We Are The Revolution, after Joseph Beuys 2006–2013–
The departing point of this project was the life-size image We Are the Revolution (La Rivoluzione siamo Noi, 1972) by the German artist Joseph Beuys. In this work, Beuys is walking with great confidence towards the camera, suggesting that we, the viewers, could form a revolution if we joined him. Beuys was a political artist, who considered art as a currency that could change society. I somewhat reversed Beuys’s idea, by following instead an individual who became an object of the inevitable forces of history rather than their master. Like a tourist, I travelled to historically significant sites and took photographs of me being there. But my artistic intention and experience were different from that of a tourist: I was there to walk as many steps as was the number of victims in the major political tragedies which made those particular sites historically significant.
Text by Saara Hacklin
A SILENT FUNERAL MARCH
La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi (1972) is a life-size image of the German artist Joseph Beuys striding purposefully towards the viewer. Its title proclaims ‘We are the revolution’. Beuys is renowned for coining the concept of social sculpture, an idea underpinned by the Fluxus attitude that ‘everyone is an artist’. Beuys believed that it was possible to transform society through art and creativity. His image seems to say: ‘Together we can start a revolution; it’s only a step away’.
The word ‘revolution’ evokes the image of turning or rotating. The word’s etymological origins refer to the movement of celestial bodies, the Latin word revolvere literally meaning ‘to turn around’. Medieval astronomers began using it to describe the revolving motion of celestial bodies, yet it was not until later that it became established in the sense of abrupt political change. ‘Revolution’ describes a great change in affairs, where something is overthrown, upheaved or pushed in a new direction. But perhaps the radical change in effect means continuous rotating motion – a perpetual return to square one?
The Finnish artist Jari Silomäki takes Beuys’s promise of revolution as the cue for his work. Instead of looking forward, however, he turns our gaze back in time: the revolution is no longer just a step away – we on the contrary trail in its wake. “We Are the Revolution”, after Joseph Beuys (2013) is a series of images showing a young man – the artist’s alter-ego – wandering through landscapes of 20th century political carnage. The number of paces taken by the artist matches the number of victims claimed by each massacre: “I walk 45 paces in the village of Racak in Kosovo… I walk hundreds – and thousands – of paces in Tiananmen Square”. No matter how many steps he takes, his efforts are in vain: “I walk myself to the point of exhaustion at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Counting the number of victims is an impossible task. It is a ritual with no end.
Outwardly, the two artists’ works are very similar, with Silomäki mimicking the solitary, heroic male figure of Beuys. The black-and-white photograph is reminiscent of a political documentary image. There is, however, a distinct difference in the artists’ viewpoints. Beuys invites us to join him in the movement for change. Silomäki in turn invites us to partake in a silent funeral march paying homage to those victims of the revolution.
Although Beuys’ art advocates social change, it is also deeply spiritual. His ideas about revolution extend to art’s role in the spiritual regeneration of every individual. Social change, upheaval and a new direction is possible only if the process begins within. Perhaps the same idea also lies at the heart of Silomäki’s images. The revolution he advocates is a call to the viewer – a quiet, plaintive echo – to turn around, look back, revisit and remember. Recharting the past is the work of the future.
Saara Hacklin is a Finnish curator and art researcher.
This text was published in the exhibition catalogue Demonstrating Minds – Disagreements in Contemporary Art, Kiasma, 2015.
Finnish National Gallery
A Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 150/2015