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.

alarm II.jpg

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

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.