Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Robert Morrison :: Coyote's Dream

Bob Morrison’s work is a tribute to installation and performance works by the German artist Joseph Beuys, who came to prominence in the 1960s as a result of his flamboyant and sometimes controversial efforts to use his art to get at the power of universal human creativity. He had been a German pilot in World War II, and a P.O.W., but he later became a vocal opponent to Nazi era German practices, and eventually became an avowed pacifist and vocal opponent to nuclear proliferation, and was very much involved in progressive German politics.

Beuys’s felt hat was a signature element for him, and one of his most well-known performance pieces, or Aktions, as he called them—“I Like America and America Likes Me” (May 1974)—featured Beuys wrapped in a felt blanket, holding a cane-like staff. The Action was an elaborately staged performance commemorating the opening of the Rene Block Gallery in New York. He spent three days in the gallery with a live coyote. “After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’

The title of the work is filled with irony. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the hegemony of American art. Beuys’s felt blankets, walking stick and gloves became sculptural props throughout the Action. In addition, fifty new copies of the Wall Street Journal were introduced each day, which the coyote acknowledged by urinating on them. Beuys regularly performed the same series of actions with his eyes continuously fixed on the coyote. At other times he would rest or gather the felt around him to suggest the figure of a shepherd with his crook. The coyote’s behaviour shifted throughout the three days, becoming cautious, detached, aggressive and sometimes companionable. At the end of the Action, Beuys was again wrapped in felt and returned to the airport.

For Native Americans, the coyote had been a powerful god, with the power to move between the physical and the spiritual world. After the coming of European settlers, it was seen merely as a pest, to be exterminated. Beuys saw the debasement of the coyote as a symbol of the damage done by white men to the American continent and its native cultures. His action was an attempt to heal some of those wounds. ‘You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted’, he said. The title of this, his most famous action, is ironic. Beuys opposed American military actions in Vietnam, and his work as an artist was a challenge to the hegemony of American art. In effect, then, Morrison’s conceptual installation of Coyote’s Dream conjures up not only the historical event of “I Like America and America Likes Me,” but it also invokes similar kinds of themes and questions as Beuys’s work did in its original context: how can art free us from historical wrongs such as the Holocaust or Vietnam.