Shelley Sacks [born in South Africa 1950] is a social sculpture practitioner, cultural activist, performance artist, teacher, author and thinker exploring the relationship between imagination and transformation, inner work and outer action, and paradigm shift in practice.
Like Joseph Beuys, her teacher, with whom she collaborated for many years, Shelley’s work explores what Beuys described as the ‘invisible materials of speech, discussion and thought’ and the idea that ‘every human being is an artist’, called upon to shape a humane and ecological society.
Shelley Sacks’ practice includes over fifty actions, site works and installations, participatory projects and processes, new forms of teaching and learning, essays and books. She sees her long-term projects like Exchange Values, University of the Trees and Earth Forum as ‘instruments of consciousness’ for mind-shift work and for reconfiguring our relationship to the world. Recent lectures by Shelley – for TEDx – The Art of Changing One’s Mindset and in Kassel, Germany, entitled ‘The Anthroposcene: The Human Being as the Solution’ underline this connection between thinking and shaping our society, and how this continues the active consciousness-work that Beuys emphasized in the Free International University (FIU).
Shelley Sacks’ journey with Beuys
In 1970, Beuys was shown images of Shelley Sacks’ performances and installations in South Africa, and invited her to study with him. In 1973 Shelley won a scholarship and took up this offer – a bit too late for the Dusseldorf academy. In Germany, her somewhat nomadic student career with Beuys, in his studio and on trains, also included a period with Beuys when he was Guest Professor at the Kunstakademie in Hamburg. After assisting Beuys in Hamburg as a ‘Meisterstudent’ – facilitating the group sessions in his absence, she then spent time with Beuys in New York in 1975, working with him daily in the Richtkraefte installation and in other New York venues.
After much discussion with Beuys about how to work with the social sculpture ideas in different contexts, Shelley returned to South Africa. Here she worked actively in the South African liberation struggle until 1990 exploring ways to work with the social sculpture ideas in practice. This included setting up an FIU office in Cape Town; a social enterprise, based on FIU principles, for facilitating new forms of work and production; and doing clandestine presentations of the FIU’s Third Road model for the leadership of the ‘people’s organisations’, inspiring discussions about a future eco-social system. At Beuys’ request Shelley translated into English the Third Road booklet, which had formed the basis of many discussions with European activist groupings at the Honey pump in 1977.
Between 1975 and Beuys’ death in 1986, Shelley returned to Germany several times to work with Beuys, including for 100 days in 1977 in The Honey Pump at Documenta. This intensive daily engagement in the FIU with the social sculpture proposals, provoked questions for Shelley about ways of thinking together that enable individuals and groups to experience their capacity for mind-shift work and what Beuys meant when he said: “Thinking is already Sculpture!”
Another extended visit to Germany in 1980 included travelling with Beuys to many events whilst he was campaigning for the Greens, and at Beuys request, doing a reflective report on the FIU – after visiting many FIU groups in Germany and Holland.
After returning to Europe in 1990, Shelley realised how much interest there was in Beuys’ social sculpture ideas but how little was known. Made public by Shelley’s lectures at the Tate, international conferences, and her installations and social sculpture actions for the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals [1994 and 1995], a social sculpture network in the UK began to grow. This was strengthened by a 5-day Social Sculpture Colloquium in Glasgow in 1995, that Shelley organised with support from the Goethe Institute, and followed by a publication on this Social Sculpture Colloquium, sent free to 300 libraries round the world. An Art and Social Healing group, which emerged after the work in Glasgow and Edinburgh was the forerunner of both the Social Sculpture Research Unit and the University of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future, which is an on going development of the FIU.
In 1997 Shelley was invited to set up a new ‘interdisciplinary art’ curriculum for the 21st century, at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Here, as Professor of Social Sculpture for over 2 decades, she created and led a social sculpture Masters and Doctoral programme and the Social Sculpture Research Unit. These research programmes have drawn people from across the world and many backgrounds and spheres of activity – including medicine, philosophy, farming and organisational consultancy. Over the past 3 decades Shelley’s work with Beuys’ proposals has been both practical and theoretical. What Shelley describes as “the contemporary field of social sculpture and connective practice” has grown out of an extended enquiry that has carefully explored Beuys’ proposals in relation to Schiller’s ‘Aesthetic Education of the Human Being’, Goethean science, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, phenomenology and imaginal work in psychology, dialogic thinking, Vedantic-Buddhist teaching, cultural activism for eco-social ‘capacity building’ and the ‘call to consciousness’ from indigenous earth protectors.
This integration of understandings from different cultures and spheres has formed the basis of Shelley Sacks’ well-known ‘connective practice – creative strategies’ approach in both her teaching methodology and her projects.
Exchange Values, a project with small producers and consumers, explores the future of work, the role of consumer power in shaping a viable eco-social system and the importance of imagination in transforming how we think. It has travelled to 13 venues since 1996, the last one being the Frans Hals Museum, 2017, in Holland that included 6-months of social sculpture dialogue processes. Other participatory arenas include Earth Forum, Frametalks and University of the Trees. These frameworks and processes have involved thousands of people in ‘capacity building practices’ for ‘coming to our senses’, including young ‘change makers’ in Africa, India, Europe and China.
Projects like Earth Forum and University of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future are frameworks that see the human being as the artist of a humane and ecologically viable future and build directly on the work of the Free International University that was explored during the 100 days at the Honey Pump in 1977.
The new website for University of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future will be online later this year. www.universityofthetrees.org
For FRAMETALKS in Kassel, Aug 2018, see www.universityoftrees.org blog
And Facebook: Social Sculpture Research Unit https://www.facebook.com/socialsculpture/posts/2098821380192787
For leaflet with texts about social sculpture see
Listen to Shelley’s TEDx talk here: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE_5Yaad2-U]