Berlin - "Don't trust anyone over 100", was a popular saying among the young as a way to protest the conventional in the 1990s. And Joseph Beuys' unconventional, expanded concept of art still appeals to young people today. His 100th birthday would have fallen on 12 May. Since then a number of major museums have been churning out homages, reflections and critical debates on the peculiar, missionary, enigmatic and therefore misleading lifework of the German artist who lived 1921-1986.

It felt like everything had been written and said about the charismatic man in the felt hat, who propagated "social sculpture" and claimed that every human being was an artist, by which he was referring to the power of creativity, not some artificial profession. And yet there was always another, more sceptical approach in this art composed of felt, fat, honey, iron, stone, trees and batteries, in his strange actions with living and dead animals, in his crude political happenings, and his cryptic drawings, such as the series "The secret block for a secret person in Ireland" from the Marx Collection and the archaic body ciphers and Anthroposophical symbols on wrapping paper.

DPA/Paul Zinken
Beuys' installation "Directing Forces of a New Society", 1974, extended 1977, acquired by the State of Berlin for the Nationalgalerie.

And in words. If the Bible says "in the beginning was the Word", the organisers of the Beuys homage at Hamburger Bahnhof with 25 major works from the Marx collections, the Kupferstichkabinett and the Kunstbibliothek express it more prosaically: "Everything starts from language".

Beuys had a way with words. And curator Nina Schallenberg shows how in several of his actions and speeches played over speakers and monitors. And songs. In a film from the early 1980s, the outgoing Beuys sings in protest of US President Ronald Reagan with the band Deserters: "Sonne statt Reagan" - "Sun not rain" ("Reagan" sounds like "Regen", get it?). It sounds like a cross between Neue Deutsche Welle and East Berlin's Oktoberklub.

The show begins with Beuys' 1985 lecture at the Münchner Kammerspiele: "Talking about one's own country: Germany." Here, the artist who based his lifework on the legend of his plane crash in the Crimea and his miraculous rescue and the healing of his severe injuries by shamanic Tatars, says that he always developed his works from language. For him, language contains "a plastic power through whose conscious shaping every individual and every person can participate physically, intellectually and communicatively in the reorganisation of society".

DPA/Paul Zinken
A selection from the 456-part drawing series titled "The secret block for a secret person in Ireland" from the Erich Marx Collection.

The 21 chunks of basalt that Beuys covered in 1982/83 with felt, clay, wooden pallets, crowbars - and the title "The end of the 20th century" - point inconceivably far back into the history of the Earth and hint at the Anthropocene, the century of modernity in which mankind began to destroy our planet out of greed. The geological finds from a quarry, where Beuys had them marked with circular signs, almost like the branding of a herd, originate from a distant time when there was no organic life on our "spaceship Earth". And they point to a utterly uncertain future. Thinking, acting humans have removed the blocks from their million-year context. But what shape nature will take in future centuries depends solely on the behaviour of humanity.

And then there's the effective piece titled "Directing Forces of a New Society" dating to 1974: 100 marked, chalk-scrawled, painted blackboards, easels, walking sticks - according to Beuys assembled "for the energetic context between spirit and matter".

Thus Beuys celebrated "extended thinking", as a permanent conference, "for a better form of thinking, feeling and willing". The cryptic signs and diagrams, the infantile "öö" sound formations stand for conceptualities that Beuys "brought from the depths to the surface", as he put it. This was his "language work" on the "expanded concept of art", which recurs almost notoriously in other installations, such as in "Capital". The "Directing Forces" form an archive of thought and language floating on a raft. The written word counts!

Starting From Language: Joseph Beuys at 100, Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstr. 50/51, Mitte, through 19 September, Tue–Fri 10am–6pm/ Sat + Sun 11am–6pm, free entrance on 4 July. English info at www.smb.museum

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