New York Art@Site Joseph Beuys 7.000 Oaks

Joseph Beuys


7.000 Oaks

22nd Street
Possibly the most important German artist of the post World War II 20th Century, Joseph Beuys was a sculptor, performance artist, installation artist, graphic artist and art theorist. When I think of Beuys, I immediately conjure bolts of awkward grey felt, or 'I Like America and America Likes Me,' his performance in which he shared a gallery space with a coyote for three days. But, Beuys brought forth the concept of the 'social sculpture,' in which he believed revolutionary change was possibly through universal human creativity. One such sculpture began at Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany in 1982 when Bueys had a pile of basalt stones delivered to the site. Each was paired with a newly planted tree, inciting social and environmental change. The result being both fluid and stoic at once, with the ever growing tree and the solid basalt mass. By 1989, 7000 trees, paired with basalt stones, were planted in Kassel. Beuys had intended the project to become world wide,to promote urban renewal.
Started in 1988 and completed in 1996, the Dia Foundation extended the project to 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. Rather than planting exclusively oak trees, Dia chose to plant Gingko, Linden, Bradford pear, Sycamore, Pin Oak, Red Oak and Elm Honey Locust, totaling 22 trees/sculptures in all. Perhaps clairvoyant in their location, as the epicenter of the New York art world in the late 80s was Soho, the living sculptures align the busy street of galleries in the bustling Chelsea art district. Blink and you might just miss it!
With the help of volunteers, Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees over several years in Kassel, Germany, each with an accompanying basalt stone. In regard to the extensive urbanization of the setting the work was an extensive artistic and ecological intervention with the goal of enduringly altering the living space of the city. The project, though at first controversial, has become an important part of Kassel's cityscape.
The project was of enormous scope, and met with some controversy. While the biggest difficulty of the project was raising the money, the project had its share of opponents. Much of it was political, from the conservative state government dominated by the Christian Democrats. (The mayor of Kassel was a social democrat who stood by Beuys). Some people thought the black stone markers were ugly, even piling pink stones on the sites in 1982 as a prank. Also, a motorcyclist had died as a result of one of the stone markers. However, as more trees were planted people's perception of the project as a parking lot destroyer had met with increasing tolerance.
The display of a tree with a solid stone, at first glance, may be an enigma by itself. It generates questions and full of wonders that consecutively lead to additional questions. What is this eccentric juxtaposition of the gray solid stone with the green-leaf tree trying to represent? As with most of Beuys' art works, the underlying philosophy embedded in the 7000 Oaks project is to encourage the challenge towards the established assumptions. However, it is not merely a denial against the conventional perceptions, but rather a desire for a new attitude. The solid stone that stands beside the ever-changing tree is a symbolic representation that brings out this message. These two natural and yet oppositional qualities are complementary and coexisting harmoniously. As a symbol of regeneration, a slow progressive growing oak tree represents a continuous transformation of life, society and the entire ecological system.
'I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future.... The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.' (Joseph Beuys in conversation with Richard Demarco, 1982.)
'The planting of seven thousand oak trees is only a symbolic beginning. Contrary to its initiative, progressive features such a symbolic beginning requires a marker, in this instance a basalt column. Future goals for the project included: a) an ongoing scheme of tree planting to be extended throughout the world as part of a global mission to effect environmental & social change 'the purpose of educational activities'; b) a growth of awareness within the urban environment of the human dependence on the larger ecosystem educational outreach ; and c) an ongoing process whereby the society would be activated by means of human creative will social sculpture.'
Beuys' art works and performances are not about entertaining and amusing the audience. It is an awakening message from the tradition, a recognition of the whole based upon a new concept of beauty that extends beyond the instant gratification.
'I not only want to stimulate people, I want to provoke them.' (Bastian, Heines and Jeannot Simmen,'Interview with Joseph Beuys,' in the catalog exhibition, Joseph Beuys, Drawings, Victoria and Albert Museum, Westerham Press, 1983, no folio.)
It is a movement from the tradition, the expected, and the established for an inclusive openness. After five years, the project ended in 1987 on the occasion of documenta 8. It is still alive.
Beuys' 7000 Oaks work is an example of the thread that links the Situationist International's approach to art and its re-creation by new groups continues to evolve through a new generation of socially conscious organizations that merge art, education, and environmental issues in their work. In 2000, the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) developed the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park and Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership and planted over 350 trees in various parks in Baltimore Parks with the help of over 500 volunteers including children from local schools. The project was organized around Beuys' philosophy that ‘everyone can be an artist’ by acknowledging the creativity inherent in volunteers planting trees on their own. The goal of the project was also to 'extend the traditional role of the art gallery so the gallery extends out into the city'.