If art, as Chris Thompson argues in Felt
, is a moral issue, its fiber just got that much stronger.
An associate professor of cultural history at the Maine College of Art (and former Phoenix art writer), Thompson focuses his book, subtitled Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, and the Dalai Lama, is principally concerned with the legendary 1982 meeting between German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and the Dalai Lama. But since there's no recorded evidence of that meeting, Thompson does, in his research, what any radical materialist might do in such a bind: if you can't make a shape, make the space around the shape.
Thompson explores dozens of convergences of materiality and spirituality, and the result is a thorough, deliriously rigorous investigation of the intersections of Eastern and Western culture through the lenses of contemporary art. The book is unabashedly nonlinear, echoing the format of Deleuze and Guattari's dizzying cultural theory tome A Thousand Plateaus, a staple text he invokes in droves. He writes with anarchic zeal, contextualizing Beuys by invoking along the way a Clash/Ginsburg proto-mashup, some cultural practices of the Mongols (who wore felt armor by day and slept in felt tents by night), and a host of Zen koans.
Felt, the fabric, was a favored material of Beuys's because it was nonwoven and warm. Fittingly, Thompson's book has a similar tone. He resists the temptation to enjoin concepts that aren't really linkable, yet leaps onto them anyway. And though it's a dense, challenging read, Felt is plenty warm too. In an opening passage the Dutch artist Louwrien Wijers, the mentor who witnessed Thompson form this University of Minnesota Press-published book from a 1998 undergrad thesis, was asked in an interview to describe Beuys's work: "Well, if you want only one word, I would say that word is love."