Khlebnikov and Beuys

Not that I know much about Joseph Beuys‘s work but this episode from his younger years – perhaps invented – keeps interjecting itself into my random thoughts. Actually, I’m pretty sure he did invent it now. Here’s the deal:

When Joseph Beuys’s Stuka plane crashed in the Crimea in 1944, he survived. A group of nomadic Tartars found him and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm. It was a story that not only defined the source of his artistic materials, but also one that became an integral and enduring part of Beuys’s legend.

As Claudia Mesch points out in a “critical bio” of Beuys (p. 22-23), the man crashed on March 16, 1944, and was admitted to a German field hospital on March 17 so there wasn’t much time for the “nomadic Tartars” to take care of him. Moreover, I doubt that shamans survived among the mostly Sunni Crimean Tatars into the 20th century. Finally, in 1944 Beuys wrote, in a private letter, of Russian workers pulling him out of the wreckage, without mentioning any nomads or shamans.

What interests me is not what really happened to Beuys in March 1944 but why he shaped the story of his miraculous survival in that particular way – nomads and yurts, shamans and felt. Beuys is sometimes compared to Velimir Khlebnikov, but I haven’t seen a mention of the German artist’s actually reading anything by the Russian poet. If I knew for certain that Beuys was interested in Khlebnikov, I would venture this conjecture: Beuys’s Tatars were actually Khlebnikov’s Kalmyks.

That would be easy: the would-be Russian poet was born amid the Kalmyk steppe northeast of the Caspian Sea, in the only wooden house amidst a multitude of yurts. His family left Kalmykia for Volhynia when the boy was 11 but he would always write fondly of the steppe and its inhabitants.

I was born… in the camp of Mongolian nomads professing the Buddha… in the steppe, on the dried-out bottom of the disappearing Caspian sea.

In 1992, a large statue of Khlebnikov by a Kalmyk sculptor was installed near this birthplace. It stands alone in the steppe – visible from a nearby highway – next to a stone circle. A most appropriately placed statue. Probably one of the best memorials I’ve seen (I wish I had been there in person). If you ever get around to reading Khlebnikov, you’ll probably see what I mean.

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