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Joseph Beuys, Table with Accumulator

Joseph Beuys, Table with Accumulator (Tisch mit Aggregat), 1958-85, Tate Modern, London. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Voiceover: This is a very strange object. I see a box that has two wires coming out of it from screws. It looks like an old fashioned camera made out of wood and it's sitting on just a table with these wires and on the floor connected to the wires are these clay balls. It's just the weirdest thing. It reminds me of surrealism of objects being put together that don't make sense, Voiceover: I think- Voiceover: I think the reference to surrealism is perfect. It's a kind of surrealism of the reality of the absolute diseased insanity of the 20th Century, which the artist, Joseph Beuys, was trying to address. so, that camera-like wooden box is an accumulator which is kind of a battery. Voiceover: So wait, it's an accum-, am I suppose to know- Voiceover: No, no, no, you're not. Voiceover: This is just kind of private iconography. Voiceover: No, I think that's an actual object in the world, which stores electricity imperfectly, but nevertheless, but it's an old object and it is handcrafted. Voiceover: Right, it looks like it belongs to an early 20th Century world. Voiceover: There's something somewhat menacing about the way the wires come out of it and it's really screwed into it. It sits squared on this table. Voiceover: And the table itself is square. Voiceover: The reference to surrealism makes me think of [unintelligible] in that the table itself is the most reduced, almost platonic, example of a table, a table in its full table-ness. Voiceover: There's a box-ness and cube-ness. Voiceover: So, they're both perfect expressions of the things that they are. Voiceover: Right, but the accumulator is a mechanical electrical object. Voiceover: So these wires come out, not very carefully and they're sort of strewn around until they're plugged into, quite literally, and it's really funny, into these balls of clay. Voiceover: They should be plugged into something that has an electrical relationship to it. Voiceover: That's the metaphor, right? That's where this becomes a kind of poetry. So, we have this clay, this stuff of the earth that this energy is being drawn from and is being stored in this accumulator. Beuys was really interested in healing our culture. Beuys was very much a product of the second World War, of the violence of the totalitarianism, of the violence of the genocides of the second World War. He very much wanted to use art as a spiritual means to heal the earth, to heal our culture and he was very interested in the way that art could transgress science, could transgress the rationalism- Voiceover: You mean transcend science? Voiceover: No, no, no, I don't mean transcend, I mean undercut, displace science, to find a kind of irrational means of understanding our place in society, and societies place in the world. So, this notion of drawing energy directly from the earth, from the clay, from the most primal material, I think is absolutely key here. We may need to step outside of rational structures and look to a kind of magic that might heal us now. Voiceover: And we're sick with the illness of the 20th Century, of the scientific focus of the enlightenment, the way that we rely on medicine and technology and progress and we've lost some connection to something that's eternal and magical and mysterious and miraculous. Voiceover: I think that for Beuys the Holocaust could not have happened, the second World War could not have happened had it not been for our bureaucratic strength, had we not been such good record keepers, had we not understood and structured the world. Voiceover: If we couldn't run the trains on time. Voiceover: If we couldn't run the trains on time, that's right. Voiceover: This starts to feel a little bit like a kind of primitivism that isn't so divorced from Gauguin leaving Paris and going to Tahiti to find something more pure and true and natural and looking to primitive cultures to solve something that's wrong with modern culture. Voiceover: That's true, but I think that Beuys' goal is grander and in a sense, a bit less self-serving. (piano playing)