‘Eight Days – Beuys in Japan’ focused on recently recovered documentary footage of Joseph Beuys, totalling more than eight hours, shot during his eight-day visit to Japan in 1984 for an exhibition at Tokyo’s Seibu Museum of Art. Shown on several monitors and projections throughout the Contemporary Art Gallery, the footage began with Beuys strutting off the gangway at Narita Airport, Nam June Paik in tow, and ended with him walking alone – filmed from above and silhouetted in his trademark hat with long coat and suitcase – towards the boarding gate, as a female voice calls out the Lufthansa departure time. There was also footage of Beuys at a lecture on ‘Art and Society’ at Asahi Hall; at a press conference; of his performance with Paik at Sogetsu Hall; in a commercial for Nikka Whiskey (featuring the artist alone in the birch-white woods, raising a tumbler in salute to nature); and at an agitated discussion forum with students at Tokyo University of the Arts, including the then-young curator Yuko Hasegawa and artist Tatsuo Miyajima.
The actual works on display were limited mainly to editions and multiples taken exclusively from Japanese collections, as well as several blackboard drawings made during Beuys’ visit. In one instance, two blackboard drawings, featuring a wispy horizontal line and arcing parabola respectively, were placed across from each other, overlooking a monitor with footage of the lecture. Viewers who watched until the end of the lecture would have seen Beuys, after answering a final question from the audience, walk over to two blackboards and casually make the same marks in chalk as those on the works above. It was a startling moment of dissociation by recognition: what appeared to be mere displays became relics, direct links to the moment recorded on film.
While Beuys was its centre of attention, the videos provided an ambient snapshot of Japan in 1984, on the threshold of the bubble economy: rows of smoking journalists earnestly inquire about social sculpture; Beuys’ limousine cruises silently along Tokyo motorways; Beuys at a local garden, collecting specimens for his botany notebook. Particularly during the discussion forum – held in a packed, sweaty gymnasium – Beuys was repeatedly confronted about the perceived hypocrisy of collaborating with the industrial and retail conglomerate Seibu, which in exchange for his agreement to do the exhibition contributed 500 trees to his 7,000 Oaks project (initiated in 1982). Patiently answering each question, Beuys assumes the role of the weary but optimistic messiah. In fact, when prodded by critic and curator Ichiro Hariu about his ‘superstar’ status, Beuys seems to be paraphrasing the 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (another study of charisma and credulity), when he says that he doesn’t need to be a superstar, but if it serves a purpose it is worth it.
The footage in ‘8 Days – Beuys in Japan’ was originally edited into a one-hour compilation for commercial distribution in 1984, but the master-tapes were misplaced until Takahashi recently tracked them down for the exhibition. If the former banked on the marketability of gospel, the latter offered the contradictions of perspective. Unedited, Beuys’ campaign for a world renewed by spirited, artisanal production seems hopelessly quixotic. Moreover, the idea of students, and even teachers and critics, challenging an established artist so intensely is almost unthinkable in contemporary Japan. Yet the beauty of history is that it never stays in one place. A portrait of the past, the exhibition’s story of transit, transience and discourse also held a mirror to the present.
First published in Issue 130