‘I believe that when someone sees my works I appear to them...’
– Joseph Beuys
‘Wolleh had the incredible ability of sensing object relations. Endowed with great intuitional skills, he was a kind of treasure hunter.’
– Joseph Beuys
Executed in 1972, Joseph Beuys’s Unterwasserbuch (Underwater Book) is a time capsule of Beuys’ most personal motifs, preserved underwater for posterity. A metal torch illuminates a rubber book, whose oversize pages consecutively show forty-three black-and-white photographs of Beuys installing his 1971 exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden; the artist’s first exhibition outside of Germany. In January of that year, the photographer Lothar Wolleh travelled with Beuys to document the installation period; using a camera set up some metres away from the artworks and relying on natural lighting, the resulting photographs are silent witnesses to the process of Beuys at work. With their blurrings, intermittent inky darkness, and Beuys striding in and out, the photographs capture Beuys’ magnetic magic. Initially, planned as an edition of multiples, when Wolleh’s signature black frame was trimmed during the printing process, production was halted. Only two copies of the Joseph Beuys – eine Dokumentation von Lothar Wolleh book were created, the other held at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. In this work, the underwater torch illuminates a spread of Beuys, caught in a moment of reflection and self-appraisal, standing beside his earlier work, Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet (The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated), a critique of Duchamp’s withdrawal from art practice in favour of chess. Within Beuys’ self-created mythology, the yellowish light of the torch links to the narrative of his rescue by Tatars after his plane crashed in Crimea during the Second World War, and torches reappear in several of his most significant works including The Sled, 1969, and The Pack, 1969.
Another key element of Beuys’ visual vocabulary was the expressive potential of the empty rectangular box: ‘Symbolically, the dark, empty box is an anti-space that embodies a spiritual shelter and safe haven, which, through its undefined emptiness, offers the opportunity to fill it with something new’ (I. Malz, ‘The Undefined Silence Between: Reflections on Silence, Invisible Phenomena, and Dust Images in the Work of Joseph Beuys’ in M. Ackermann (et. al.), Joseph Beuys: Parallel Processes, Munich, 2010, p. 369). Like the vitrines, plinths and pedestals that separate an artwork from its audience, the box of Unterwasserbuch, rusted on the outside, and smoothly galvanised within, frames its contents and choreographs how they are understood. The water within appears to distort the pages of the book, but also locates the book within a geological timescale, seemingly a preserved remnant of Beuys.
Shedding light on a photograph of a work directly referencing Duchamp, Beuys cleverly brings to the fore and evaluates the Dadaist’s artistic legacy. Whereas Duchamp collapsed the divide between mass production and high art, Beuys sought to demolish the gap between art and life altogether, a desire conveyed through his concept of ‘social sculpture’, or the potential of art to galvanise societal change. As the artist explained, ‘I am interested in the dissemination of physical vehicles in the form of editions, because I am interested in the dissemination of ideas. … You see, the people who own such an object...will continually look to see what the man who produced the thing is doing now...It is like an antenna standing somewhere or other with which you stay connected’ (J. Beuys, quoted in B. Dodenhoff, ‘The Multiples’ in M. Ackermann, et. al., Joseph Beuys: Parallel Processes, Munich, 2010, p. 170).