Joseph Beuys gallery activity

Handling materials for the Joseph Beuys gallery activity

Handling materials for the Joseph Beuys gallery activity

© Tate

Materials and handling objects activity

Practical tips

Gallery: Tate Modern
Materials: Contact Gillian Wilson to pick up a free handling objects box from Tate Modern. Email
Preparation: Please contact us to check if the artworks will be on display when you plan to visit. Email:


These activities are designed around Joseph Beuys’ The Pack 1969.

Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) was an artist who used easily recognisable objects including felt, copper and – more unusually – fat! His ideas and artworks are especially relevant to community group leaders. Beuys believed in human creativity as a positive force for social change and in the importance of a democratic education. He was born in Germany and joined the airforce in 1940. His relationship to Germany and his later travels in Europe and the USA show his questioning of German history and politics. Beuys remains an important artist whose ideas about how and who makes art, how we display it and who sees it are still very relevant in contemporary art practice. 

This activity takes 25 minutes. The group makes their own association between handling materials and the artwork on display.

In previous Beuys workshops we have used a range of handling objects and materials that make links with the artworks through colour, texture or metaphor. We suggest you visit the gallery before you bring the group to see if you have your own ideas about which objects to use.

Handling materials 

In the box you can borrow we have included the following objects because they are full of suggestions and links to the artworks without being literal copies of what the artist has used:

  • a blanket
  • a chain
  • candles
  • some plasters
  • batteries
  • a Mars bar

Handling materials activities

  • Ask everyone not to look at the text panel until they have all completed the activity. This is to encourage the group to develop their own ideas and responses to the artwork first
  • Divide the group in pairs
  • Give each pair one of the above resources, as well as paper and pencils to note their responses
  • Ask each pair to spend 10 minutes looking at the artwork and thinking about links they find between the work and the object in their hands. Links can be in terms of look, texture, smell, emotions evoked and so on (see following questions for help) 
  • Make sure the group has plenty of time to handle the objects. It is important that a record of these discussions is made; this may be in the form of notes or drawings

Questions to ask

  • What might the artist be suggesting about why he used the materials he used?
  • What unexpected materials did you see?
  • What are the qualities of each material on display (for example, texture, perceived weight, colour, size, emotion evoked, use etc.)?

Further discussion points

As a whole group, discuss what connections each pair has made with the artwork. For example, the battery, which is a source of potential energy, could be linked with the torches in the artwork or the chocolate, which is a modern nourishment, could connect with the fat in the artwork.

End by asking the group to lay out all their note pages in a small area on the floor, similar to the installation displayed in the space but allowing other visitors in the room to view the work.

Other artists to look at 

Miroslaw Balka, Rebecca Horn and Piero Manzoni all use everyday objects in their works, just like Beuys.

Balka tends to choose materials that have a powerful personal and historical significance and uses materials like salt, ash or soap to make links with historical events. Horn studied with Beuys and frequently uses materials as an extension of her body or as part of her performances. Manzoni, however, uses the most basic, easy obtainable materials in his artworks, partly to make us think about how far artists can go in their choice of materials.

Discussion points

  • When you look at these artists, notice in each case the materials they have used. Discuss in pairs or small groups the materials chosen and possible reasons and associations of each material
  • Make a list of the art materials you most generally use. Are there any materials used by Balka or Horn that you would be interested in collecting or experimenting with?
  • Notice how the artworks are displayed; sometimes on the floor, sometimes in display cases and, in the case of Horn, sometimes hanging from the ceiling: Concert for Anarchy 1990 uses an upside down piano! Again, do these different methods of display suggest possibilities in your own work place? For example, is it possible to display a range of your artworks on a shelf in your entrance/reception area? Could you borrow a display case to show work in your coffee/eating area?
  • Try to think of other ideas for displaying work that is different from hanging paintings on the wall and asks your audience to see the artwork in a different way

Beuys’ Dictionary

Below are some of the objects and materials Beuys used in his work and the ideas and meanings he attached to them. You may find it useful to use Beuys’ Dictionary, developed for Joseph Beuys The Pack 1969, while doing the object and handling activity in the gallery. You may also find it helpful to use it for your own projects or simply when you are looking at other works by Beuys on display in the gallery.


  • Fat – nourishment and fuel, a material basic to life and not associated with art
  • Felt – insulation, preservation of warmth and energy
  • Copper – fast conductor of energy and represents the ‘female’ side of us all
  • Iron – slow conductor of energy and represents the ‘male’ psyche and stability
  • Battery – storage of energy


  • Rock/crystal/basalt – the vast scale of time
  • Earth/soil – people and their birth place
  • Plants/trees – life; growing into the future


  • Flashlight – spiritual guidance
  • Sleds – horizontality, death
  • Spirals – Celtic symbol of organic energy; growth pattern
  • Drawing – ‘thinking forms’; a way of expressing thoughts without using language


  • Hare – mobility, burrowing underground, the earth
  • Bees – social structure, produce energy-giving wax and honey
  • Animals (generally) – intuitive powers

Dictionary activities

Joseph Beuys used materials with strong personal significance to him. Ask your group the following questions:

  • When you make your art, do you use unique materials?
  • Do the materials you use have any personal significance to you?
  • Next time you make art can you select materials with personal significance (like Beuys’ use of fat, felt and flashlight)?

Exploring two themes: artist as democrat; energy

This exciting artist had many themes and ideas in his artworks that are very relevant to contemporary art and community based activities. Here we explore two themes in his work: the artist as democrat and his use of the idea of energy. We have suggested activities for you to do in the gallery as well as follow up activities for at your workplace.

Artist as democrat

‘Everyone is an artist’ was a phrase Beuys used to show his belief in the central role of creativity in everyone’s lives, not only those with art training. This was linked to his broader democratic politics and his green activism.

In the 1960s Beuys was one of the founders of the green movement in Germany and he was involved in environmental issues throughout his travels and work internationally.

Artist as Democrat activity

You might want to find out if any of your group members are currently involved in any type of political or environmental activity. These could include discussions about recycling or becoming aware of the fair trade movement. If no-one is involved, you could initiate a discussion as to a range of activities that might interest people. For example, your local council may be involved in publicising Fair Trade Fortnight (early March each year) or tree planting/environmental activities.

These types of activity that involve sharing ideas and working together were seen by Beuys as being part of a creative life and potential arts practice. 

Beuys was also involved in an art movement called Fluxus. This loose association of artists, both trained and untrained, was concerned with challenging elitism in the art world of the 1960s and 70s. Examples include postal art and cheap, easily distributable multiple art objects.

Another art movement where sharing ideas or materials collaboratively was central to the themes of the work is Arte Povera


In relation to The Pack, Beuys wrote: 

“This is an emergency object: an invasion by the pack. In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” 

Earlier in this resource we have made suggestions as to the activities you might wish to do in relation to this display, where as a group you will be using human energy as you work as a group and in your pairs!

Energy activity

  • Think about ‘energy’ in relation to Beuys’ work, in terms of group dynamics, personal energy and body rhythms as well as the force of energy in terms of electricity, or copper as a conductor. 
  • Ask each group member to choose a word or colour or type of drawn line to demonstrate their level of energy.
  • Then lay these all out on the floor as a group display and think about how these words, colours or drawings could be developed back at your workplace in a more three-dimensional form, for example using wire that is stretched, wrapped or bent. 
  • You might want to notice how the energy in the room displaying The Pack shifts. Sometimes the room seems very calm and contemplative; sometimes it is full of people and discussion and movement. Are there particular rooms or places in your workplace where you could notice such changes (for example, entrance hall, tea room, art room). How could you show these shifts in energy through drawings or writing as people pass through at different times of day or days of the week?

Some optimistic thoughts about education

In both of the themes outlined mentioned above, Beuys explored everyday materials and their potential, often crossing different disciplines of science, art, religion and philosophy. 

‘If all that remained of our century was a pile of newspapers, you would still have an incredibly rich cross-section of human activities and specialisations on record, a battery of ideas’.
(Joseph Beuys, Bits and Pieces, 1957-85) 

As community group leaders you constantly use skills of group work, social interaction, flexibility, and endless creativity. Beuys recognised that you in your educational role are significant artists and he saw all your work in enabling human potential to be realised as great creative acts! So well done in all your group work on Beuys, which the artist himself would regard as ’social sculpture’.