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The Pack: 1969 - 2008

Reflections on Joseph Beuys and Ben Cook


'The Pack 2008', by Ben Cook, is a recreation of a work made in 1969 by the German artist, Joseph Beuys* (right).

Beuys' original work featured a Volkswagen van out of which appeared to pour two dozen small sledges, with rolls of felt, lard and a torch strapped to them: materials that might help someone survive in adverse weather conditions, as Beuys is reputed to have done after the dive-bomber he was piloting crashed in the Crimea during World War Two.

The title refers to the fact that the sledges could be thought of as a pack of dogs. Beuys described the work thus: ‘This is an emergency object: an invasion by the pack. In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.’

Volkswagen first made cars in Germany in the 30s on the orders of Adolf Hitler who had originally asked Porsche to design an affordable family car. The first Volkswagen, or 'Peoples Car', was an early version of the 'Beetle' that went on to become the best-selling car of all time.

The success of the Volkswagen company is for many synonymous with the success of the post-war German economy: especially poignant considering that when British and American companies had the opportunity to buy the Volkswagen factories for next to nothing as part of the post-war reparations, they turned it down as being too much of a liability.

Much of Beuys' work related to his wartime experience and his perceptions of Germany, and indeed the West, as traumatised or wounded and in need of spiritual healing. Accordingly Beuys' camper-van had red crosses painted on its sides such that, whilst being a symbol of modern Germany, it also resembled an ambulance. Beuys was involved in environmental politics, and was a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament. For some, therefore, The Pack, as well as referring to the traumas of history, also looks to the future and the possibility of impending environmental disaster.

At the time he made it Beuys was at the height of his powers. The aktions or performances for which he is most famous, date from around 1962 when he was involved with the Fluxus movement.  His profile in Europe had grown since then, such that by 1969 he was about to have his first big show in Britain, courtesy of Richard DeMarco in Edinburgh. Revered by many in Europe, and hugely influential in Germany, he was not so well received in America - highlighted by the sardonic title of one of his most famous works: 'I like America and America likes me' a performance from 1974 (right).

Whilst to many Volkwagen is a symbol of modern Germany, the Volkswagen van became an important symbol of 60s counter-culture, and went on to acquire various affectionate nick-names including the hippie-van or, in America the hippie-bus. Fittingly, it was featured repeatedly in the film 'Alice's Restaurant', also of 1969, about a commune of hippy musicians centred on the singer Arlo Guthrie (below).

The VW campervan is still favoured by surfers, as a cheap mode of transport, large enough to sleep in and carry longboards. For example it is still a regular visitor to Newquay in the annual 'Run to the Sun'.

Interestingly this symbolism, like much of surf culture, (and by the same token skateboarding and BMX), belongs to the late 20th Century and to a generation not immediately touched by the traumas of the two World Wars. Perhaps this is one reason why Ben Cook's remake of Beuys' work in 2008 has a lighter, sunnier disposition. Instead of being burdened with Beuys' angst, it has more optimistic and playful quality, and has surfboards instead of sledges.

Located in the temperate biome at the Eden Project it is, on one level, a lighthearted parody that deflates the overblown Wagnerian rhetoric of the Beuys original, like the trivialising version of 'The Pack' made in lego recently and shown in Liverpool. In a similar way it even suggests defeat - or more precisely that surfing is no more likely to heal the ills of the world than art is.

Cynical parodies of major works of art can seem merely parasitic, however: empty gestures that do little other than leave a bad taste in the mouth. Fortunately Cook's work is more than this. Ultimately, it is not defeatist or nihilistic. Instead it is part of an ongoing project to meditate seriously on surfing and surf culture, and what it means to millions of people across the globe. Cook has called this the 'semiotics of surfing'. It is an attempt to capture the essence of this compelling activity and understand its place as a subculture within a bigger culture. In this case Cooks version of 'The Pack' suggests that surfing should have equal status to art.

Whilst the Eden Project press releases suggest that 'The Pack 2008' contains a message about the problems caused by the potential toxicity of plastic surfboards, Cook's bigger project to bring together art and surfing is equally or more important, and very relevant to a place like Cornwall, where surfing, as well as being important economically, is an uncontrived way of connecting with, and therefore understanding, the landscape and the natural world.



click here for Alex Wade's profile of Ben Cook

*Copying or remaking or 'appropriation' became a regular feature of art in the 80s and subsequently, as critical writing at the time emphasised the Structuralist notion of intertextuality.