Lemon aid

capri battery.jpg

Joseph Beuys died on 23 January 1986. Just a few months before, he had stayed on the Italian island of Capri, where his Neapolitan gallery owner, Lucio Amelio, owned a villa. He was convalescing after having contracted interstitial pneumonia in May 1985.

During his stay, Beuys created ‘Capri Battery’, a relatively light-hearted sculpture, but one that carries an important ecological message. Amelio writes: "I remember his indescribable excitement when Beuys showed me his work just completed on a beautiful morning of his last September in the garden of Villa Quatro Venti in Capri. One lemon was connected to a yellow lightbulb by means of socket and plug. To this little object, the Capri Battery, he summarized once again his whole theory of the relationship between art and nature. "

Beuys loved Italy, the country, its people, nature and culture. And the bright yellow fruits of the lemon tree are associated with Italy; with light and warmth. Lemon trees are a common sight in Naples, so Beuys was using a natural, organic product associated with the area.

Interestingly the size of the lemon and the size of the light bulb, yellow too, closely match each other. The light bulb, of course, is an industrially produced, man-made “scientific” object that requires power, in the form of electricity, to actually “come to life”.

The viewer is led to believe that the light bulb is being powered by the lemon. Of course the growth of the lemon has come about by the power of the sun. The sculpture encapsulates Beuys’ interest energy, warmth, and the environment.

By using a lemon as the source of energy for the light bulb, Beuys illustrates the fact that all forms of energy are sourced from nature.

Since the two components of the Capri battery are the same size, shape and colour, a sense of balance is achieved, suggesting that in the modern world a likewise balance must be established between the finite resources of nature and the demands of technological developments.

Beuys went on to create the sculpture as a multiple. The 200 copies were enclosed by a small wooden box. On the lid of each box, printed in sulphur yellow letters was the instruction: "Replace battery after 1000 hours".

An ecological warning - that natural resources are limited, and care must be taken with them.

The environment belongs to us all

We are fortunate in this country to be able to regularly see many works by Joseph Beuys through the auspices of the Artist Rooms programme.

The Anthony d’Offay Gallery was an early exhibitor of Beuys’ works and after the gallery was closed in 2001 Anthony d’Offay went on to build up a collection of a considerable number of artworks by some of the most important contemporary artists. This collection was donated jointly to the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate in 2008 with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and the Scottish and British Governments.

I, in the last five years or so, have visited solo exhibitions of Beuys’ works (from the Artist Rooms collection) in Bexhill on Sea, Cardiff and Leeds, such is the frequency and geographical spread of such exhibitions.

Below is an image of a poster in the possession of the Artist Rooms collection.

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It is interesting in that it shows Beuys, along with a group of fifty students sweeping the Grafenberger – a small public forest - in Düsseldorf.

In an excellent Phaidon Focus book, simply entitled “Joseph Beuys”, the author, Allan Antliff, succinctly explains that in December 1971 “Beuys and fifty students demonstrated how direct action could work by sweeping paths through a small public forest in the city of Dusseldorf that was threatened by the planned expansion of a tennis club. They marked the trees that were to be cut down, exposing just how devastating the destruction would be. Beuys issued a call to 'Overcome the dictatorship of the parties, save the forest!' and distributed a poster announcing 'Let the rich beware, we will not yield. Universal well-being is advancing’. In an interview he [Beuys} stated: ’Everyone talks about environmental protection, but very few do anything about it, [....] we made our contribution with this action [...] the forest is an environment for all of us, it must be protected [‘’’] The environment belongs to us all, not just to high society.’ The tennis club expansion was shelved.”

The image was also released in a “multiple” of 200 copies, all signed and numbered, and with a title “Save the woods” (Rettet den Wald) .

I am reminded of a time in 2011 when ministers wanted to transfer the power of looking after our forests from the Forestry Commission to the private sector.

Hundreds of people gathered in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, for example, to protest about the possible sale of parts of the public woodland.

Thankfully, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, was eventually forced to abandon the plans.


Water, water everywhere and not a drop fit to drink

Joseph Beuys produced many ‘multiples’ - a series of identical art objects produced or commissioned by him.

One of his main reasons for using them was that it allowed him to distribute both his art and his ideas to a wider public.

Imogen Foulkes describes on a BBC webpage of 2001 a state of affairs in Germany, of which Beuys was very aware: “For decades, industrial and domestic waste flowed untreated into the river and, not surprisingly, the Rhine was seriously polluted from the 1950s to the 1970s. Fish disappeared and it was dangerous to swim”.

As a means of highlighting this, Beuys, back in 1981, produced his multiple ‘Rhine Water Polluted’. It was made in conjunction with Nicolas Garcia Uriburu, an environmental artist and activist, who had already come to prominence in 1968 when he used fluorescein (a harmless pigment which turns a bright green when synthesized by microorganisms in the water) to dye Venice's polluted Grand Canal. He went on to repeat the act on New York’s East River, the Seine, the port of Antwerp and, of course, the Rhine.


Here Beuys and Garcia Uriburu are carrying the dyed, polluted Rhine river water ready to be bottled and to be used in the multiples.

Each of the 25 bottles produced carried a type-written label with the words:

H2O + 10.000 Poisons

and were signed by both Beuys and Garcia Uriburu.

With this multiple Beuys and Uriburu’s were bringing the adverse effects of river pollution into the consciousness of a wider public.

The headline of Imogen Foulkes’ article reads ‘Rhine on path to recovery’. The article was published in June 2001 and referred mainly to the positive strides made to reduce toxic chemical pollution.

But now another problem has been highlighted by the The University of Basel whose website in December 2015 states:

“Between Basel and Rotterdam, the Rhine has one of the highest microplastics pollution so far measured in rivers, with the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area showing peak numbers of up to four times the average. Among investigated rivers, the Rhine is thus among those most heavily polluted with microplastics. This is reported by researchers from the University of Basel, who evaluated, for the first time, the plastic concentration at the surface of one of the big European rivers. Their results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.”

The same problems - just different pollutants.

Alarming Art

Below is an artwork created by Joseph Beuys in 1983 - 36 years ago, now.

His work is rarely aesthetically beautiful, but it invariably poses questions - which then set off a chain of thoughts.

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This work forms part of the Ulbricht collection and consists of 2 crucibles coated with vermillion - a brilliant red pigment made from mercury sulphide (cinnabar), a shell with a coating of copper sulphate, and a blood transfusion bag.

It is very striking on three fronts. It is colourful; it is an odd mix of objects; it is carefully composed.

The use of the transfusion bag suggests ‘emergency’, and its title reinforces that: ‘Alarm II’.

Before the beginning of World War II, Beuys was planning to become a (medical) scientist; it was only towards the end of the war that he changed his mind and went on to study art at the Düsseldorf Academy.

In Alarm II, Beuys not only exhibits his familiarity with chemistry, but also of alchemy.

Vermillion contains both mercury and sulphur - two of the 3 alchemical primes of Paracelsus, the third being salt. (Paracelsus was one of the most influential medical scientists in early modern Europe).

It seems significant to me that Vermilion is considered to be the colour of life; associated with blood because of its red colour. But mercury is a deadly poison made by roasting cinnabar, and crucibles are associated with heat - as is mercury (think of the mercury thermometer).

In the right hand crucible sits a shell of a clam, the only natural object in the work. Yet this is coated with copper sulphate - a material that in its natural habitat would threaten the clam’s very existence. And copper sulphate is associated with inorganic growth (of crystals) - yet it is also a poison used to kill fungi.

In the work, it is the shell (here used to represent the living, natural, world in general) which is being poisoned and which needs the life-giving transfusion.

Beuys is here sounding an alarm concerning the endangering of life through the poisoning of the natural habitat of living creatures.

I was prompted to write this note when I recently recalled how I was immediately reminded of “Alarm II” when I saw the images of a disaster that occurred in Hungary in 2010. Here it was the breaching of the banks of a reservoir full of the waste from an alumina refining plant.

Ten people were killed and 150 injured, and 15 square miles of land were affected. And, no doubt, an incalculable number of living organisms were killed.

Here is an image from WWF Hungary. The red here is from iron (rust) produced as a waste byproduct in the alumina extraction process:

sludge aluminium WWF Hungary.jpg

There is graphic film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGfX6Eo5lsI

Extraction of materials from the Earth may be necessary but more so is the responsibility to take care of it.

Knife Crime

In the current climate, where more than 100 people have been fatally stabbed since the start of this year, I am reminded of Joseph Beuys’ artwork “Wenn Du Dich schneidest, verbinde nicht den Finger sondern das Messer” [“When you cut your finger, bandage the knife.”]

Wenn Du Dich schneidest.jpg

It is a small sculpture of a knife, bound with a small plaster over the tip of the blade.

It is often described as a humorous piece - though that may refer to its title rather than the object itself.

But I see the sculpture itself as acting as an instructive symbol of the need to address (interesting that we use the very similar word ‘dress’ in connection with a wound) what is causing the wound, and to attempt to heal those causes, as much as healing the wound itself.

In the case of a non-fatal knifing, dressing the wound will, thankfully, have saved the life of one person. Addressing the deeper causes may save the life of many.