In February 1976, Joseph Beuys (1921?–?86) realized the environment zeige deine Wunde (show your wound) at the Kunstforum in Munich. The acquisition of the work for the Lenbachhaus in 1979 occasioned a public debate over the value of contemporary art. The purchase was seen as a provocative act, but also as an effort on the part of the museum to open up a new dimension for its collection. For the first time, the Lenbachhaus bought a significant work of art whose author’s life and work bore no particular relation to Munich. In January 1980, Beuys installed the environment in Franz Lenbach’s former studio wing. He observed that “in this concert of objects, it is not I who speak; the things have their own inner language. Comprehending it is something everyone has to do for himself or herself.”
Show your wound hauntingly explores the subject of death. The challenge posed by the title confronts the beholders with their vulnerable spot: the finitude of existence. At the center of the environment stands a pair of stretchers used to transport corpses, which Beuys salvaged from a coroner’s office. Lamps shedding a dim light are mounted above their head ends. Beneath the stretchers are two open tin vats filled with fat, with a thermometer and a test tube containing a blackbird’s skull resting on each; next to the vats stand preserving jars covered with gauze. Two rural tools, implements from the pre-Alpine uplands that originally served to strip the bark from trees, lean against the wall, cushioned by two white panels. Across the room, two double-pronged forks that were used to tamp rail track ballast?—?the shreds of cloth are remnants of this employment?—?are set against the wall, resting on small slates scratched with incomplete circles. Two framed copies of the newspaper La Lotta Continua, still in their mail wrappers, which are addressed to Beuys, are hung on the wall. The installation is completed by two school blackboards mounted on the short wall of the room bearing the chalk inscription “zeige deine Wunde.” With the odd doubling of every detail, the work accounts for the duality of life and death, individual and society, present and past, actual reality and history.