It is with a particular sense of dread caused by the looming and disused industrial structures that I approach the Tate Modern, housed in the Bankside Power Station on the River Thames. It's from a bygone age when power was generated right in our backyards. And smoke belched from massive chimneys.
Step inside and you can spend an hour a day or a whole week strolling the cavernous spaces and looking at weird shit. Some is crap and some deeply sad and touching. Some exude a great, vibrant, manic energy.
Like any of Jackson Pollock’s canvases. Which are fun to look at, but the real fun is in imagining the killer time Pollock himself must have had as he had days upon days to do nothing but run around and wreak havoc with paint.
You then bump into a rusting Volkswagen Type 2 bus.
It is rusty in a very aesthetic way but is clearly no more and no less than an old German car. Streaming out from the back is a team of sleds, each equipped with a searchlight, a heavy felt blanket and a big block of what appears to be fat and which is, in fact, fat. This is where things get interesting.
The installation was created in 1969 by the German artist Joseph Beuys and is called Das Rudel: The Pack. Beuys based it on a particular day in his Luftwaffe career, when, on a March day in 1944, his Stuka was shot down over the Crimea and he was rescued by Crimean Tartars. He recalled the story decades later:
The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in—I always preferred free movement to safety belts… My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact—there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying “voda” (water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.
Of course you don’t know any of this as you enter the room with the Vee Dub bus and the sleds. All you can sense is a jubilant freedom as you look at all those sleds, clearly well-equipped for a Russian winter—or any winter. They move in a pack, happy, focused, supremely adapted to their environment, and they even have built-it snow brakes, operated by hand levers.
You would trust your life to this focused pack of sleds. You could ride any of them wherever there is enough snow to glide across, whether in the Yukon or in Chukotka. And you can just feel that great, overwhelming freedom, the freedom of an open road, an endless landscape, and a well-adapted vehicle.
Das Rudel will elevate any gloomy day. Come see it if you’re in London.
Photo Credit: ChicagoGeek/Flickr, Lothar Wolleh and the author