1 JOSEPH BEUYS'S FINAL SPEECH In January 1986, eleven days before his death, Joseph Beuys gave a speech as he accepted the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize in Duisburg, Germany. He said that Lehmbruck had taught him not only to understand sculpture in spatial terms, but also to take spiritual power as the fundamental motive behind the act of giving form. Beuys connected this notion to his own ideas about political reform and social evolution. The influence of Beuys's integrated concept of art is well known, but what interests me most here are Beuys's insights into how concepts are transmitted and passed on through generations. He saw any two individual lives as the medium for the transmission of a concept, and from this basic understanding of how humans influence one another, he formulated the idea of an intimate connection between a given human and humanity writ large. When I first read Beuys's lecture in late 1989, it helped me come to terms with the massive social trauma my generation had faced earlier that year, and healed my personal wounds.
2 ZHUANGZI The great ancient Chinese Taoist thinker Zhuangzi used lively tales and romantic language to offer an all-encompassing critique of culture's value systems--he was the Nietzsche of his day. Famously, he once dreamed that he had been transformed into a butterfly, but then doubted himself upon waking up: Had he dreamed of being a butterfly, or was he a butterfly dreaming that it had turned into Zhuangzi? Such stories are a source of basic wisdom for many Chinese, and his book--also known as Zhuangzi--has generated the most set phrases of all the classics. My basic understanding of contemporary art as a game is deeply influenced by Zhuangzi's writing. For example, he writes that a tree that is too small will be cut down and used for kindling, but one that grows too large will be felled and used for lumber, so a tree--like an artist or a particular work--will thrive best somewhere in the middle.
3 MAGRITTE'S DRAWINGS In the early 1990s, I saw a small Magritte drawing from a set of drawings published in the journal La Revolution Surrealiste in 1929 under the title Les Mots et les images, showing a horse standing next to a painting of a horse on an easel next to a person saying the word horse. The piece obviously anticipates Joseph Kosuth's famous 1965 work featuring a chair, a photograph of a chair, and chair's dictionary definition--and it immediately led me to a better understanding not only of Surrealism but also of conceptual art, and it later encouraged me to connect Wittgenstein's ideas about language as an autonomous system to the internal logics of modern art. Thus this one work has given me a completely new perspective on both art and art history.
4 TIBETAN ART I first encountered traditional Tibetan art in the early '90s, and I subsequently traveled to Tibet many times in order to see its stone carvings, sand mandalas, images painted with grain upon walls, sculptures made of yak butter, and ubiquitous ruins--as well as to grasp the Tibetan understanding of travel and the miracles of daily existence. All of these things showed me the power of materials, the symbolism that sprouts from everyday life, and the meaning of art for people who live simple lives in extreme hardship. In recent years, reading Tibetan history has provided me with much material for understanding colonialism.
5 DA VINCI'S SKETCHES The drawings Da Vinci made for his design of a tank and a helicopter--as well as for research into human anatomy and motion--indicate how art is not merely an investigation of beauty but a path to understanding. Combining depictions of existing objects with designs for objects that did not yet exist, Da Vinci's sketches are certainly beautiful, but their exemplary value lies in how they make art into a tool that furthers comprehension of the world and life--a way, in other words, of better understanding human existence. …