German performance artist Joseph Beuys gives two landmark talks in Belfast at the height of the unrest



Almost 50 years ago, German performance artist Joseph Beuys traveled to Belfast at the height of the unrest to give two landmark lectures on art and what it means to be an artist. A century after Beuys’ birth in 1921, Claire Simpson looks back on her legacy and how it helped spark a revolution in art in Northern Ireland.


“The mid-1970s was a time of enormous political flux, not only in Northern Ireland but also throughout the rest of the UK and Europe. It was also a time of the emergence of a new artistic movement. , performance by being one. “

Arts administrator Belinda Loftus clearly remembers Joseph Beuys’ visit to Belfast.

Already a celebrity in the art world, Beuys gave two lectures in the city in 1974 – one at Art College on York Street and the other at the Ulster Museum.

A performance artist, Beuys has become internationally famous for his play I Like America and America Likes Me which sees him locked in a hotel room in New York City with a wild coyote.

His lectures in Belfast were milder, but for part of the audience they were transformative.

“He said that every person is an artist that I agree with,” Ms. Loftus said.

“There were a lot of people who weren’t from the art world who were there.

“Beuys was a charismatic person. He drew on these chalkboards. In my opinion, his ability to draw was amazing.”

Beuys used chalkboards to illustrate his thoughts.

However, Ms Loftus, who grew up in Suffolk, England, recalled being heckled by people who thought his ideas lacked substance.

“His first lecture was at Art College. He was heckled a lot by the students. I think they thought he was really a little airy,” she said.

“(Cork born television producer and teacher) Leila Doolan was working in Ballymurphy (in a community video project) at the time.

“She came to the Ulster museum conference and brought in some of the young people from the project.

“She and they stood up and said if you believe it why are you here at the Ulster museum and why aren’t you with us at Ballymurphy which was a good point.”

The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin hosts an exhibition of Beuys’ work in Ireland, including some of the chalkboards he wrote and which he drew inspiration from in his lectures.

The exhibition includes screenings of an ITV documentary, A Beuys Crying in the Wilderness, which examines the artist’s journey to the north and reactions to his visit in 1974.

Ms Loftus said Beuys’ visit led a group of artists from Northern Ireland to visit the Documenta International Art Exhibition in Germany in 1977.

“The Germans were all in discussion, discussion,” she said.

“We wanted to do things… Leela Doolan taught Irish dancing to all these Germans. Bob Sloan succeeded in building these sandbag areas, just like they did in Belfast. Someone had brought a cassette with Lambeg drums playing very loudly, and we let them The Germans come in and go through a checkpoint.

“We were really trying to give them a sense of what it was like in Northern Ireland.”

Beuys had helped set up the Free International University in Germany, which aimed to be a global network for creative groups and individuals.

The visit to Documenta led to the “Almost Free” show in Belfast, which encouraged the public to exhibit their own works of art or poems.

“We also managed to exhibit – which was a real achievement – crafts from loyalist and Republican internees in Long Kesh,” she said.

“The prisoners of the time painted handkerchiefs and made sculptures which would bear political emblems but which would also have objects for lovers.”

The Art & Research Exchange (ARE), which was originally intended to be a Belfast outpost of Beuys International Free University, was later formed on Lombard Street in Belfast in 1978.

Ms. Loftus helped create ARE with Scottish artist Alistair MacLennan, who taught at Art College.

The rooms included a rehearsal space for musicians, a space for comic book artists, an exhibition space and spaces for community art groups.

Importantly, the AER also opened at night.

“I think he (Beuys) was a catalyst,” Ms. Loftus said.

“It was an important moment. In central Belfast, after five o’clock it was dead. I remember walking down Royal Avenue one night and I was the only person except the soldiers.”

Anna Liesching, art curator at National Museums NI, said the Beuys lectures “brought a lot of energy to the students.”

“He started this conversation among artists and among students that there is more to art than these traditional modes of artistic practice,” she said.

“He spoke about the idea of ​​conceptual practice and performance, even questioning what an artist is and the idea of ​​looking at an artist beyond what he or she does.”

Ms. Liesching is in the early stages of building a performance art collection, including an oral history archive.

“Northern Ireland is world famous for performance art, but it’s not really well known outside of artistic circles,” she said.

“It’s a shame that Beuys is not better known here and that this place is not recognized locally as such an important place for the art of performance. It is something that I am looking to change.”

She said artists, including MacLennan, played a key role in the development of the art form in Northern Ireland during the unrest.

“Alistair MacLennan’s specialty was performance,” she said.

“He was working with a lot of students who were frustrated with the art system here at the time, but also very frustrated with the stress of what was going on around them and they didn’t know how to represent it in their art.”

She added, “The performance helped them deal with these difficult and very heavy topics conceptually.

“It was a really interesting time in Belfast for art.”

Ms. Liesching said the art of performance can be “very intimidating”.

“Maybe that’s why it’s not ‘popular’,” she said. “It’s indefinable. Each performance artist has their own idea of ​​what performance art is.

“Beuys has talked a lot about artists as communicators and performance art really communicates your idea by using yourself or your own body to do it.”

The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin exhibition on Beuys – Joseph Beuys: From the Secret Block to Rosc – will run until January 9. For more information visit


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