Celtic +∿∿∿∿, for Footwashing

  • 1971, 1977
  • From left to right:
  • Celtic + ∿∿∿∿ [Celtic + ∿∿∿∿], 1971

    Film (super 8); ten photographs, 40 x 50 cm; bottle with gelatin, beeswax, 16.5 cm x 8.5 cm dia.; in cloth covered box, stamped with brown paint (Browncross), 41 x 52 x 10 cm
    Edition: 100, signed and numbered
    Publisher: Edition Schellmann, Munich
    Catalogue Raisonné No.: 37
  • For Footwashing [für Fußwaschung], 1977

    Enamel basin, inscribed; approx. 10 cm x 36 cm dia
    Edition: 15, signed, unnumbered
    Publisher: Edition Staeck, Heidelberg
    Catalogue Raisonné No.: 209

These two multiples arose in connection with Celtic +∿∿∿∿ , a performance by Beuys which took place in Basel, Switzerland in 1971. While the title of this event alluded to Beuys’s interest in Celtic culture, its activities were also marked throughout by allusions to Jesus Christ, whose role as a figure of humility and redemption Beuys mirrored at certain moments in his performance.1 Both works served to document these acts and transmit their significance to a new audience, who had not been present at the original event.

The Celtic +∿∿∿∿ multiple consists of a cloth-covered box, inside which are a flask of gelatine, together with a Super 8 film and ten photographs depicting key passages from the performance. As several of the photographs suggest, and the film helps to further emphasise, the gelatine played a signal role in Celtic +∿∿∿∿. Prior to the performance, Beuys affixed hundreds of small chunks of the glistening substance to one wall of the performance space. Later, as the event unfolded, he methodically removed these one by one and placed them in the shallow lead cover of the container in which the gelatine had been stored. When this process was complete and the gelatine amassed into a towering, unsteady mound, he raised the cover high above his head, and in an act of ritual baptism upended its contents onto his body.

In a Christian context, baptism is a rite in which water is used to cleanse the recipient and induct him or her into the Church’s community. While still alluding broadly to these Christian meanings, Beuys enacted his own baptism in terms specific to his art. Using gelatine instead of water, he doused himself with a substance that he used as a transmitter of spiritual warmth. In this way, as it tumbled down upon him, the gelatine’s warm energies infused his body. As in a Christian context, therefore, this baptism through warmth served to bring Beuys into contact with spiritual forces, though of a kind connected with his own beliefs and not those of orthodox Christianity. The circulation of this gesture through photographs and film also has parallels to Christianity, since it recalls the Church’s use of images depicting Christ’s own baptism as a model for worshippers to follow. Preserved as it is in the Celtic +∿∿∿∿ multiple, Beuys’s gesture fulfils a similar function.

A second, Christian-themed passage of the Basel performance is also documented in the Celtic +∿∿∿∿ multiple. At the start of the event, Beuys filled a white enamel basin with water, then, using soap and a clean white cloth, proceeded to wash and dry the feet of seven onlookers. This gesture echoed an event in the life of Christ, in which he washed the feet of his Apostles. While performing this gesture, Christ is said to have told the Apostles:

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John, 13: 14–16)

In mimicking Christ’s action, Beuys alluded to this message of humility and equality. As with his baptism, however, he enacted this gesture on more personal terms, aligning it with his wish to use art as a vehicle of healing, which might help society develop in a more democratic and egalitarian direction.2

  1. For a useful discussion of the connection between the Christian and Celtic elements of this action, which centred on Beuys’s interest in the holy grail, see Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys. Die Aktionen (Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje,1994), 281. 

  2. For more on Beuys’s foot-washing act and the significance of his having performed it on precisely seven audience members, see H. P. Riegel, Beuys: Die Biographie (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2013), 345. 

    Photos 1, 3

    © H. Koyupinar, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

    Photo 2

    © Mario Gastinger, Photographics, Munich

    Katalog Museum Mönchengladbach 1967