Joseph Beuys, Natural History

10 Dec

I took a class in geology in college, mostly because it was one of the few sciences that did not require a lab, and unfortunately I was much less than fascinated.  I think natural materials are beautiful and as a child I would pound open rocks to see what was inside of them, and still I found it rather uninteresting.   Geologists like to make lists, lots and lots of lists with lots and lots of names, and the result is overwhelming.

Beuys’s Natural History is curious because it both reminds me of those classes, and also of the beauty in things like soil and dust.  What we see are wood planks covered with layers of white paint and dirt–things piling up on top of other things.  It’s funny, natural history has the greatest influence on us, all those layers of rock and fossil, how the earth is basically a pulverizing machine–or at least a part of it, breaking things open to see what’s inside.

Interestingly, the image seems to be natural history backwards–because the wood, both because it has been definitely fashioned and stained, is behind the pure minerals on the front, but considering all that mixing of carbon, the slow chemistry under huge amounts of weight that births rocks, maybe it’s not so much.

There are gaps in the wood, like floorboards in the winter, and in a way it looks like something to be swept, or maybe the wood is half burnt in the whites and blacks that come after a fire.    That’s a part of natural history too–how things get covered over–real history isn’t even talked about before, it’s buried, underneath all the other things happening, yet it still exerts an influence of sorts.   And couldn’t the white be the beginnings of erasure?  The covering over of something to the point that the bits that we glimpse no longer hold any meaning, lose familiarity, become less a recognizable thing and more an abstract object?  Do all things dissolve into abstractions?  Is that a sort of death?

I can’t help the quote of Harvey Fierstein, that goes something like this–everybody dies twice, the first is the death of the body, the second is just after the last time someone says your name.    Is that natural history too?  Is natural history just an echo, showing us what we want to see?  Telling us what we want to hear?

In the bigness that is all the energy of this universe, however slow, however determined–what is our place?

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