Hearth I and Hearth II 1968/74 and 1978-79
Beuys’s political activism came to the fore during the 1970s. Believing that everyone could participate creatively in reshaping society, he advocated a theory of ‘social sculpture – society as artwork’. An underlying theme of these two interconnected works, Hearth Iand Hearth II, is Beuys’s proposal that an ongoing debate and exchange of ideas is necessary in order to stimulate democratic thought. This ‘permanent conference’, as the artist referred to it, is symbolically represented here by copper and iron rods arranged in groupings.
Beuys outlined his social, political and artistic theories in educational Actions that took the form of lectures and debates. The blackboards shown as part of this installation emerged out of Beuys’s Actions relating to Ireland. Beuys saw Ireland, and particularly Belfast, as a society ripe for change. The drawings on them include a map of Ireland and an interpretation of Northern Ireland’s political troubles.
The original Hearth caused controversy when it was acquired by the Kunstmuseum Basel for 300,000 Swiss francs. One group used the furore as a theme for their carnival procession that year, wearing animal masks and felt suits and carrying copper poles. Beuys joined in, and handed out leaflets protesting against the acquisition. When the suits were abandoned in a pile in the museum courtyard, Beuys added them to the expanded Hearth II.
Beuys’s choice of materials for his sculpture was famously eclectic. He viewed certain substances as having important associations, and through repeated use they attained a personal symbolism.
Fat appears in many of Beuys’s sculptures. He chose it partly to stimulate discussion, as ‘a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art’. More fundamentally, the flexibility with which it changes from solid to liquid form, according to changes in temperature, made it a potent symbol of spiritual transcendence. Felt was important to Beuys for its ability to absorb whatever it came into contact with. As an insulator, it became a symbol of warmth. It also appears as a muffler, as when Beuys wrapped a piano, television or a loudspeaker in felt. Like fat, the use of felt was one of Beuys’s personal signatures, and his felt hat became a symbol for the artist himself.
Metals used by Beuys included iron, whose cold strength and durability he associated with masculinity, war and Mars. He placed it in opposition to copper, a conductor of electricity and one of the softest metals, which he associated with Venus and femininity. Gold carried associations of magic, alchemy and transformation. Honey and beeswax were regarded as spiritual substances, but also represented political harmony. Beuys admired the social organisation of bees, describing it as a ‘socialist organism’ which functioned ‘in a humane warm way through principles of co-operation and brotherhood’.