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In late October, there was news out of Germany of an improbable stunt carried out by an anonymous collective called the Frankfurter Hauptschule. Documented in a hilariously irreverent three-minute video posted to YouTube, three members of the group — who prefer to remain nameless — reportedly stole a multiple by Joseph Beuys and took it on a joyride to Tanzania, where they presented it to officials at the Iringa Boma Regional Museum and Cultural Center. Their satirical gesture of restitution is layered with obscure references — even in Germany, a reporter writing for the art magazine Monopol called the whole thing “ein Witz mit zu viel Erklärung,” or “a joke with too much explanation.” But it’s simply too good to go unpacked, so here is your “Bad Beuys” primer.
Founded in 2013, the Frankfurter Hauptschule is a collective of about 20 art students associated with the Städelschule, a prestigious art school in Frankfurt. Since then, they have been interested, as they told Hyperallergic, in “exploring the boundaries of art within the public sphere, art spaces, social and mass media.” The idea to steal a Beuys multiple, which follows on their toilet-papering of Goethe’s home in 2019, came from their participation in an exhibition dedicated to Christoph Schlingensief. On view at Theater Oberhausen, a performing arts center in Schlingensief’s hometown, near Essen, the show celebrates the sphere of influence around the late artist, theater director, and filmmaker, who died in 2010 at age 50. Schlingensief was a consummate prankster, dealing with Europe’s traumatic past and present in grotesque, absurdist feature films and elaborate performative artworks; one of his best known actions, in 2000, involved the staging of a live reality show called “Please Love Austria” in a public square in Vienna, where aspiring immigrants were mistreated and then voted off one by one before an incredulous audience of passersby.
Schlingensief often acknowledged a debt to Beuys, who had pioneered, among other things, the notion of “social sculpture”: the idea that expressions of creativity, exercised through ordinary daily acts by artists and non-artists alike, could reshape society for the better. Social sculpture informed not only Schlingensief’s outlandish political interventions but also his last, uncharacteristically sincere project: Operndorf Afrika, a large-scale cultural development effort to bring opera to Burkina Faso, which has continued after his death. The Beuys-Schlingensief connection was made explicit in the Oberhausen exhibition, with the inclusion of Beuys’s 1985 multiple “Capri-Batterie” (Capri Battery) — which consists of a yellow-painted lightbulb plugged into an actual lemon — on loan from the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster.
Conceived by Beuys during a stay on the island of Capri while he was convalescing from a heart condition, “Capri Battery” was an appealing object for the Frankfurter Hauptschule mainly because it was small. “It would have been difficult to bring a two-by-three meter [work by Hermann] Nitsch to Tanzania,” they admitted. But it also afforded them the opportunity to link the concept of social sculpture, conveyed by “Capri Battery”’s emphasis on the transmission of energy, to the aims of cultural repatriation. They wanted, in their words, to “[steal] a Beuys in the name of Beuys.” Beuys had never shown much interest in repatriation, but with the goal of social sculpture ultimately being social repair, the connection makes sense — all the more so with an eye toward the African continent, which Germany played a major role in violently colonizing in the late 19th century.
But rather than go to Africa as benevolent cultural aid workers, à la Schlingensief, the Frankfurter Hauptschule opted to go, as they put it, “as the white, privileged assholes that we are.” Their video “Bad Beuys,” set to Toto’s 1981 hit single “Africa,” follows them on their journey from the theft of “Capri Battery” to its eventual enshrinement in Tanzania — a destination chosen in part because, according the group, it was the only one of Germany’s former colonies that would accept travelers at the height of the pandemic. Opening with a dedication to Schlingensief, “who did not always do everything right,” the video invokes a litany of (neo)colonial clichés, from a wardrobe of khaki safari garb (and a cheetah crop top) to repeated shots of the group holding Beuys’s lightbulb up to the sunset as if it were Simba in The Lion King.
After decompressing in Dar es Salaam, the collaborators hop on a bus inland to Iringa, where they finally hand over the “Capri Battery” to officials at the Iringa Boma Regional Museum and Cultural Centre, who had enthusiastically responded to the group’s proposed symbolic restitution. Following a press conference, the multiple, sporting a new lemon, is shown in a vitrine alongside other artifacts from the Hehe peoples.
The situation is absurd, but then so is the idea that any gesture whatsoever could make up for Germany’s colonial crimes, short of returning every last looted object and all of the wealth drained from the continent, with interest. How better to illustrate the inadequacy of current restitution efforts (mostly occurring outside of Germany) than to offer up as tribute a flimsy object by one of Germany’s most famous artists, who thought art — and the conversations it engenders — could bring about transformative social change?
But the joke doesn’t end there: it turns out that the “Capri Battery” in Tanzania isn’t even the real thing, but a cheap fake. A few days after the Frankfurter Hauptschule’s original video appeared on YouTube, they posted another, in which Deonis Mgumba, the curator of the Iringa Boma Museum, explains that the original Beuys work is safe and sound in the basement of the Theater Oberhausen, where nobody had bothered to look for it. The storerooms of Europe, as ever, overfloweth.