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Fluxus at 50

by Michèle C. Cone
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"Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life," an array of over 100 objects from the "memorial collection" of Fluxus factotum George Maciunas (1931-78) at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (plus additional loans), looks very much like a idea-art curiosity chamber -- something between an archive, a library and a private museum of the type that rich and cultivated European aristocrats in the 17th century filled with odd stuff that they collected, sometimes but not always for their beauty. Many of the items are small compartmentalized boxes -- the archetypal "Fluxkits" -- whose mix of curios spill out when, as is the case here, the boxes are opened. They are displayed in blond wood cabinets with glass covers, the contemporary answer to the Renaissance curio cabinet.

In addition to the Fluxkits, the show includes separate curio objects, functional-looking things with an elusive function, such as a clock with only ten hour numbers by Robert Watts, a Fluxsyringe with 56 needles by Maciunas, a length of cable with identical plugs at both ends in the suicide kit by Ben Vautier, a piece of wood furniture painted black covered with handwritten messages also by Ben, and a door by Maciunas adorned with threatening oversized blades.

Short films like Zen for TV by Nam June Paik, which offers little to look at besides flickers of dust, or Lighting Piece by Yoko Ono, in which a match is lit and consumes itself in the darkness, disrupt the narrative function of film in favor of demonstrating the passing of time.

Like curio objects of old, Fluxus artifacts do not answer to uniform esthetic criteria.  Pairs of real underpants, charmingly adorned by Robert Watts with black-and-white images of male and female genitalia, today look a bit tacky. So does Milan Knizak’s piece, Fluxus Heart Shirt, which adorns the pocket of a white shirt with a painted red heart, as if to demonstrate that the artist "wears his heart on his pocket.” The Fluxus Divorce Box by Geoff Hendricks is tougher, containing a wedding announcement and other pieces of paper -- all cut in half.

Were it not for the gravitas of the show’s title, "Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life," the offerings on view might easily be dismissed as the work of absurdist pranksters, which is more or less the way they were treated in the 1960s and ’70s, when Fluxus participants from the world of contemporary music, mail art and multimedia performance met at Fluxus festivals in Europe, New Jersey and other parts of the world. Maciunas tried and failed to commercialize Fluxkits and Flux postcards.

Though he kept the Fluxus flame alive until his untimely death at age 47, Maciunas could not break the death grip of seriousness on the New York art world, and brought only marginal recognition to his eclectic group. The Emily Harvey Gallery in New York, 1983-2004, continued to carry the banner in its modest way, and several members of Fluxus, including Paik and Ono, did gain eventual notoriety. Fluxus archives now exist at the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Tate and elsewhere.

So the question to ask is how the show at the Hood is changing the familiar perception of Fluxus to the point that Fluxus can be now said to have dealt with “essential” hence endlessly relevant “questions of life,” as announced in the title of the show. Smart curatorial strategies are at play. Rather than follow chronology, the exhibition is organized thematically, and each heading encodes a different life concern, such as staying alive, happiness, God, Freedom, death, danger, change, time. But the savvy onlooker will note that after each heading, a question mark appears. So the displays on view do not coincide with the heading God, Love, Happiness, Freedom, etc. but with the “question” of God?, of Love?, of Happiness?, of Freedom? By asking questions on essential life issues from a variety of perspectives, the modest Fluxus objects are transformed from being Dada one-liners into ambitious metaphysical inquiries.

Is God nothing more serious than a genie in a bottle, as Ben intimates in his piece featuring a glass bottle with a label inscribed "God"? Is death as trivial as the sign for EXIT in a movie house as George Brecht claimed in an event with that title? Is happiness as contrived as it is in Maciunas Flux smile machine, a small spring-like device that forces a smile on the user’s face by being inserted in the mouth? Is freedom merely about not being entrapped by art making, as illustrated by Geoffrey Hendricks’ 2 aRt traps”A,” a mouse trap that has caught a paint tube, or by wealth, as signified by Jack Coke’s Farmer’s Co-op’s Human Flux Trap, a fake blue diamond in a trap.

If this is a correct interpretation of how Fluxus works, its intentions follow naturally. Fluxus art speaks of disillusionment with the value of life, and attempts to be an agent of change. In fact, a number of Fluxus scores, written like a music score on paper or directly on the wall, are quasi-dictatorial in this respect. Using the imperative mode, they urge readers to follow the written injunction and do something bizarre, or at least unorthodox and gratuitous, such as Yoko Ono’s To be stepped on, which directors the viewer to step on a canvas displayed on the floor, or La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #10, which commands one to draw a straight line and follow it.

By obeying these injunctions, the participant breaks out of habitual patterns of being and undergoes a change in consciousness, or so is the hope. In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, Jacob Proctor uses the French thinker Jacques Rancière’s advocacy of a post-totalitarian “politics of esthetics” to claim that Fluxus turned art-making into a mode of questioning -- and challenging -- the existing political order. Whether or not this is true, Fluxus scores certainly do anticipate Tino Sehgal, whose versions of interactive art have been much more readily accepted by mainstream museums.

It is regrettable that the show locks so many of its curios away in their cabinets, thus shortchanging the interactive aspects of Fluxus and of course minimizing the possibility to test this thesis. Only one Fluxus event in the show -- the painted canvas lying on the floor waiting to be stepped on -- is interactive with the public, challenging those who dare not trample over the painted canvas to reflect on why a canvas on the floor induces a different reaction from a carpet or a mat.

Unlike 1960s Pop art and the French Nouveau Réalisme, whose productions were absorbed by a market-oriented society, Fluxus left behind far more modest traces of its activities despite being born in the same years. Rather than making art objects in styles that defined both a movement and themselves as individual artists, Fluxus practitioners took a shared inspiration from the “flow” of life rather than a collective style. They were interested in times and places of transition -- from life to art, from health to disease, from being in love to falling out of it, and questioned the flow of time itself. Some critics have called them Transcendentalists, others have read Zen Buddhism in their thinking.  I would add a touch of the absurd -- as in Ionesco plays from the same era -- to the conceptual mix.

The Fluxus group, which worshipped at the altar of John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, extended to Japan, Korea, Germany and France. Its most influential member was Maciunas, originally from Lithuania, who came to New York in 1948, attended the Institute of Fine Arts and pioneered the loft-living movement (that door with the oversized blades on it was his door, designed to fend off landlords, inspectors and other interlopers). It was thanks to his many talents, including those of graphic design, that Fluxus became, in the words of exhibition curator Jacquelynn Baas, "the first interdisciplinary, global and artist-run collective."

"Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life," Apr. 16-Aug. 7, 2011, at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.  The exhibition appears at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in Fall 2011 and the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Spring 2012.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian.