Coyotes and Tricksters: A Critical Look at the Performance Work of Joseph Beuys and James Luna

Neo-Dada movements, like Fluxus and the artists associated with it, have had a continuing impact on the work of contemporary performance and installation artists.  Many artists of color create art that uses the body as a means to discuss the effects of the dominant society on their own culture or personal lives.  James Luna is a good example of this, a Native American performance and installation artist who makes deeply personal and political works, often using himself and his body as the “object.”  He states that he makes art for Indian people first, he sees them as his audience. Luna believes he is “not just criticizing a condition.  I am in the condition” (quoted in Townsend-Gault:1999, 122).  His pieces are actions, a word often used to describe the work of Ono and Joseph Beuys as well.  Luna attempts to bridge the gap between cultures.  His installations often function as stills from a drama, while his performances force the viewer to confront the stereotypes of “Native” (Townsend-Gault: 1992, 192).

Many of these artists, like the Neo-Dada artists of the 1950s and 1960s, have been influenced by the upheaval that the Dada artists introduced into the art world in the early twentieth century. Dada as a movement emerged in Zurich in 1916 as a “collaboration of poets, painters, musicians, and entertainers working together to produce, not a timeless work of art, but a ‘gesture’” (Rugh 1). These artists were responding to the chaos of World War I, and were trying to “undermine traditional notions of culture through an aesthetic of reduction, contradiction, and chance” (Rugh 2). The aspect of performance in the work of the Dada artists, whether in Zurich or Berlin, was an important part of the movement. Two of the founders of Dada in Zurich, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, were intimately tied to the theater. Much of the “gesture” that came out of the Dada movement involved performances, meant to be fleeting, momentary events, an idea picked up again in the 1960s with the Happenings of the Neo-Dada artists, and carried through to contemporary performance art. Much like the Neo-Dada or contemporary art, the Dada style cannot be defined as a coherent or consistent style (Dickerman 9).

The Neo-Dada movement was comprised of a group of artists and musicians that were part of the movement of “younger artists [who] broke away from the then dominant conventions of painterly abstraction in search of alternate approaches to making art” (Hapgood and Rittner 63).  These younger artists were inspired by the Dadaist iconoclastic artistic ideal, and so they subsequently challenged the rules about the definition of art, what it looked like, and what it should be.  As stated by Hapgood and Rittner:

More globally, the Neo-Dada artists’ use of chance as a compositional

method, their interest in performance and other ephemeral

manifestations, and their challenges to the conventional exhibition,

distribution, and commodification of art, reflect profound shifts effected by Dada in attitudes about making art (64).

This statement details the strategies used by Neo-Dada artists to revolutionize art, and highlights the profound and continuing influence of an early twentieth century movement that only lasted for only six years.  Much of this upheaval was a direct response to Motherwell’s book on the evolution of Dada, The Dada Painters and Poets, which was published in 1951. Many of the Neo-Dada artists used their work as a means to critique society, the environment, and art, while attempting to return to the Cubist interest in the “primitive,” with the same level of engagement with the tribal peoples to whom that loaded word refers.  Some contemporary artists, such as James Luna, use the earlier works of the Neo-Dadaists as a jumping off point to both continue the critique of society and the art world, and deal with the motivations behind the idea of “primitive.”

This idea of the “primitive,” especially when embraced by white artists has long been problematic. The word itself implies a loaded value judgement, where that which is non-white, or non-Western, is automatically seen as being less developed or advanced. Luna’s engagement with this, then, is a critique of the concept of the “primitive,” especially as it relates to white artists’ often stereotypical appropriation of non-white objects or traditions.

One of the rallying cries of the Neo-Dada movement was the 1922 statement by the Dada poet Tristan Tzara: “Art is not the most precious manifestation of life…Life is far more interesting” (as quoted in Hapgood and Rittner, 69).  John Cage revived this concept in his class at the New School in the 1950s, and so artists began to use and revel in the everyday, the mundane, and to remove art “from its isolation on a pedestal” (Happgood and Rittner 69).  Many of these Neo-Dada artists “intended their work as a sort of pointed provocation or protest against traditionalism in art” (Hapgood and Rittner 70). The point of much of Tzara’s writings, which is picked up on by both the Neo-Dada artists and artists like James Luna, is a “profound skepticism about all laws and governing social systems,” which can manifest as an “aggressive detachment from collectivity” (Dickerman 11). This can be seen in Beuys’s willingness to lock himself in a cage with a coyote and the New York Times, an implicit critique of the ubiquitous media presence, for the piece Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, and in Luna’s performances that force the audience to confront stereotypes of Native people, such as The Artifact Piece. In that performance, Luna installed himself in the museum as a means to critique the presentation of “Native” within a larger societal context. This installation was also a direct reference to the ethnographic gaze within many modern museums (Fisher 47).

Both Bueys and Luna, then, are engaging in the subversion implied in Tzara’s statements on performance art within their works. Bueys’ tendencies to disengage with the audience in his performances, such as How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, his 1965 performance at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, where Bueys, his face covered in honey and gold leaf, carried a dead hare around the gallery, “explaining” the art. Even Luna’s implied critiques of the “primitive,” discussed above, become part of this subversion, wherein the Native artist is critiquing the use of stereotypical “Native” objects or traditions within their work. All of the characters Luna inhabits in Petroglyphs in Motion, his 2001 performance at SITE Santa Fe, deal with this subversion in some way. Luna is alernately the drunk Indian begging for change, the shaman, the Indian businessman and the stereotypical buckskin-clad Indian. Each of these, in some way, subverts, and also often confronts, the stereotypes of Native people.

Fluxus, a group of international artists who staged art events and concerts, was a Neo-Dada group first organized in 1962.  “Fluxus…also had a utopian political program, which in this case called for the abolition of art” (Oren 2).  The impetus of the group came from a desire to change the art world and society. This was an inclusive group, with “more women and artists of color associated with Fluxus than with any other previous grouping of artists in Western art history” (O’Dell 43).  These artists shared wit, games, and purposeful childlikeness in their art, including which linked them together and highlighted the political undertones of the work.  Because there was no consistent identity, typical of the many Neo-Dada and Postmodern movements, the group was able to be inclusive.  Many of the Fluxus pieces were performative, and the “activation of the body is implicit, if not totally explicit” (O’Dell 45).  For many of the Neo-Dada and Fluxus artists, such as Carolee Schneemann in Interior Scroll, Yoko Ono in Cut Piece and Kate Millett in Trap, performance art freed them from the object and made the act the art.  This also allowed the artists to be flexible in the time and place of the act, and to establish direct contact with their audience, who may or may not be from the art world.  For these artists, performance art demonstrated the inseparable nature of art and life.  These pieces were also a means to subvert the transformation of art into commodity. This is another question that Luna deals with overtly in his performance pieces, which are often a subversion of the concept of tradition and the traditional by both Native and non-Native viewers. His willingness to question the ideas of tradition and the authentic is a means to reconnect with the Native definition of the term as something that is dynamic and circular, and therefore produces “art that is transgressive rather than progressive, and resistant to easy commodification” (Fisher 50).

Some Fluxus artists used the movement as a base from which to continue their breakdown of the “object” in art.  One of these is the German artist Joseph Beuys, associated with the movement for a brief period.  Beuys increasing had less to do with sculpture in the traditional sense. He began to see himself as a shaman who affected the world by performing rituals while living within the confines of a modern industrial society.  His rituals were invented and incorporated objects made by him that used materials he thought had magical or therapeutic power, such as fat, honey, and felt.  These materials were used as a means to explore the dualistic tendencies of male/female, heat/cold, birth/death, and organic/inorganic (Gandy 639).  Beuys, therefore, used museum and gallery spaces as stages for rituals with pseudo-religious or political undertones.  For Beuys, the rise of both Fluxus and Pop Art allowed for “the opening up of aesthetic discourse to mass culture [which] gave impetus to his insistence on art and creativity as forces dispersed throughout society rather than residing in a cultural elite and its institutions; and…the shattering of the notional aesthetic autonomy of high modernism was to introduce new possibilities for greater artistic engagement with explicitly political themes” (Gandy 639).

Beuys defined politics as “social sculpture” (quoted in Lucie-Smith 164-165).    His works were, to him, a means to transform the idea of sculpture or art in general. For Beuys, creativity was a form of revolutionary political action.  Beuys was especially interested in nature, and was involved in the emergence of the Green Party in Germany in the 1970s (Gandy 637). Nature, in the twentieth century, became a focus of many artists and intellectuals both to emphasis the escalating environmental crisis brought on by industrialization and because of a view, first popularized in the early part of the century, of premodern societies as closer to nature and therefore in harmony with it.  For Beuys, the “relation between art and science was to be a recurring preoccupation” in his work, and he “developed his ideas in relative isolation from wider political and cultural developments” (Gandy 638).  Much of his work combined radical ecological activity and postmodern aesthetics to blur the boundaries between fine art and popular culture as well as between human and nature (Gandy 644).  An example of this idea is his first performance in the United States, Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, staged for three days in 1974 at the René Block Gallery in New York City.   In this piece, Beuys was transported by ambulance on a stretcher from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the gallery, and was locked in with a live coyote, a felt blanket, a cane, a triangle, a stack of hay, and fifty copies of the Wall Street Journal (Gandy 644).  For most of the performance, he remained wrapped in the felt blanket, using his cane for movement, and the point was to focus on the coyote as a mythical animal to the Native American people, thereby highlighting his role as a “shaman.”

Much of the performance was cyclical, with a sequence of actions being performed over and over to highlight the ritual nature of the act, and presumably to tap into an idea of Native American religious practices, distilled through European stereotypes.  This was supposed to be an attempt to highlight the treatment of Native people in the United States, and Beuys claimed to have “communicated with the animal world in order to tap into innate and primordial sources of meaning” (Gandy 644).  He was quoted as saying:

I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United

States’s energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian,

the Red Man.  You could say that a reckoning had to be made with the

coyote, and only then can the trauma be lifted (as quoted in Gandy 644).

These sorts of statements not only highlight Beuys’ attempts to subvert the possibility of critical assessment of his work, but also to create a pseudo-religious background, linking himself to an idealized premodern ideal.  Beuys’ attempts, as a white, privileged, European male, to associate himself with the “Native” only serve to reinforce the stereotypes of what constitutes Native or Native religious beliefs.  The idea that he could become the shaman, and heal the trauma, which implies that he perceived this “trauma” to be something of the past, not the ongoing trauma of the reservation system, alcoholism, poverty and drug abuse that, even in 1974, is the reality of many contemporary Native American people.

James Luna’s Petroglyphs in Motion, used the quick change tactics of runway models to engage the audience in a discussion of stereotypes and modernity.  Each of the personas was derived from the Native experience of contemporary life and their suffering from or surviving in the face of, modern ailments (González  53). In the overall performance, Luna also continues the explorations of stereotypes begun in works like The Artifact Piece, forcing viewers to confront the drunk Indian, the strong brave, and Coyote himself in different guises. These costumed personas were meant to “question the role of the Indian stereotype in the imagination of the United States” (Fernandez-Sacco 61). This was a means to force a discussion of the impact of these stereotypes on Native Americans, and their continued survival within the larger imagination of American thought and visual culture.

from: notartomatic.wordpress.com

The first persona was a direct reference to Joseph Beuys’ Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, with Luna wrapped in an “Indian” blanket and carrying a walking stick (which became a golf club in later versions of the piece).  For viewers with knowledge of Beuys, this “brought to mind the fact that Beuys frequently likened himself to a shaman, freely appropriating and romanticizing the traditional practices of indigenous cultures” (González 53).  By doing this, Luna directly subverts Beuys’ claims to shamanism, and the healing of the trauma of Native people through his supposed contact with the coyote.  Luna also points out how pieces like this continued the stereotypes and free appropriation of Native-ness and Native objects in Western art and thought.

Petroglyphs in Motion went further than merely critiquing Bueys. Luna used the piece to critique the place of Native people within society. As Lara Evans has pointed out: “On one trip he is an Indian businessman, yelling silently into a mobile phone.  At either end, that phone is placed very deliberately against the wall to create a reference to the four directions rather than the open-handed gesture performed previously” (“First Hand Account”). Luna goes on to play a toy saxophone while dressed in “traditional” Native buckskins; a drunk Indian with a tall boy who passes a cup asking for money; the wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran; and multiple incarnations of Coyote, the trickster figure of many Native religions. It is the trickster that may be the most apt persona for Luna himself, for, like Coyote he is forcing people to confront things that may make them uncomfortable.

This is a ploy that Luna uses as well in many of his other pieces, such as The Artifact Piece, which, when installed at the San Diego Museum of Man in their unchanging Kumeyaay Hall, was mean to force an inspection of the exhibition objects, and the Museum’s collection as a whole. Luna, as he stated in a later recreation of the performance, was bringing a life Native person into a museum filled with displays of tribal people of the world that were always located in the past (“Real Faces”). Much like the shaman in Petroglyphs in Motion, this was then a means of critiquing this “tribal” and “primitive” other in their past. Something he did as well in the performance Take a Picture with a Real Indian, especially by staging it on Columbus Day in 2010 in front of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. People passing by could chose to be photographed with Luna in a loin cloth, as Luna would say, “you know, ‘authentic’” (“Real Faces”). This was a more recent staging of a performance where people could be photographed with life-size cutouts of Luna, or even Luna himself, in various dress, a loin cloth, the same loin coth with a bone breastplate and a feather in his hair, and street clothes. The choice that each person choosing to be photographed with him made said something about that person’s idea of what a “read Indian” might be.

Luna’s use of Beuys’ work as a means to critique society and the art world shows the importance of the work of earlier Neo-Dada and Fluxus artists as a means to break barriers in the art world.  Luna continues the critiques begun by some of the other artists of color associated with these movements, such as Yoko Ono, and uses his knowledge of art history to point out the continued colonialism of a Post-Colonial world. He also highlights the inherent issues in the adoption of the “tribal” or “primitive” by Western artists, and the often controversial manner those words are interpreted.  This is similar to Ono’s use of Japanese and female stereotypical roles as a means to critique the place of women in both Japanese and Western cultures, and of Asian people in the West. In fact, Luna’s connections to Ono, even if unintentional, serve as a counterbalance to his critiques of Bueys in his work. The connections in the manner in which both of these performance artists engage with stereotypes in their work, and the fact that this engagement is often a bit uncomfortable for their audience, serves as the catalyst for the viewer’s reflection on those stereotypes.

The other important point of Luna’s critique is that of the rejection of the “othering” stereotype of Native Americans within society and museums. The implicit narrative of Beuys supposed shamanism is the idea of Native peoples as an other, who inhabited an idyllic past free from any of the effects of industrialization. Within that was the ideal that Native peoples, if not for the interference of whites, would still be in that Eden, and needed Beuys help to return. Luna, by taking on the character of the shaman, is placing Native Americans insistently in the present, and forcing the confrontation of the actual effects of colonization on Native peoples. This also forces a rethinking of ambivalence, which as Jane Blocker writes, is “an emotion the elaborate performance of which refuses to answer a leading question” (58). The leading question here would be the reasons behind Beuys’s, and in a larger context society and the art world’s, need to continue the stereotypical ideal of the Noble Savage. But Luna, and his ambivalence “skeptically occupies two places simultaneously” (Blocker, 58). He is mocking the stereotype while also reclaiming the power inherent within the idea of “shaman.” He is also, within his performances and installations, which are often staged within museums, revealing “the stakes involved in attending the museum” (Fernandez-Sacco 59).

Within the work of James Luna is the earlier work of the Neo-Dada and Fluxus artists, but expanded in such a way as to critique the stereotyping of Native within contemporary society and art. His work is about ambivalence, humor, and his use of characters, not only in Petroglyphs in Motion, but also in pieces like Emendatio and Take a Picture with a Real Indian, allow for the entry of Native Americans into contemporary society and art. The implicit critique of Beuys in Luna’s 2001 performance, although instantly understandable only to those “in the know” challenged the stereotypes of the inclusiveness of the art world in general that was begun by the artists of color associated with Neo-Dada and Fluxus.

Works Cited

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