It’s May in New York City, the year is 1974. The first two days have come and gone, frantic at the beginning, but growing steadily quieter. Day Three dawns, the last of the ritual, and the wild coyote falls complacent; having ceased its aggressions and snapping, no longer so wary, it settles for a nap in the center of the gallery space after whizzing all over the morning’s Wall Street Journal. The man, looking very much the Hermit of a well-shuffled tarot deck, gathers his thick felt coverings about him before striking the metallic triangle pendant suspended from his neck. The thin, clear noise works itself through the air three times, and the man politely calls himself, Coyote and the audience to order…
As evening sets in, the man in the cone-shaped hat leaves just as he came, cocooned in the warmth of his felt, wheeled away to the back of a red and white ambulance and driven abruptly out of the shadows of the World Trade Center, twin towers he has renamed Cosmos and Damian, to the steps of an airplane awaiting direction on a tarmac— and off of the alluring, sordid American soil for good.
And that’s how German-born artist Joseph Beuys visited the United States, undertaking a conceptual performance art journey, or more precisely, an action, entitled I Like America and America Likes Me. Beuys’ action was in part a response to his first foray across America somewhat earlier, a lackluster lecture series attempting to entice citizens of Minneapolis, Chicago and New York into engaging with his Energy Plan for the Western Man. The artist’s second meeting with the country was appropriately ironic and disquieting, his action acutely portraying the trauma found in Beuys’ personal history, of being offhandedly rejected in American circles and the fabled and turbulent nature of the United States itself.
Roundly against U.S. military presence in Vietnam, Beuys’ entered New York again in a fittingly hostile manner. From plane to stretcher to dour, sterile ambulance the artist, tucked in a crisp white blanket, was determined to never place one toe onto American territory until safely sheltered in the empty white confines of the new Rene Block Gallery.
For the next thirty-six hours Beuys shared the stark space with a coyote freshly plucked from the wilderness, and went about an orchestrated eight-hour cycle of actions and gestures which he began each day by chiming his triangle necklace; his ancient symbol of fire, the feminine, intellectual creativity and Pythagorean wisdom. After calling for quiet all around, a loud recording of a turbine engine firing up was played outside of the workspace, signifying indeterminate energy and welcoming chaotic happenings. Beuys then donned his bear paw-esque gloves and wrapped himself into his plush fur and felt trappings as to be able to slink down and disappear into the fabric with a flashlight. As an energy conducting antenna, the artist extended a hooked staff from the opening of his layers, which were warm enough to accumulate the needed heat for “transformation”, purifying Beuys in a makeshift sauna. He then bent at the waist and slunk around the room in imitation of the coyote’s movements, always pointing his receptive crooked feeler in the animal’s direction. Eventually, Beuys unraveled himself from his swaddling clothes and marched to the edge of the room, a final gesture marking the end of the day’s activities. The artist slept on the bed of rough straw which had been provided for the coyote, who was then free to spend the night balled up in Beuys’ felt. The bedfellows rested among stacks of each day’s Wall Street Journal, delivered from the exterior as a testament to the small mindedness of purely materialistic thought during Beuys’ disciplined ceremony.
Before you accuse me of trying to ruin your Fourth of July barbecue by prattling on about nonsense and animal cruelty, let me assure you that anything I have to say can be smoothed over with enough ballpark franks and potato salad. The outward absurdity of I Like America and America Likes Me can be processed, too, with even just a cursory dip into its creator’s development as a young man and artist, as Beuys’ origins are peppered with intrigue. While crossing the Crimea as a fighter pilot during WWII, Beuys was mythically shot down by enemy fire and rescued on the ground by a passing band of nomadic Tartars, who saved his life by insulating him against hypothermia with heavy felt cloaks and skins. From his rebirth, Beuys drew much of his inspiration; themes of Eurasian shamanism, trauma, healing, animism, legend and medicine.
All such elements are rife within I Like America and America Likes Me. Beuys’ work is wrought with notions of urgency and convalescence, from the EMERGENCY emblazoned in cherry red across his preferred mode of transportation, to the ensnarement of a shaggy coyote— embraced by Beuys’ as a native healing totem and the progeny of the paleo-Siberian steppe-wolves that traveled the Bering Straight many thousands of years ago and adapted craftily to New World ecosystems.
Without once stepping on a cracked New York City sidewalk, Beuys’ left his imprint on the United States and the international consciousness of conceptual art. I see Beuys’ awe of America buried within his attempts to snub it, and I understand both his curiosity and condemnation. As an American soon moving home after a smattering of years abroad, this Independence Day has got me thinking. For America is like Beuys, perturbing, inventive, quirky, still re-cooperating after a gnarled history and not always swallowing its medicine quietly. America is like the coyote, unpredictable and happy to chew off its own feet, but pretty friendly after all, and rather willing to chill out in a felt Snuggie come nightfall. And America is like conceptual art, one of the grandest experiments in abstract democracy ever put on display, which can count the Bill of Rights and the breakfast burrito among its myriad byproducts. There’s still plenty of theoretical and practical kinks to work out, but, like any good work of art, I would hope that the general chatter and precise criticism like Beuys’ surrounding the process never stops. Diversity of opinion and heritage makes America beautiful to ponder; a compelling, sometimes grotesque country often deserving of chastisement, but most certainly worthy of celebration.
Source: David Levi Strauss, “American Beuys”, between dog & wolf, Essays on Art and Politics