How Joseph Beuys celebrated his 63rd birthday
In an attempt to hurry along ‘the end of the twentieth century’ and to celebrate his 63rd birthday, on this day in May 1984 the artist planted 400 native tree and bush species in the Italian town of Bolognano
As the chronology section of our new Phaidon Focus book sets out, Joseph Beuys was born 93 years ago in Krefeld, Germany, on 12 May 1921, and while the radical and influential German sculptor, painter, teacher, theorist and activist may no longer be with us, his efforts live on in the work of today’s artists.
However, one piece thrives quite literally today, and is closely associated with his birthday. Beuys’s urban reforestation project, 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen), began in 1982, at Documenta VII, and continued until his death in 1986. This tree planting drive was, in the artist’s mind, supposed to regenerate “the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare for a positive future in that context.”
In this exclusive extract from our Phaidon Focus book on the artist, by the writer Allan Antliff, we discover how Beuys celebrated his sixty-third birthday with a tree-planting drive in Bolognano, Italy, and how his accompanying sculpture, The End of the Twentieth Century tied into this massive environmental sculpture. For a richer understanding of Beuys’s life and work, consider our Phaidon Focus book. You can buy it from the people who made it, here, or download it here.
“At the public launch of 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen), Beuys announced ‘planting these Oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness; raise it increasingly, in the course of years to come, because we shall never stop planting’.
In keeping with this declaration, in May 1983 Beuys contributed his last monumental sculptural installation, The End of the Twentieth Century (Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts), to the exhibition ‘The Tendency Towards the Total Work of Art – European Utopias since 1800’. There are three versions of this work, which is generally understood to complement 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen). The original is composed of twenty-one basalt steles and an assortment of timber blocks, wedges, crowbars, a wooden pallet and a pallet truck; the second variant features forty-four steles; and the third, completed in 1985, consists of thirty-one steles.
Prior to exhibition, Beuys created a hole in each stele by cutting out a plug of basalt. After smoothing the surface of each plug, he reinserted it back into the hole, which had been smoothed and then lined with clay and felt. The steles were arranged for exhibition in various configurations. The End of the Twentieth Century (Das Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts) is best understood as a work in progress, prefiguring, in a museum context, the complete transformation of society through ecological activism. In Beuys’s words:
“This is the end of the Twentieth Century. That is the old world, on which I impress the stamp of the new world. Look, the plugs, they are like plants from a stone age. I have drilled their funnel shapes with a lot of effort out of the basalt and then placed them back into their holds with felt and clay, so that they wouldn’t hurt as much and stay warm. There is something moving, eruptive, living in this stiffened mass – just as the basalt itself was once pressed out of the interior of the earth.”
Beuys’s final years were dedicated to hurrying ‘the end of the twentieth century’ along. Following the launch of 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen) he celebrated his sixty-third birthday in May 1984 by helping to plant 400 native tree and bush species around the Italian town of Bolognano, which had become an informal centre of social sculpture activities.
The same year, responding to an invitation to develop a competition for public art from Hamburg municipal officials, he proposed a third treeplanting (with steles) to aid the ecological recovery of a toxic land site (Hamburg’s senate turned the idea down as insufficiently artistic). Beuys did not live to see the completion of his Kassel initiative, but after his death, the Dia Art Foundation, which had helped fund 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen), honoured his call to action by planting five trees with steles in 1988 and a second row of eighteen in 1995 (both rows are located adjacent to Dia’s New York offices).
There's a further US connection here too. Inspired by Beuys’s example, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis sponsored curator Todd Bockley (b.1959) to work with the indigenous Ojibwe community of Cass Lake in northern Minnesota to plant 1,034 seedlings throughout their town during the summer of 1997. Bockley also organized children and teachers at a school in Minneapolis’s sister city, St Paul, to undertake tree-planting in their neighbourhood and capped his project with the installation of a stone stele and a single tree in Minneapolis’s civic sculpture garden. In 2000 a third US-based endeavour, the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership project, planted 100 trees in Baltimore public parks and a grove of thirty trees with steles on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Twenty-one community and civic organizations sponsored this event, which was coordinated by the UMBC Art Gallery working with local community groups and schools. The Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership hopes to eventually plant 1,000 to 7,000 trees with steles in Baltimore, so as to mirror ‘the artistic gesture as it exists in Kassel’.
Artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey paid tribute to Beuys in 2007 by collecting acorns from oaks at Kassel and successfully germinating 250 seedlings. In London 250 growing trees have been exhibited at the Royal Academy (2010) and, most recently, as part of the 2012 Festival of the World at the Southbank Centre. Educators have also been inspired by 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen). In 2011 the Woollahra Municipal Council in Sydney, Australia, produced ‘a learning resource for teachers and students’ with a subsection on Beuys. Precious Resources: An Environmental Sculpture Resource Kit presents 7000 Oaks (7000 Eichen) as an exemplary instance of ‘environmental sculpture’ while teaching children how their own well-being is connected to the health of the planet. Finally, citing Beuys’s example and with no state sanction or institutional sponsorship, Irish-based environmental activists have planted 7,000 oak seedlings on the hill of Uisneach in central Ireland. Beuys’s vision continues to inspire people to take action, just as he hoped; and the world is a better place for it.
For a richer understanding of Beuys’s life and work, consider our Phaidon Focus book. You can buy it from the people who made it, here, or download it here.