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Matthew Barney/Joseph Beuys exhibition, installation view, Deutsche Guggenheim

Why Barney and Beuys? An inspired justaposition of work by two well known artists or simply a fashionable experiment? All in the present must be transformed brings together work by these two artists in the slightly cramped Guggenheim space at the heart of Berlin Mitte. Curator Nancy Spector has realised the controversial show, showing together for the first time work by German old school artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) and New York art star Matthew Barney, known for his opulent ‘Cremaster Cycle’. Although from different generations, both refer to lost cultures and mythologies as well as using similar materials as metaphors in their narrative work.

The concept developed by Spector in co-operation with Barney is built on three areas explored by both both artists—drawing, sculpture and vitrines. Using works mainly from the Guggenheim collection itself, the exhibition centres around two three-dimensional examples by each artist, Barney’s being the multi-part installation ‘Chrylser Imperial’, 2002, which resembles objects from an episode of ‘Cremaster 3’.

Composed from cast concrete, Vaseline, thermoplast, stainless steal, marble and lubricant, they are scattered on the ground. Placed directly beside it is Beuys’ Aktionsplastik (action sculpture) ‘Terremoto’, 1981, a printing machine with blackboards and a wrapped Italian flag. The keys of the machine are brushed with fat.

Both sculptures illustrate how the artists distill an elaborate narrative message in their sculptures. The show also displays a selection of delicate paperworks which succeeds in showing, even more successfully, the similarities between the artists’ sensitive drawing styles. Four vitrines complete the collection. In contrast to Beuys, who filled his cases with objects from actions, Barney uses the vitrine only for sculptural presentation of film editions.

Frames and the appearance of the vitrines bring contrasts too. Beuys used natural materials like felt in construction. Barney, however, works with inorganic substances such as cast plastics. Two video installations at the end of the exhibition illustrate a more perfomative element of the artists’ work. The less well-known ‘Field Dressing (orifill)’ was produced by Barney in 1989. Next to objects taken from the performance, a video documents action with those objects, Barney outfitted in climbing gear moving between the floor and the ceiling intermittently shoving Vaseline into the orifices of his unclothed body and revealing the essential relationship between action and object in his art. In contrast, Beuys’ sculpture ‘Felt Angles’ from his 1967 performance ‘Eurasion Staff’, is shown close by archival video footage of the same performance in Antwerp in 1968. The confrontation of these two video works is without doubt the most effective element of the show.

In 2003 Nancy Spector curated Matthew Barney‘s ‘Cremaster Cycle’ at the Guggenheim, New York. This and the Beuys retrospective there in 1979/80, which she interpreted as ‘more than only an arrangement of objects’, could have been the inspiration for her joint showing now in Berlin. In an interview published by Deutsche Bank 2006, Spector says: ‘I’m very curious about what kind of debate this will engender. After all, why else do an exhibition?’ In the end however, this show seems more an experiment than an irrevocable curatorial statement, serving not so much to help find similarities in the work of Barney and Beuys, but to sharpen the view of their work individually.

Barbara Buchmaier is a critic based in Berlin