The How Museum is a recent addition to the Shanghai museum scene, yet since its opening in September 2017 it has been punching above its weight. Its inaugural show Manifesto by Julian Rosenfeldt was a crowd pleaser for the art initiated and the general public alike. For its second exhibition Lettres du Voyant: Joseph Beuys x Nam June Paik (‘Letters of the Seer’), How similarly delivers.
TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGES: Courtesy of How Museum
Letters culls from the oeuvre of these Fluxus artists to create an engaging, albeit uneven portrait of two of the movement’s key practitioners. Charting the former’s influence on the latter, their distinct visual and conceptual approaches to their work, while simultaneously showcasing moments of overlap and collaboration, the exhibition conveys the restless creativity of both men who redefined what contemporary art could be through their practice.
Though the introductory wall text, supplementary catalogues and a helpful timeline at the exhibition outset outline the contributions and concerns of both artists, it is Nam June Paik’s work that is foregrounded on the museum’s first floor. If Paik were reduced to a twitter hashtag, it would undoubtedly read, #fatherofvideoart. This, of course, is no small achievement and yet he was so much more. Born in South Korea in 1932, Paik was trained as a classical musician before fleeing with his family to Tokyo during the war. Later he studied in Germany where he encountered and participated in Fluxus. Fluxus was influenced by D.T. Suzuki, John Cage and the then recent English translation of the I-Ching, and Paik seized on this amalgam of influences for his own work. Cage and Suzuki sought to heighten people’s awareness through contemporary music and Zen Buddhism respectively, and Paik similarly adopted this goal, using tactics of repetition and boredom combined with shock—strategies also endorsed by Cage and Suzuki, to bring his viewers to a higher state of consciousness.
It is this focus on attention that makes the best of Paik’s works as engaging as ever, as evidenced by Cage in a Cage, one of the first works on view in the exhibition. Here, a cage normally used to house a songbird, instead contains a small video screen depicting a montage of John Cage at the piano, with piano hammers piled up at the bottom of the enclosure like feathers. The linguistic and visual puns present in the piece spark a ricochet of associations between music, sound and even freedom, that are delightful to entertain. Similarly, in French Clock TV, the nature of time is dramatized through various mediums such that it is almost palpable. A video camera sits opposite the pendulum of a wall clock, while, surrounding the clock are four monitors in different orientations that broadcast back, in real time, the pendulum’s swing. Time, mostly taken for granted, here is fractured, magnified and redeployed such that it comes fully into view in a manner both simple and profound.
The exhibition contextualizes Beuys and Paik through videos of a collaborative performance between the two, documents and paraphernalia, and through How’s daily screenings of Andres Veiel’s brand-spanking-new documentary on Beuys. However, while How provides enough information about and artwork by Paik to provide a robust picture of him as an artist, the same cannot be said of the institution’s handling of Beuys. The context for Beuys’s work is elucidated, but it doesn’t do enough to catalyze interest in the artist, nor do the few artworks on view help embellish his narrative in a way that feels consequential.
Unlike Paik, Beuys is a more controversial figure. His art is less tangible physically, and is far more dependent on the audience’s belief in him, in his stories and propositions– if not literally than at least figuratively. Beuys was a Nazi plane radio operator and gunner who claimed that his plane was shot down at the Crimean front where he was rescued by tartars, who wrapped his body in felt and fat and nursed him back to health. The truth of this story is long disputed and likely false, but what comes out of it is Beuys’ ur narrative–that there is a primal, transformative healing power available to all, and that the artist’s work is as a shaman, a figure who in various ways can catalyze the healing of a myriad of societal wounds.
His objects, thus, are almost incidental—his felt suits and fat chairs, not necessarily interesting in themselves but engaging as potential signifiers of healing. Beuys is most fascinating, however, in his notion of ‘social sculpture’, which is also perhaps his most enduring legacy. Moving beyond the boundaries of the art world, he enlisted teaching, political activism and the simple act of directly conversing with people, to help catalyze change in individuals and by extension, in society at large.
In this way, mounting a successful Beuys exhibition is challenging, as these abstract themes must be teased out of the work through a careful orchestration of objects and documents that make his intention clear. How, instead, showcases a scattering of Beuys’ vitrines, a number of posters and documents, and two video documents of performances; and the selection and arrangement of these works does little to help the audience relate to his vision. As only piecemeal aspects of Beuys’ practice come into view, Lettres du Voyant: Joseph Beuys x Nam June Paik, falls a bit short of its intention to flesh out the accomplishments of these two artists. Nonetheless, even a glimpse of the ambitions of these figures is more than enough to feast on, and however imperfect, How’s show is well worth it.
Lettres du Voyant: Joseph Beuys x Nam June Paik
2018.01.20 – 2018.05.13
HOW Art Museum
Maya Kramer is an artist, an independent art writer and arts project coordinator. She was based in New York City for nine years during which time she worked in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim Museum and for private collectors. In 2010 she moved to Shanghai, and has since exhibited internationally in conjunction with institutions such the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Hong Kong) and the Van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven, Holland) among others. She is the recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, her works have been featured in media such as Fortune Art, Randian and Blouin Art Info, and she has written for The Shanghai Gallery of Art, Artlink, and Bank Gallery. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.