Joseph Beuys was an absolute phenomenon: a politically active multidisciplinary artist. He possessed an extraordinary philosophical consciousness of humanity, which he defined through the metaphor of a “tree”. Defining humanity by the principles of nature, more specifically as “trees”, the artist reflected upon their biological and historical genetics as developed spiritual and intellectual beings, therefore capable to rule themselves, their interests and their convictions.
Above all, Beuys has painted humans as active social personalities that are therefore personally responsible for their actions within contemporary society.
Beuys has, through his artistic opus, permanently promoted the fight for dignity of work and the concept of creativity, as an universal interest with the right for everyone to choose and possess a free life. For the contemporary youth he was an important role model and embodied an awareness of personal responsibility towards everyday actions; how you live and how you express personal discipline and social activity in modern political, economic, social and cultural conditions. We all followed Beuys’ performances, but knowing him was a real privilege.
In 1968, I had the chance to organise an accompanying art programme within the famous Belgrade International Theatre Festival – BITEF (1967- …) in the Atelje 212 Theatre and the 212 Gallery in Belgrade. Following the tradition of theatre festival repertoire, the artistic programme of the new art production had the same characteristics as the alternative international movements focusing on multidisciplinary, performative, media and theatrical events. In 1970, a renowned theatre group from New York – La Mama – performed at BITEF, and with them arriving in Belgrade, Lucio Amelio, a gallerist from Naples. It was during one of the pauses between performances while we were all sitting and socialising in front of the Café Lipov Lad, I heard one of the guests loudly asking, ‘How could I meet BIljana Tomić?’ I was very surprised and despite feeling quite confused, I stood up, saying, ‘That is me.’ The gentleman also stood up, adding, ‘My name is Lucio Amelio.’ Everything was immediately clear, exciting and quite unbelievable. Lucio Amelio was one of the most famed gallerists who worked with Beuys. This unusual encounter turned into a wonderful friendship that lasted for many years.
As a curator of the artistic programme associated with BITEF, I wondered if Amelio would be able to connect me with Beuys and thus commenced my correspondence with the artist, and later we had a first personal meeting at the international art manifestation, documenta 5 in Kassel in the year of 1972.
I remember arriving at Beuys’ Büro der Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Office of the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum), that were exhibited in the ground floor halls, where Beuys waited for me: ‘Biljana, you arrived.’ He showed me how the Office worked and gave me numerous print materials and fliers of the Direct Democracy, of which he signed a few, directed either at my name or BITEF’s presentation of the year 1972. That was due to my presenting a selection of the following artists under the title of Small Documenta 1972, on the occasion of BITEF’s artistic programme of the same year. Presented artists were Joseph Beuys, Christo, Jan Dibbets, Gino De Dominicis, Daniel Buren, Guiseppe Chiari, Ben Vautier with videos by Gerry Schum.
The following meeting with Beuys occurred at the renowned Edinburgh Festival in 1973, organised by Richard Demarco. We arrived as a large group from Belgrade, fascinated by the beautiful town and the Festival. It was in Edinburgh that we met Tom Marioni, performance artist and founder of the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco along with numerous performance and theatre groups from Poland, Germany and other environments. Beuys expressed his interest in the Yugoslavian group, as many of his war memories were tied to this country.
It was at Edinburgh Festival 1973 that Marina Abramović performed her Ritam 10, with knives and Zoran Popović showed his films, while Raša Todosijević and Gergelj Urkom executed their performative installations. Parallel with the performances were numerous discussions on happenings in the contemporary art and societies. For our group, a certain surprise and unique experience was Beuys’ invitation to participate in his 12 timely performances. He started out with his theoretical and philosophical approaches towards creativity, politics and society. This was followed by his invitation that we as a group reflect upon the German words in our language. This performative remembrance and gathering of German words lasted for hours. We were not truly aware how rooted the German language is in our linguistic heritage. The play on words truly had a deep meaning in the analysis of the original roots of Slavic languages as well as numerous other languages by the conquerors of Balkan countries.
Basically, everything was introduced into the primary approach to the chronology of the “tree” as a collective genetic development of society and historical changes that have changed the elements of the heritage of European nations for centuries. This certainly has to do with anti-fascist attitudes, because there are no pure societies and with the roots of the authentic characteristics of the people that created nations and social entities through the centuries.
The third meeting took place on the occasion of the third April Meetings – the Festival of Extended Media in 1974 at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade. Joseph Beuys arrived with his family, his wife and children and stayed for a week. Of course, Lucio Amelio joined as well, in addition to numerous international guests and participants in the programmes. Marina Abramović performed the piece Rhythm 5 and Beuys presented his famous philosophical theories and above all the theory of “tree”. Focusing on the essential meanings of roots and canopy, as natural states of light and darkness, growth and height with expansion of roots into the depth of the earth, the spiritual genesis, finitude and infinity. He spoke about the creative powers of humanity, about the creativity that everyone possesses, and thus, everyone is an artist, the creator of creations of art, spirituality and life.
Another encounter with Beuys took place in 1981. We were guests of the Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf at the time when the Kunsthalle organised a significant exhibition Schwarz (Black). A group of young artists from Belgrade, organised by the SKC Gallery, then performed a great ambient exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Gallery, and of course, we visited the exhibition Black in the Kunsthalle. That is where we met with Joseph Beuys and an anecdotal event happened when the artist Milorad Vujašanin Cujo from Kraljevo sold his Black Book to Beuys for 1000 marks. It was an unexpected performative event, where two important and current positions were directly confronted: art and economics. Symbolic categories of the coming postmodern era and seen in the famous dialogue of Beuys with Andy Warhol in the mid-eighties: Art and Economy.
 SKC Gallery is the Gallery of the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade.
Author: Biljana Tomić – Denegri (b.1940) is a Belgrade- based art historian and curator. She graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade, where her research was concentrated on art history, aesthetics and contemporary art. In the period between 1969 -1970, Tomić – Denegri was a student at La Sapienza University in Rome, under the supervision of art critic Giulio Carlo Argan. Her curatorial work can be traced through numerous art institutions, where she actively contributed to the exhibition programmes such as 212 Gallery, BITEF Theatre Festival and Students Cultural Centre Belgrade. She also co-curated Yugoslavian presentations at Kassel’s Documenta in 1987 and at the Venice Biennial in the following editions – 1986, 1993 and 1997.