Joseph Beuys: “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”
“The place: Galerie Alfred Schmela, in Düsseldorf, a gallery that had commited itself early and strongly to Beuys and had done a great deal to promote his reputation. The gallery was closed to the public and Beuys’ Action was witnessed only by the photographer Ute Klophus and a television crew. Beuys sat on a chair in one corner of the gallery, next to the entrance. He had poured honey over his head, to which he had then affixed fifty dollars worth of gold leaf. In his arms he cradled a dead hare, which he looked at steadfastly. Then he stood up, walked around the room holding the dead hare in his arms, and held it up close to the pictures on the walls; he seemed to be talking to it. Sometimes he broke off his tour and, still holding the dead creature, stepped over a withered fir tree that lay in the middle of the gallery. All this was done with indescribable tenderness and great concentration.” - Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, Abbeyville Press, 1987 (Translated by David Britt), p. 135.
Beuys explains this Action to us:
“In putting honey on my head I am clearly doing something that has to do with thinking. Human ability is not to produce honey, but to think, to produce ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thinking becomes lifelike again. For honey is undoubtedly a living substance. Human thinking can be lively too. But it can also be intellectualized to a deadly degree, and remain dead, and express it’s deadliness in, say, the political or pedagogic fields.
“Gold and honey indicate a transformation of the head, and therefore, naturally and logically, the brain and our understanding of thought, consciousness and all the other levels necessary to explain pictures to a hare: the warm stool insulated with felt…and the iron sole with the magnet. I had to walk on this sole when I carried the hare round the picture to picture, so along with the strange limp came came the clank of iron on the hard stone floora—that was all that broke the silence, since my explanations were mute…
“This seems to have been the action that most captured people’s imaginations. On one level this must be because everyone consciously or unconsciously recognizes the problem of explaining things, particularly where art and creative work are concerned, or anything that involves a certain mystery or question. The idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. Then, as I said, even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.
“The problem lies in the word ‘understanding’ and its many levels which cannot be restricted to rational analysis. Imagination, inspiration, an longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding. This must be the root of reactions to this action, and is why my technique has been to try and seek out the energy points in the human power field, rather than demanding specific knowledge or reactions on then part of the public. I try to bring to light the complexity of creative areas.” - Joseph Beuys, “Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklart” (1965): reprinted in English as “Statement on How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (exh. Cat.), trans. Caroline Tisdall, New York: Soloman R.Guggenheim Museum, 1979, p.105.