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Art + Environment - How can artists change the world? Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys’ responses to the climate crisis

Five black and white photos of various scenes
Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys (1970); Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks (1982); 1974. Beuys. Oil Conference. Edinburgh Arts 1974. 19 - 21 August 1974. Joseph Beuys at Forrest Hill, Edinburgh, during the Black and White Oil Conference at Forrest Hill Poorhouse. Edinburgh Arts 1974; 1970. Joseph Beuys. Installation of The Pack. Strategy: Get Arts. Edinburgh College of Art. August 1970. L-R: Sally Holman, Richard Demarco, Lesley Benyon, Joseph Beuys, with Beuys installing The Pack (Das Rudel) for Strategy: Get Arts (contemporary art from Dusseldorf) presented at Edinburgh College of Art by the RDG in association with Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, for the Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph by George Oliver; 1970. Beuys with Highland cattle. Scotland. 8 May 1970. Joseph Beuys with Highland cattle, Argyll, Scotland.

Scottish artist Richard Demarco had a long artistic partnership with German artist Joseph Beuys, using their work to explore their shared values and interest in climate justice. Here, Demarco explains in his own words how his and Beuys’ political and cultural activity has engaged with the issues of climate change and ecology over time.

Images viewed clockwise

Image 1

‘This image is one of the great moments of truth. The reason why we're embracing is that we noticed that that tree is an indigenous tree called a scraggy. It means a kind of bush-like tree. We've just resolved that something should be done about that hillside. Because the hillside was once part of the Great Caledonian forest, which covered the entire landscape of Scotland. Dominating that forest would be the king of the forest: the oak tree. It gives meaning to the culture of the Druids. Druid is the old word for oak and wood is the old word for wisdom. So whoever has the druid was the possessor of the wisdom of the oak tree. The oak tree is the heart of any wooded area or forest, and under its branches, all other trees can go. And not only other trees, but every kind of life, like insects or animals, who can find food and nourishment and survive under its’ protective branches.

You can see the misuse of that sacred landscape, where it's furrowed, preparing for the growing of non-Indigenous trees like the Norway Spruce. They will grow fast and provide wood paper, which does not help us to reconsider the real meaning of the landscape of Scotland. The hills of Scotland shouldn't be bare, they should be covered in the most glorious forest. These hills are extraordinarily beautiful and meaningful and they’ve always inspired human beings until my own lifetime. Then it was seen simply as a landscape that could be used and abused. Beuys and I at that moment are suggesting that we have a job to do. And that we are able to rejoice in the fact we've got a serious job to do. Not to put on exhibitions about it, but to involve ourselves in what he was already involved in: the future of the planet. Our strategy was through the language of arts, to confront the threat of global warming.’ 

Image 2

‘This image is taken in the city of Kassel, Germany, and behind there is the great building where Beuys had exhibited extensively. Beuys said he didn’t want to exhibit inside the building. What he wanted to do is improve the air quality, polluted by the exhausts coming from motor traffic in the centre of any city. He’s planting the first of 7000 oak trees. If you plant oak trees, you are creating the perfect space for every other tree. Beuys is planting a forest in the very heart of a city which is normally crowded with artists. It wasn't just a gesture or an artwork. It has transformed the city centre. And who paid for it? He did. Nobody else wanted to waste their money on planting trees. He didn't care about that because he wasn't just an artist. He was a scientist, and a botanist.

He realised that the most important thing for him to do is to create sculptural objects. And what you're looking at is a sculptural object, a tree. It's a sampling of an oak tree, there are no leaves on it as it's just been planted. He is saying ‘Be careful, the art world is only a small part of the human environment, which is not in harmony with the natural world.’ It’s a social sculpture, the restructuring of the very fabric of society so that the artist's work is not just about entertainment, leisure and something you see in the safe environment of an art gallery, but a living proof that human beings are setting about the task of improving the quality of the air in towns and cities, particularly now.’

Image 3

‘I should have been behaving myself - a very good example of a gallerist, someone who puts on exhibitions. But I’d already become disgusted with this image of myself. It wasn't me. It wasn't Joseph either. 

I wanted to show that the Edinburgh Festival was meaningless. Beuys showed the new future of the Edinburgh Festival as the very place where artists would concentrate on something as serious as the beginning of a disaster for Scotland. In 1974 Scotland was trounced by the idea that we're going to be like Texans, rich in oil.

Oil is non-renewable energy destroying the seabed of the North Sea. One can only imagine the damage from all these years of the extraordinary industrialisation of the waters of the North Sea. Instead of putting on an exhibition that would have meant I was being well-behaved, accepting the idea that art is really about entertainment, leisure, tourism, all these things that are destroying our planet, we are here fighting for our lives if there is going to be a life worth living for children born now. We've already passed the tipping point. 

Image 4 

In 1970, the car was an image of the future: an image of global warming. Edinburgh College of Art didn't want a motor vehicle inside the building. I remember the janitor telling me that it didn't look like an art object, yet it's become one of the great art objects of the 20th century. 

The Pack sees the transformation of a Volkswagen bus, a German motorcar that was used for the general population to move around. It contains a flock of sledges, and on each sledge is a roll of felt (a survival kit), the felt can be used to wrap your body with to attain warmth. Inside each roll is a torch, which will give you light and a piece of fat for you to cover your body with when it becomes too cold. The sledge is useful for you for when the car ceases to be usable, running out of petrol and when there are no roads because the whole of the surface of the planet will be covered in frost, ice and snow. This is the future of our planet. That's why human beings will be eradicated. Beuys is unwrapping, beginning the process of rolling up each of these.

We got it behind the backs of the officials. We pushed it in into a corridor leading to the sculpture department. That was very important, because it was meaningful, because it is a piece of sculpture.’

Image 5 

‘Beuys was fascinated by this particular woolly, red-haired cattle that exist in Scotland. He'd never seen anything like it, and he was in love with that animal. He had a conversation with that animal for about 20 minutes. You can see the animal is very conscious of him. It's on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll and he had just seen that barren hillside ready to be misused. I was teaching him to fall in love with the reality of Scotland. He was breathing Highland air, looking at the water in rivers, which produced the water of life. He was amazed too by the coastline of Europe. Beuys, he was a healer, a doctor. And he took seriously the world, not just of his fellow human beings, but the world of animals, and certainly flowers.’

Richard Demarco's words are taken from a talk he did with DACS and Art360 Foundation in November 2021.

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