A man and a coyote in a room:
bait and hook—you sit down to watch
the video while art-goers, tourists
mostly, drift through the crowded gallery.
The man and the coyote are in black and white;
there is an air of anthropology,
an early documentary of something primitive.
Or they might be in a film noir, the coyote
playing the tough guy.
But “I Like America and America
Likes Me” was made in 1974:
it is filmed performance art: an “Action.”
The man has brought props into the room:
gloves, a big stick shaped like a shepherd’s crook,
a triangle, and a blanket that he
wears like a boy in a nativity play,
or that he thrusts his stick out of, or creeps
out from under—this could frighten more than
a coyote, but the coyote is also intrigued:
sometimes he pulls the blanket off the man,
or grabs his stick, or circles round, or catches
the gloves the man tosses to him. He
obligingly pees on The Wall Street Journal
each time it is delivered to the room.
When the video is over, after
half an hour, you are almost convinced.
But Joseph Beuys did not like America.
He never touched down on American
soil: to perform his Action he was swaddled
in his blanket and spirited away
by ambulance from the airport to the
New York City studio where he would
reckon with the coyote—
“You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote,
and only then can the trauma be lifted,” Beuys said.
He had wanted to keep his hands—and feet—clean:
he had wanted to remain innocent
of contact with American soil
because of Vietnam; and it’s fair to say
that the attempt to exterminate
coyotes shows the same murderous
mentality, as well as stubborn
futility, at work during that war.
For Beuys, the coyote was a symbol
“of the damage done by white men to the
American continent and the native cultures.”
He had always had an interest in nature.
When the Nazis came to Beuys’ home town, Kleve,
to stage a book-burning, this Hitler youth
salvaged Carl Linnaeus’ Systema
Natura from the flames. And he had always
had a penchant for performance: he had
volunteered for the Luftwaffe, and when
his plane was shot down on the Crimean
front, he claimed that nomadic Tatar tribesmen
rescued him from the snowdrifts, packing butter
and whey about his body for warmth,
and nursing him in a cave. But Beuys had
been found by a German search commando.
You could watch it all over again, but
you are being edged off the bench by
impatient tourists. Your questions would remain
unanswered anyway: where did the coyote
come from? What happened to him afterwards?
Joseph Beuys has given him a hug at the end,
but this seems a piece of performance,
as when he walked about the room banging
on his triangle like the youngest boy
in the school band. Apparently Beuys
conceives of himself as a shaman.
In the Shawnee myth, Kukumthena,
the Grandmother, weaves a giant basket;
when it is finished, the world will end.
But each night, her little dog, like Penelope,
unravels the day’s work: and so
the trappings of art are undone by nature.