With the opening of Documenta 12 just a month away, I ventured out west to Kassel last week to visit King Roger and Queen Ruth and gaze upon their majestic new Plastic Palace on the grounds of L’Orangerie. If you don’t mind the distant roar of generators and compressors keeping the air conditioning flowing, and you ignore the implications for Documenta 12’s carbon footprint, it’s a spectacular sight, even without the art installed.
It is not possible in my experience, however, to visit Kassel without feeling the overwhelming presence of an installation that returns to life this time every year, that of Joseph Beuys 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks). Planting of the trees began at Documenta 7 in 1982 and continued for five years with support from the Dia Foundation, with the last of the 7000 planted at D8.
25 years on, the oaks are reaching a more graceful maturity than most of us. And hopefully, with the buds open and the leaves growing to fullness this month, Prince Joseph’s grand gesture will be busy converting King Roger’s carbon dioxide output back into fresh clean oxygen.
One of my favourite gifts for artist friends is to pass along a handful of acorns from these sacred oaks after a trip to Kassel. I’ve even been known to hop off the train to spend an hour collecting acorns before jumping on the next train when my travels take me through Kassel. This year I loaded up a shoe-box full from around the University and have been busy wrapping them up and posting them out. The notion of the artist’s seed spreading across the globe even after death is terribly modernist, I know, but all credit to Prince Joseph for such a far-sighted effort.
Is modernity our antiquity? In this case, sadly yes. What is bare life? Prince Joseph’s seed – the acorn – I believe. Was tun? Plant trees, King Roger, to repent for your sins!