PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.3 (2004) 45-60
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Ben D'armagnac's Last Performance
In a few moments the Theater aan de Rijn in Arnhem would be full of people who had come to attend the next session of the Behavior Workshop, a five-day event that included performances and talks by Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Carolee Schneemann, and a series of related workshops, dialogues, and political debates (Thursday, September 28 through Wednesday, October 3, 1978). Now, just before noon on Saturday, the room was empty except for Beuys, his friend the Dutch artist and writer Louwrien Wijers, and the ghost of Bernard (Ben) d'Armagnac. Two days before, on Thursday evening, September 28, d'Armagnac had fallen and hit his head on the side of his houseboat, been knocked unconscious, and had drowned in the water at the corner of the canals Herengracht and Brouwersgracht. A convex mirror, attached to the wall so that boat pilots can see oncoming vessels coming around the corner, today serves as a kind of makeshift memorial marking the site of his death. Wijers recalled that Friday morning his wife Johanna noticed "many people looking over the railing of the bridge. She looked in the water, and Ben's body was lying there, as if in a performance, you know, but this time he had drowned during the night, stepping on his . . . going into the boat he stepped on . . . and he just . . . he fell, you know, and then he came with his head on the iron side of the boat, fell into the water, probably unconscious, and later in the morning when they started to move the water, the body came up."1
Wijers had been in Arnhem with Beuys when he died, and had rushed back to Amsterdam to see d'Armagnac's body in the morgue, one last time. She had returned to Arnhem with a number of images from his performances, and on a table beneath a life-sized poster of his 1976 untitled performance at the Stedelijk Museum, she and Beuys lit a tall candle and surrounded it with daisies. In the few undisturbed moments that were left to the two of them, Beuys played an improvised memorial piano piece for d'Armagnac. There is no record of what music Beuys played, though it is tempting to speculate that he played a piece by Erik Satie, one of Beuys's favorite composers; in his review of d'Armagnac's 1976 performance at the Stedelijk for Studio International, Hein Reedijk compared d'Armagnac's choreography to Satie's Vexations (BD: 144). [End Page 45]
"Ben was supposed to come to Arnhem [to the Behavior Workshop, where he was a scheduled participant] to do his performance there," Wijers explained, "but he couldn't find the issue for the performance. For weeks and weeks he said 'I don't know what to do in Arnhem . . . it has to do with death but I don't know how to do it.'" And with a soft laugh at the irony of this, she continued: "so, he did his performance! In time!And it was about death! But it took his life. I think that is always a good thing, eh? There are a few artists who . . . die in their work . . . you could say" (1/1998).
Because I have decided not to write about my work anymore—as a visual artist I can only realize my ideas visually and it is very difficult to express them in any other way, such as writing—the solution that I found for the problem is that I have asked Louwrien Wijers, who has been deeply involved with my work since 1969 and who has regularly published about it, to write everything wanted on me in the future. I do hope you understand and respect my decision. Sincerely yours, B.J.J. d'Armagnac
Wijers considered d'Armagnac's performance at the International Cologne Art Fair in 1977 to be a...