Art Culture

In the spirit of Dear Joseph

Carmen Sutcliffe reviews Joseph Beuys’ oak planting at ECA.

A sunlit, crisp October morning. I am in the leafy grass area next to ECA Café. Students and faculty members mill around, there are camera and sound technicians. At the centre of the hubbub I catch sight of the guest of honour, Scottish-Italian artist Richard Demarco, looking remarkably well for his 91 years.

In 1970, at the invitation of Demarco, a group of Dusseldorf artists were invited to Scotland and staged a takeover of the ECA called ‘Strategy: Get Arts’ that Demarco organised. The festival exhibition launched the careers of many of the artists, among them Joseph Beuys.
Demarco is at the ECA today for the Joseph Beuys oak planting ceremony, celebrating the centenary of Beuys’ birth and the launch of the ‘Strategy: Get Arts – SGA50’ project, led by Dr Christian Weikop. This consists of a series of installations in the Edinburgh College of Art including QR code signs, a poster display in Lady Lawson Street, and a new book by Weikop, titled ‘Strategy: Get Arts. 35 Artists Who Broke the Rules.’

The chosen tree is an oak sapling from Loch Lomond with an accompanying stone quarried from Salisbury Crags. It honours Beuys’ seminal project ‘7000 Oaks’ (1982) wherein the artist and volunteers planted 7,000 trees over several years in Kassel, Germany, each marked with a basalt stone. Beuys died four years later.
After a brief introduction by Juan Cruz, the ECA principal, and Christian Weikop, Demarco takes over the microphone. During the other guests’ speeches he is snapping away pictures on his digital camera as if he isn’t the guest of honour.

Demarco begins discussing his time as a student at the ECA and complains about the state of the Edinburgh Festival during his time: “they liked to show artists that were all dead, they would cause no trouble.” Demarco is a magical speaker; moving between trembling passion and twinkling humour, he elicits surprised laughter from the crowd, many of whom thought this ceremony would be a dry and bloodless affair. However, it is swiftly becoming one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.

Demarco speaks movingly of a Europe split in two by the “disgusting” iron curtain and his desire to meet artists from Germany. He waxes lyrical on the visual arts and harshly critiques the Scottish Government’s previous underfunding and abandonment of art. He becomes introspective, saying “It’s a miracle I am still here” and speaks on how art is not a commodity. He encourages the students present to “find art in the light and in the air” of Scotland, and speaks of how the volcanic landscape of Edinburgh inspired Beuys. He thanks Cruz and Weikop for the work they have done, as now the students will know that some of the greatest artists in the world were here in 1970. He touchingly concludes by saying that “everyday, like this one, is a gift, in the spirit of dear Joseph”.

Many of us have wet eyes as he embraces Juan, and then Weikop. Weikop stoops down from his substantial height to touch Demarco’s forehead with his own, before each of them take up a trowel to bury the sapling’s roots. Once done, Demarco raises his shovel into the air, grinning. Weikop does the same and gently taps his trowel against Demarco’s.

After the ceremony I edge around to meet Demarco with my coursemates. He shakes each of our hands and takes our details. He says conspiratorially “of course your tutors won’t tell you any of this,” and says “Art is an act of love, a Turner prize means nothing.” He continues, “This college has ignored Beuys for years… he was like the Leonardo Da Vinci of our time.”

His love and respect for his friend, his love and fear for the current environmental state, and his commitment to making art accessible is inspiring. After everyone disperses, I look at the sapling and rock; this will become a part of the history of the ECA that ties us to a great artist who inspires such love in his friends. The light is speckling the tree leaves, and Demarco’s words keep ringing in my ears: “Art is an act of love.”

Image credit: illustration by Sofia Cotrona

You can find the coverage of the planting ceremony at this page here:

For access to the main homepage of the SGA50 website: