I first saw Wolf Vostell's work in 1974 in New York. René Block was running a “test site” gallery then, and he had a portfolio of “capitalist realism.” These were stark, muddy black and white prints of B-52 bombers doing what they did over Vietnam... (At least I remember this as Vostell's work; maybe it was actually Klaus Staeck's, the “Dürer” of Joseph Beuy's famous offer at Documenta 1972, “Dürer, ich führe persönlich Baader + Meinhof durch die documenta V.” It was a long time ago.)
Block told me Vostell wouldn't come to the USA because of the war. I remember thinking that was too bad. Beuys neither, Block said. Like the other artists Block showed then, Vostell was an adherent of the Fluxus movement. Beuys too. He finally did come to the USA, albeit wrapped in felt inside an ambulance to spend a week living in a cage with a coyote and the New York Times. (Do you get it? I hope so... it's really not so mysterious.)
What this show at Goethe Institut in Madrid now, of the residuals of Wolf Vostell's over 50 happenings reveals is that Vostell and Beuys were pacing each other in the job of producing objects that encapsulated (like asbestos is, before removal) the experience of ephemeral performative artworks. The show is called “El teatro está en la calle” (“the theater is in the street,” the title of an early “happening” of 1958). That's Situ talk, for sure. But the French gang relentlessly dissed artists who adapted their ideas as fast as they did so, which must have meant Vostell, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Beuys, the whole bunch who tried to make politically inflected work in the emergent medium of “happening” – performance. Certainly there were and are good reasons. While Allan Kaprow is “el padre del Happening,” Wolf Vostell now is called “el padre del 'Happening europeo,” a really tired reinscription of well, you know. Oh yeah, Lil Picard, whose work is really closely tied in with this gang of political artists of the 1970s, gets a seat at the posthumous table as “grandmother of the hippies” (I blogged on the show of her work at NYU last year). Oy.
But this show in Madrid is really great. They've pulled out all of the stops. Out front is “Wuppertal 1963,” a bashed up Mercedes on a railroad track, which recalls a happening of that year, a full scale weird “de-collage” with a photo of a train bearing down on a car beside it. (Yinka Shonibare has another car wreck across town, curiously enough, in his show with the British Council.) Inside, a large felled fir tree entangled with human hair, and a stageful of rotting lettuce – magnificent!
There's also some stern and complex work that tries to come to terms with the really horrific U.S. actions in Vietnam, in particular the My Lai massacre. Vostell's big boxed-up assemblage “Desastre de la Guerra” (I forget the number) reprints one of Ron Haeberle's most disturbing photos of this grim event, the one with the woman spread-eagled in a pile of corpses, and a child apparently trying to crawl back into her. (It's the same image the Art Workers Coalition used on their poster “And Babies?”) Vostell redraws the central image three times, and pastes on a giant flying insect, Sikorsky's inspiration for the helicopter, from whence the U.S. soldiers descended on My Lai. (And from whence, to be fair, another pilot arrived to stop one group of the blood-crazed killers.) This is the pornography of war – the same subject Boris Lurie engages in his earlier juxtaposition of a trainload of corpses and a bare-butting pinup gal. So, while Vostell and some others may have exploited political theoretical insights of the Situs to get ahead, this work lives hard now, and brings with it the true tang of military victory – blood and guts, quite regularly the innocents'.
Why Spain? Vostell maintained a studio in Extremadura. Now it's a museum. He moved there during Franco's time. I can only wonder how the fascists tolerated such a political artist. Maybe when I have time to examine the beautiful catalogue, and slog through the German and Spanish, I will find out more.
Wolf Vostell exhibition, Goethe Institut, Madrid
Museo Vostell in Malpartida in Extremadura, Spain