MATERIAL AS METAPHOR






 

Whether they are found or made, autonomous sculptural objects or relics of a past performance, Beuys' objects exist in a metaphoric field--on a continuum of fluid connections and associations from which metaphors emerge and radiate. In speaking of his work Rubberized Box (1957), Beuys elucidates the passage from personal experience to a more fundamental and universal human experience that is paradigmatic of his work on the whole.

While his comments about Rubberized Box were made at a later date, they suggest that he was already beginning to develop an alternate approach to sculpture--one that was deeply personal, introspective, and that would bring about the evolution of his Theory of Social Sculpture. His theory conceptualized the passage of things (raw material) from a chaotic, undetermined state to a determined, ordered state through the molding process of sculpture. Just as language and semantics give form to thoughts and determine how we understand one another, so does the principle of creativity manifest in artistic practice (the molding process of sculpture) and act as a model for the inherently creative aspects of all social processes. This is the essence of his Theory of Social Sculpture which was the modus operandi of his life-long artistic project.

Materials and objects were "effectual tools" employed by Beuys to clarify his Theory of Social Sculpture. He saw art as a parallel "solution" between two poles: between soft, organic forms and hard, crystallized forms. Such physical matter, or sculptural material, has parallels to thought, which can exist in these polar states and which must be creatively manipulated and transformed. The process of finding the solution between the two poles brings about the "evolutionary step towards a new kind of freedom."

For Beuys, objects always had physical and metaphorical dimensions that extended to the quotidian. The primary aspect of an object lay in its elemental materiality. In Beuys' "system" an object is always a metaphor of something that transcends matter. The genesis of meaning through this paradigm of material to metaphor is a hallmark of his work. Meaning is generated through movement along a series of metaphoric levels: from the elemental material (fat), to the physical state (liquid/solid), to the conceptual (organic/crystalline), to finally, the creative implications embodied by this process as a model for creative solutions--or, "evolutionary step to new freedom"--to problems in all spheres.

In many contexts, the material stands alone, as fat, as felt, but it is also an exemplification of the physical qualities inherent in the material: solid fat is firm, yet pliable. It contains nourishment and kinetic energy--hence fat denotes a potentially nourishing/healing/resolving force. Thus, for Beuys, an immense metaphoric significance lay between fat in its solid and liquid states. Ultimately, fat is a metaphor for the potential for change and the release of creative energy.

Likewise, felt exemplifies materiality, density, entanglement while it connotes the properties of insulation and protection. But the material and physical qualities of felt contain broader social implications: the fibers of felt, consisting of a pressed mass of animal hair or wool, become so intertwined through the transformative process of construction as to be inseparable. This material construction is analogous to "the social dimension of humanity, man in his milieu. He cannot cast off his communal bonds; he cannot defend himself against the dangers of life and develop his potential alone."[16]

Often, too, his objects carry a relatively consistent meaning from context to context, that is, between objects, or between actions. The object, or image, of the stag and the hare signify gender, and the intuitive power of animals. These metaphors remain consistent, albeit never finite. For example, the hare appears in various contexts: the image of a hare may appear in a drawing, or hare's blood may be used as material, a dead hare may be used as a prop in an action, or the hare may be absent from the work except as cryptically inscribed as in the title of the work Hare's Grave. While the specifics shift from context to context, the hare consistently signifies biology and gender ("female principle"), the intuitive power and intelligence of animals, the process of burrowing underground, and the Earth, and/or death as a source of regeneration and redemption. In contrast, Fluxus objects did not function as a source of metaphor. Instead, they existed on a literal level--props that served the playful and irreverent purpose of the moment, in a performance or as part of a multiple.

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