Northern Ireland news

German performance artist Joseph Beuys gave two landmark lectures in Belfast at the height of the Troubles

The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin is showing an exhibit about German artist Joseph Beuys. Picture from Hugh Lane Gallery

Almost 50 years ago, German performance artist Joseph Beuys visited Belfast at the height of the Troubles to give two landmark lectures on art and what it means to be an artist. A century on from Beuys's birth in 1921, Claire Simpson looks back at his legacy and how he helped spark a revolution in art in Northern Ireland.

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"The mid-1970s were a time of enormous political flux, not only in Northern Ireland but also in the rest of the UK and Europe. It was also a time of a new artistic movement coming forward, performance being one."

Arts administrator Belinda Loftus clearly remembers Joseph Beuys's visit to Belfast.

Already a celebrity in the art world, Beuys gave two lectures in the city in 1974 - one at the Art College on York Street and the other at the Ulster Museum.

A performance artist, Beuys became internationally famous for his piece I Like America and America Likes Me which saw him locked in a New York hotel room with a wild coyote.

His lectures in Belfast were tamer but, for some of the audience, were transformative.

"He said every person is an artist which I agree with," Ms Loftus said.

"There were a lot of people not from the art world who were there.

"Beuys was a charismatic person. He would draw on these blackboards. To my mind his ability for drawing was amazing."

Beuys used the blackboards to illustrate his thoughts.

However, Ms Loftus, who grew up in Suffolk in England, remembered him being heckled by people who felt his ideas lacked substance.

"His first talk was at the Art College. He was heckled quite a lot by the students. I think they thought he was a bit airy-fairy really," she said.

"(Cork-born television producer and teacher) Leila Doolan was working up in Ballymurphy (in a community video project) at the time.

"She came to the Ulster Museum lecture and brought some of the young people from the project.

"Both she and they stood up and said if you believe in this why are you here in the Ulster Museum and why are you not up with us at Ballymurphy, which was a fair point."

The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin is hosting an exhibition of Beuys's work in Ireland, including some of the blackboards he wrote and drew on during lectures.

The exhibition includes screenings of an ITV documentary, A Beuys Crying in the Wilderness, which looked at the artist's trip to the north and responses to his 1974 visit.

Ms Loftus said Beuys's visit led to a group of artists from Northern Ireland visiting the Documenta international arts exhibition in Germany in 1977.

"The Germans were all into discussion, discussion," she said.

"We wanted to do things… Leela Doolan taught all these Germans Irish step dancing. Bob Sloan managed to build these sand bag areas, like they had in Belfast. Someone had brought a tape with Lambeg drums playing really loud, and we would let these Germans come in and go through a check-point search.

"We really were trying to give them a feel of what it was like in Northern Ireland."

Beuys had helped set up the Free International University in Germany, which aimed to be a global network for creative groups and individuals.

The visit to Documenta led to the `Almost Free' show in Belfast which encouraged the public to put up their own artwork or poems.

"We also managed to have on display - which was a real achievement - crafts from loyalist and republican internees at Long Kesh," she said.

"Prisoners at that time painted hankies and made carvings which would have political emblems on them but would also have things for sweethearts.”

The Art & Research Exchange (ARE), which was initially intended to be a Belfast outpost of Beuys's Free International University, was later formed on Lombard Street in Belfast in 1978.

Ms Loftus helped set up ARE along with Scottish artist Alistair MacLennan, who taught at the Art College.

The rooms included rehearsal space for musicians, an area for comic book artists, exhibition space and areas for community arts groups.

Crucially, the ARE also opened at night.

"I think he (Beuys) was a catalyst," Ms Loftus said.

"It was an important time. In central Belfast, past five o'clock, it was dead. I can remember walking down Royal Avenue one night and I was the only person, apart from the soldiers."

Anna Liesching, Curator of Art at National Museums NI, said Beuys's lectures "brought a lot of energy to students".

"He started this conversation among artists and among students about there being more to art than these traditional modes of art practice," she said.

"He spoke about the idea of conceptual practice and performance, even questioning what an artist is, and the idea of looking at an artist beyond what they make."

Ms Liesching is in the early stages of setting up a performance art collection, including an oral history archive.

"Northern Ireland is world-famous for performance art but that's not really well known outside of arts circles," she said.

"It's a shame that Beuys isn't better known here and that this place isn't recognised locally as being such an important place for performance art. That's something I'm looking to change."

She said artists including MacLennan were key in helping to develop the art form in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

"Alistair MacLennan's specialism was performance," she said.

"He was working with a lot of students who were frustrated by the art system here at the time but also very frustrated by the stress of what was going on around them and they didn't know how to depict it in their art."

She added: "Performance helped them deal with these difficult and very heavy topics in a conceptual way.

"It was a really interesting time in Belfast for art."

Ms Liesching said performance art can be "very intimidating".

"That's maybe why it's not `popular'," she said. "It's undefinable. Every performance artist has their own idea of what performance art is.

"Beuys talked a lot about artists being communicators and performance art is really communicating your idea by using yourself or using your own body in order to do that."

The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin's exhibition on Beuys - Joseph Beuys: From the Secret Block to Rosc - will run until January 9. For more information visit www.hughlane.ie

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