Critique | ‘Joseph Beuys: From the Secret Block to Rosc’ and Asbestos, Pass Freely

Hugh Lane Gallery, 17 July 2021 – 23 January 2022; 40/41 O’Connell Street, 22 June – 31 December 2021

Bill Porter, Joseph Beuys: Lecture and Discussion with Joseph Beuys and Caroline Tisdall, Ulster Museum, 18 November 1974. Black and white photograph courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland. Bill Porter, Joseph Beuys: Lecture and Discussion with Joseph Beuys and Caroline Tisdall, Ulster Museum, 18 November 1974. Black and white photograph courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland.

To mark the centenary of the birth of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), The Hugh Lane Gallery traces the artists’ relationship with Ireland. The current exhibition, ‘Joseph Beuys: From the Secret Block to Rosc’, comprises three films, a series of photographs, and three blackboards from Beuys’s lectures. To complement the exhibition, Irish street artist, Asbestos, created a large mural on the side of the AIB building and hoarding on O’Connell Street.

Looped in The Hugh Lane’s lecture room is a short documentary, A Beuys Crying in the Wilderness (1974), by Derek Bailey, aired on ITV in 1974 during Beuys’s visit to Belfast. This is the most striking, captivating and useful film for understanding the artist’s relationship with Ireland. Drawn to peripheral parts of Europe, Beuys saw energy and depth of thought in Ireland, a country he claimed to be “the brain of Europe”. 

The film documents Beuys’s appearances in the Ulster Museum, where he delivered lectures on the occasion of his travelling exhibition, ‘Secret Block for a Secret Person’ in 1974. He met with students and spoke to people on the streets of Belfast. This footage is fascinating. Showing how divisive he was during this visit, there are responses from people who supported his ideas and others who dismissed him as impractical or naïve. Some audience members in the Ulster Museum lecture theatre are fully engaged, yet others are falling asleep. Beuys was proposing a vision for Ireland that reconnects with Celtic heritage, while healing from trauma and turmoil. These lectures seemed to be long, and he tended to out-speak himself, which could land as stimulating or flat.

Beuys persisted an idea of accessing the innate creative energy he found to be present in Ireland and proposed the Celtic spiral as a ‘blueprint for being’. On the blackboard, he would draw a cube and problematise it; then he would draw a spiral and, with his words, elevate its power. Line and voice appeared to be a combining form for Beuys. The film shows this with ease, as well as capturing the tension, exhilaration, and delusion generated from his visit.

The next film by Sean Curtis is a short explainer for the mural, Pass Freely by Asbestos. The film, narrated by the artist, is a clear and well-paced synopsis of the work. Roughly a five-minute walk from The Hugh Lane Gallery, Asbestos’ mural is a contemporary response to Beuys. A figure made of painted burnt matches, which is a self-portrait, looks upwards as a gesture of remembrance and acknowledgement of hope. Each match represents a person in Ireland who has died from COVID-19. For the duration of the display, Asbestos is adding more matches, as the pandemic continues. The title, Pass Freely, is drawn from a quote in Beuys’s 1974 book, The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland: “Pass freely from one level of existence to another”. In comparison to Beuys’s multiple approaches, contradictions, myths and truths, Pass Freely is at risk of appearing one-dimensional in its execution, however, the poignancy of the work is not lost. Asbestos repeats the quote each time he paints a match, creating a respectful and subtle tribute to each life that has passed.

The third film is an interview with Caroline Tisdall, a significant figure in Beuys’s practice. Produced for this exhibition and for ‘Unity in Diversity: Joseph Beuys in Ireland’, showing concurrently in the National Gallery of Ireland, the film features Tisdall describing their experience of travelling across the country. She remembers his visit to the Giant’s Causeway as a performance, and these reflections contrast beautifully with the ‘in real time’ ITV news documentary.

In a separate space, a series of photographs taken by Tisdall are displayed in measured groupings. Several images depict Beuys in action. Amongst the photographs are three blackboards from the Hugh Lane collection. These are familiar to me, yet they have a notable new status in this context. Controversially classified as art, the blackboards came out of storage in 1978, marking the beginning of their quiet presence as traces of a vibrant lecture in the Hugh Lane in October 1974. Now, the sound of chalk and voice can only be imagined, yet the marks themselves have the strength to hold their own in the company of Tisdall’s precise, documented moments. 

‘From the Secret Block to Rosc’ acknowledges the diversity of Beuys’ relationship with Ireland, including the presentation of his works in Rosc on two occasions (in 1977 and 1984). A notable highlight is information about how Ireland was the artist’s desired permanent location for the Freedom International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (FIU) – a place for promoting freedom to realise creative potential. 

The robust documentation gathered and shown in The Hugh Lane clearly shows Beuys’s dynamic persona, entangled with the materiality of his work. As an artist committed to change, healing and growth, Beuys potentially embodied the sentiment of writer and activist, Toni Cade Bambara, who stated: “It is the role of the artist to make the revolution irresistible”. Perhaps misunderstood as utopian and sometimes seen as individualist, a force in his ideas was instrumental in concrete outcomes, such as the formation of Art and Research Exchange in Belfast in 1978, in turn facilitating the establishment of the Artist Collective of Northern Ireland and Circa contemporary art magazine. Depicting Beuys from the past and through the present, the exhibition proposes a response, similar to the ITV news reporter, who concludes Derek Bailey’s 1974 film with the words: “strangely encouraging”.

Jennie Taylor is an art writer living and working in Dublin, Ireland.