix, 1958/1982, Ziege (Goat), 1958/1982 and Urtiere (Primordial Animals), 1958/1982. Taken in isolation I’m sure these sculptures have the power to enthral, to drag you into their strange world/ mind-set shared with Beuys’ best work. For me the arrangement of the works – dotted around the floor in close proximity to each other dissipated the works’ energy – their individual meanings seeming to bleed into and cancel each other out. The collected works did not work as an artistic siphonophore, despite their uniformity of appearance. The room was difficult to look at, and digest in any meaningful way and I think it was a missed opportunity. At Tate Modern the placement of the works in the Beuys room seems to work to the individual works’ advantage rather than against them (major works are given room to breathe). What did you think of the final room?

David: For me the last room upstairs was a curatorial misstep. I was baffled, almost as if I suddenly couldn’t understand a language I knew well. It made me aware of how any exhibition depends on tension between the exhibits – but if they actually mix and fight each other then the net result is a nullification. A bit like mixing colours in a painting…if you mix them too much all you get is a grey mess. And I speak from experience! I wonder if that kind of separation was why Beuys himself was so fond of vitrines? They are almost like mini-installations.

Richard: Yes, the vitrines are like a discreet closed world – the box frames the objects inviting the viewer to consider their function and their relationship to each other. The final room of this exhibition does the opposite – it presents a chaotic jumble of objects – and reminds me of sightseeing in the Louvre – you get to half-glimpse the Mona Lisa in a sea of people – not so much an art experience as a box ticking exercise. Utopia at the Stag Monuments: yep, seen that.

David: Maybe the arrangement of objects is shamanistic magic. Unless you are a member of the Shaman’s Guild, an arrangement of objects is just…objects.
If you are a bona fide shaman, however, you can make the objects talk to one another and open doors in reality through which we glimpse meaning. Or endow them with a kind of residual charge by using them in a certain way – so that they become an art battery where creative power is stored. When this happens it is as if Beuys’ strange rituals and fetishes can connect the present to the past. I don’t think of Beuys as New Age in any way, but he certainly was able to take advantage of interest in atavistic spirituality to draw punters in to his circle. The spiritual void of our modern tribe is so huge and we feel it keenly; yet we are so close, not only to our ancestors, but also to the energy of the Earth and many other eternal things. This for me is Beuys’ legacy now that his charismatic presence is gone.

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