|Conservation of Installation Art:
Joseph Beuys’s Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten
The Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts
New York University
Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (1979) is a crystalline example of installation art by Joseph Beuys: the position of its elements were precisely fixed in space by the artist and well documented. Consisting of objects from two previous performances by Beuys and additions he made at the time of the first installation, the work references three creative moments in the life of the artist. Thus, although Beuys grounded his work in an autobiographical material iconology, the power of Aus Berlin lies in its representation of the mythic time that Beuys engaged in during his performances. The quality of light, condition of its walls, and the physical state of its “relics” are communicators of Beuys’s artistic intent, signifying the presence of the artists’s temporal and physical engagement in the making of the installation. This representation has consequences for the conservation and interpretation of the installation.
Qualities inherent in the medium of installation art have expanded the boundaries of art conservation. Just as the viewer apprehends its physical attributes: textures, light, depth and form,1 so the reinstallation and conservation of it engages the same sensations. As a result, a different set of skills is required of conservators and curators who preserve the variability of installation art:2 in addition to understanding the degeneration of materials—often manifold in the disparate elements of one particular work—how to set it up in space needs to be documented.
Even when these two tasks are undertaken with the greatest of care, there still exists a space between the documentation of the first instantiation of the work and its present condition. This space can represent any length of time: days, months or years. Thus, the parameters of ontological authenticity for reinstallation extend as deep as the time passed. Time then is manifested in the layers of meaning that accrue: preservation of these layers is crucial to authentic representation of the artist’s intent. Through an intimate look into the history of a particular installation, Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) the depths to which these layers can reach and their fragility will be discussed.3
A pivotal figure of post-war German art, Joseph Beuys expanded ideas of materiality and challenged historical models of interpretation. His installation Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (1979) embodies the performative nature of his art. Comprised of objects that he used in two performances as well as additions made during the creation of the installation, the hand of Beuys— indeed his whole body— is seen and felt in it along with the associated meanings of his autobiographical material iconology that he had accrued since the early 1960’s. However, the performative aspect of its creation has been stilled within Aus Berlin. Beuys’s precise documentation of its original manifestation— unlike many of his other installations in which he freely reconfigured them during reinstallation4--belies the activity that went into its making.
Aus Berlin: Neues vomKojoten, 1979
Dia: Beacon, Beacon, New York
Photo: Courtesy Dia:Beacon
Aus Berlin (figure 1) is tucked into a quiet corner of the spacious Dia:Beacon art museum. It is bounded by three walls: the right wall is red brick, the back and left are smooth and painted white; structural metal bars also painted white cross the ceiling from left to right. Approaching the space of the installation, one is separated from it by a pile of rubble consisting of pieces of plaster, wood, and torn-up fragments of carpet. This barrier, which is higher on the left and gently descends to the right, supports ten thin tree branches each with a miner’s lamp affixed to it. On the rubble, in the middle, an arc lamp with its power supply attached shines a diffuse circle of white light onto the back wall of the space. Beyond the rubble wall, the floor is covered with sulfur. The interior space of the installation contains a pile of brown fabric near the center, two piles of old newspapers to the right of the fabric, two gloves, a cane, flashlight, and a musical triangle; there is a pile of hay in the rear left corner; a rumpled fedora hangs on the brick wall (figure 2).