Would you lock yourself with a wild animal for three days? That was what the German artist Joseph Beuys did to expose the multicultural reality that the US is still living.
The Vietnam War was a shock for American citizens in many ways. Not only most of the young men were sent to fight in it, but it also coincided with a huge social change on nationalistic roles. For the first time in history, young people didn’t really believe it was their duty to blindly follow their government. They wanted to separate themselves from anything related to authoritarianism and power domination, all this through a cultural, musical, and artistic veil they used to be free from their parents and, as a consequence, from the outdated social norms they represented. In that scenario, Joseph Beuys visited the US for the first time. Well, in a metaphorical sense, as he never set foot nor wandered around the streets of New York for his famous performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974).
Beuys was born in 1921, in a small town near Düsseldorf. Although he never tried to conceal his past from his audience he didn’t really promote that first part of his life, since the controversy around it was extremely heated. He entered the Hitler Youth when he was fifteen years old and later on fought for the Nazi army in World War II as a member of the Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force). One of the particularities of his work and his persona was the idea of self-mythification. Everything around him has that legendary vibe that captivates you but at the same time makes you wonder if it was actually true or just a product of Beuys’ creativity.
That was the sensation some people among his audience got when, once he was famous, he narrated the most traumatic yet enlightening moment of his life. He once said that in 1944, while he was serving as a pilot, his plane crashed and he ended up falling in the Crimean front. A group of Tartar tribesmen saved him by wrapping him in animal fat and fur, which ended up saving his life. According to him, that’s why these two materials became essential in his artwork and, moreover, that’s the moment he realized his convictions were erratic and decided to make a change in his life.
From that moment on, he got very interested in each culture’s roots since he strongly believed that "rootless people are a dangerous people." That was the moment he decided to take back his German roots, that since the end of WWII were an absolute taboo.
With the idea of highlighting the roots of every determined country, he prepared a performance that is best known as the “Coyote” performance. He arrived in New York, where an ambulance was waiting for him the moment he arrived on a plane. He was wrapped in a blanket and carried on a stretcher to the ambulance, which took him directly to the gallery so that he wouldn’t touch any American soil but the one in the gallery. Here, in an enclosed room, a wild coyote that was rescued from a criminal group of animal trafficking was waiting for him. Why a coyote?
For Native Americans, the coyote was a sacred animal that represented spiritual transformation. This animal appears in some of their folklore as a magical creature that betrays his beastly nature to teach humans how to survive the world. For that reason, they’re one of the most praised and revered animal in these regions. For Beuys, the fact that he didn’t touch the American ground mixed with the coyote, represented his own opinions on American politics. On the one hand, he believed that their most ancient roots had to be praised and exposed so that people could embrace them. But this also happened just one year before the Vietnam War ended and his performance was a statement against the abusive and ambitious side of the US.
For three days both Beuys and the coyote coexisted in this room. Naturally, the coyote had some moments of extreme curiosity about his new companion and others of fear and hostility. However, no matter what the animal was doing, Beuys would constantly approach him and toss him. When the animal tried to reach him to attack him, he just grabbed a thick felt cloak and protected himself. In a way, his performance represented how modern America has been treating not only Native Americans but other minority groups. Moreover, besides that, he showed the multiculturality that characterizes this nation, and invited them to embrace that, instead of teasing others for the sake of superiority.
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