Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life

September 9–December 3, 2011

Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life

A truly international network of artists, composers, and designers that developed in the 1960s, Fluxus resists categorization as an art movement, collective, or group. It also defies traditional geographical, chronological, and medium-based approaches. Rather, Fluxus participants embrace a “do-it-yourself” mentality, fashioning their activities from quotidian experiences and blurring the boundaries between art and life. George Maciunas, Fluxus’s Lithuanian-born instigator, envisioned art as social process. He and other Fluxus artists created works that celebrate collaboration, the ephemeral, and the everyday—often inflected with a touch of playful anarchy. Aiming to circumvent both conventional aesthetics and the commercial art world, they urged both their colleagues and the public to approach life with a Fluxus attitude. In keeping with this spirit, Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life encourages viewers actively to interpret and respond to the works on view, and to explore art’s relationships with essential themes of human existence. Follow the provided map to locate the fourteen sections framed as questions, for example, “What Am I?,” “Happiness?,” “Health?,” “Freedom?,” “Danger?.” Featuring over a hundred objects, documents, videos, and ephemera, the show also foregrounds two Fluxus innovations: event scores and art-as-games-in-a-box, many of which were gathered into Fluxkits and sold at intentionally low prices via mail order or at artist-run stores. The events were even more accessible. Sometimes consisting of just one word—such as George Brecht’s “Exit,” in the section “Death?”—Fluxus events could be performed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Intended as provocations to “high” culture and increasing commodification of art, Fluxus works were meant to be picked up and handled, not simply looked at. Exhibiting Fluxus today highlights yet another question: How can we maintain the defiant and playful spirit in which these objects were made, while at the same time safeguarding and preserving them for future audiences?

SECTIONAL NARRATIVES Art (What’s It Good For)? What is art good for? This was a central question for Fluxus organizer George Maciunas, who devoted his life to analyzing the role of art throughout history and to proposing what it might be good for. For Maciunas, art at its best is part of the social process, as it was from prehistoric times to the Renaissance (no. 2). In modern times, it has become imbued with a unique aura and seen as something to be evaluated by specialists and collected by museums. Fluxus artists took up the task of re-embedding art within everyday life, picking up where Dada and Russian Constructivist artists left off after World War I. Maciunas and Fluxus colleagues George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Robert Filliou observed: Promote NON ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals. (George Maciunas, 1963) Modes of apprehension: art, language, myth, science (each to be used sparingly, as needed, like food, water, sleep) . . . however, art remains within the universe of form, and what is beyond this universe, beyond dimensions, yet embodying them without conflict, is life. (George Brecht, 1961) The natural state of life and mind is complexity. At this point, what art can offer . . . is an absence of complexity, a vacuum through which you are led to a state of complete relaxation of mind. After that you may return to the complexity of life again, it may not be the same, or it may be, or you may never return, but that is your problem. (Yoko Ono, 1966) Art is what makes life more interesting than art. (Robert Filliou, n.d.) One of the things—perhaps the most important thing—art is good for is interpreting life. Art is something humans “do,” on purpose, in order to generate mind-changing experiences in themselves and others. The sense of being present and engaged that art practice generates in both artist and viewer makes art very satisfying, no matter how it looks or sounds or smells or feels or tastes. Nos. 1–12 Change? The goal of museums and archives is to preserve art for posterity by removing it from the hurlyburly of “life,” although we know that everything, including ourselves, is in a state of constant change. We may be able to affect the rate of change but not the fact of it. It is much easier to grasp this reality intellectually than to realize and live it, but Fluxus invented some effective tools for accepting change in our lives. For example, embracing change can be a lot more satisfying than trying to fight it. In his Flux Corsage (no. 17), Ken Friedman suggests acquiring some flower seeds, planting and nurturing them, and then giving the blossoms to someone you love. The plant will die eventually and so might your love. But neither will disappear. Their energy will have evolved into something else, as will yours. Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi’s Water Music (no. 16) consists of a small bottle partly filled with water, which proposes a do-it-yourself art of change. Its label instructs: 1. Give the water still form 2. Let the water lose its still form George Maciunas attempted to chart the changes modern humans have undergone in his Literate Man vs. Post-Literate Man (no. 14). Maciunas’s mind-diagrams depict the shift from Euclidean three-dimensional space, sequential time, and the Aristotelian hierarchy of the senses (with sight at the top and touch at the bottom) to “acoustic space whose boundary is nowhere & whose center is everywhere,” “sensory orchestration,” and “art as act.” His own contribution to the book Proposals for Art Education, for which Post-Literate Man was made, was “A Preliminary Proposal for 3-Dimensional System of Information Storage and Presentation,” intended to result in something like a printout of constantly changing reality, a concept that was realized some ten years after Maciunas’s death in the form of today’s Internet. In 1962, George Brecht and Robert Watts developed the concept of “an ever-expanding universe of events,” which they dubbed “The Yam Festival” (Yam is May in reverse). It began with the mailing of event cards. Brecht said that he sent these “scores” out “like little enlightenments I wanted to communicate to my friends who would know what to do with them.” Brecht included the event score on view in this section, Three Aqueous Events, in his Maciunasdesigned boxed publication Water Yam (no. 3). Nos. 13–19 Danger? We fear what we have experienced, or have been taught to experience, as dangerous. Just being alive is dangerous, but being fearful does not help; in fact, it can be downright harmful. A classic example: a man is frightened by a piece of rope he mistakes for a snake. Once he sees it for what it is, his fear dissipates. The answer to the question “What shall I do about the snake?” is “Nothing, except learn to see it for what it is.” From certain perspectives, danger can even be funny. In his event score Danger Music Number Seventeen, Dick Higgins addresses the question of danger head-on. Enacting it might express and thus dissipate your fear of danger, but it could also alarm your friends. They might choose to join in, of course—a group screaming session could be amusing. George Maciunas turned danger into a game. In 1975, he published in his Flux Newsletter the rules of his personal danger-game, which he characterized as an “event in progress”: FLUX COMBAT WITH NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY (& POLICE) BY GEORGE MACIUNAS (EVENT IN PROGRESS) a) Attorney General’s arsenal of weapons: some 30 subpoenas to Maciunas and all his friends, interrogation of his friends, warrant for arrest of Maciunas, search warrants, 4 angry and frustrated marshals and policemen armed with clubs. b) Maciunas’ arsenal of weapons: humorous, insulting and sneering letters to Attorney General, various disguises (gorilla mask, bandaged head, gas mask, etc.) . . . various unbreakable doors with giant cutting blades facing out, reinforced with steel pipe braces, camouflaged doors, dummy and trick doors and ceiling hatches . . . funny messages behind each door, real escape hatches and tunnels leading to other floors, vaults etc. various warning alarm systems . . . After termination of this combat (possibly flight from New York State) documentation of this event will be published by Maciunas (copies of letters, disguise photos, photos of various doors and hatches and photos of escape etc.) Maciunas did in fact flee New York in 1976, taking refuge in a Massachusetts farmhouse, which he hoped to turn into an arts learning center. Examples of his “documentation” of Flux Combat are on view in this section (nos. 24 and 26), including an awesome example of what Maciunas described as “unbreakable doors with giant cutting blades facing out” (no. 25). Maciunas’s door armed with huge steel paper-cutter blades suggests that one way to arm yourself against danger is to attempt to be even more dangerous. Another is to channel your fear of danger into socially beneficial pursuits like science or medicine or art, thus creating subsets of reality where you can exert a sense of mastery, taking your mind off danger. And then there is always the option of laughing at danger and watching it dissipate: seeing the snake for what it is. Nos. 20–27 Death? I Ben I sign Death. (Ben Vautier, 1966) The root of all fear is fear of death. Death’s paradox is that it underscores the potential of each moment by reminding us that, at another moment we cannot foresee, all of our moments will be gone. For Fluxus artists, art was an effective way not only to interpret life but also to acquire some perspective on death. Ben Vautier “signed” death, just as he signed nearly everything. Vautier thus declared himself the artist of death including, presumably, his own, exemplified in his Flux Suicide Kit (no. 30). Perhaps the most poetic Fluxus “death” work is George Brecht’s event score from Water Yam (no. 3), consisting of one instruction: “EXIT.” Brecht generated a series of variations on this concept, including the “Word Event” for the 1966 Fluxfest in Prague: “A sign saying ‘Exit’ is put up on the stage. (Audience should understand that as a directive for them to leave.)” In his seven-minute Fluxfilm 10, Entrance—Exit (no. 29), an “Entrance” sign is followed by a bright white light that gradually darkens, followed by an “EXIT” sign, then white light again. Emmett Williams reported this brief conversation between George Maciunas and a nurse at University Hospital, Boston, in early May 1978: “It’s no worse than being born.” “What?” “Dying.” Maciunas died on May 9. He had served as both producer and distributor of Fluxfilms, and one wonders whether Brecht’s Entrance—Exit may not have inspired or at least influenced Maciunas’s end-of-life observation. Nos. 28–36 Freedom? Always promoting Fluxus as a collective, George Maciunas must have been delighted when fellow Fluxus member Paul Sharits sent him “a bunch of box events” that, Sharits explained, had been made by Jack Coke’s sculpture students. “So credit for that should go to ‘St. Cloud State College Farmers’ Cooperative’ (most of the kids up here are from farms & thought it would be nice to label themselves as such . . . weird kids, eh?!).” “Jack Coke’s Farmer’s Co-op” is thus listed as the artist of record for Human Flux Trap (no. 39), a Maciunas-designed Fluxus edition from 1969 consisting of a blue plastic box containing a stainless-steel trap set with a fake jewel. The title implies the trap of desire, the cause of human suffering in which “we are at once the trapper and the trapped,” according to The Way of Zen, a popular book of the time by Alan Watts. To overcome desire—for things, for fame, even for safety—is to be truly free. What role can art play in this process? It can forgo its relationship with “thingness,” as Geoffrey Hendricks perhaps intended to suggest with his own trap—a large mousetrap baited with a tube of red paint (no. 40). Hendricks’s Sky Laundry (Sheet) #3 (no. 42)—a sheet painted to resemble a blue sky dotted with white clouds and attached to a clothesline—was another way to pull both himself and his viewers away from the materiality of paint and into the realm of the sky, which represents openness and freedom. “To fly is to fall. To fall is to fly. Joe Jones,” reads the typewritten instruction on a 19thcentury illustration of a man in a flying machine (no. 41) that Maciunas used in the creation of Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi’s fluxcalendar (no. 106). Failure, it implies, is a form of flying, and fear of failure is the primary impediment to creative freedom. Nos. 37–42 God? On the 25th of December Jesus was born. or so the christians say. the jews deny it. the moslems are two minds about it. the budhists don’t care. Nor do the communists and the atheists. As for the artists— Well what the artists believe is another story. (Robert Filliou, 1963) “Shall we call [our concerts] ‘Fluxus,’ for the movement, not the sect?” Dick Higgins (excommunicated from Fluxus at the time) queried a fellow Fluxus artist. “I’m afraid that, unlike Maciunas, I shall always be an atheist.” In this 1966 letter, Higgins implies that “Pope” Maciunas took the parallels between art and religion all too seriously. This was a severe criticism, for Fluxus artists evidently believed that God’s main purpose is to be mocked. God and religion are referenced frequently in Fluxus artworks, such as Ben Vautier’s God (no. 43), an empty wine bottle. Its accompanying text, “If God is everywhere he is also in this bottle,” provides a humorous commentary, whereas his Fluxbox Containing God (no. 44)—a plastic box glued shut—suggests both God’s inaccessibility and Vautier’s own omniscience (Ben “signed” God). Geoffrey Hendricks’s Flux Reliquary (no. 46) and Carla Liss’s Sacrament Fluxkit (no. 47) take different approaches. Hendricks’s satirical “Flux Relics” include “Sweat of Lucifer from the heat of Hell,” “Fragment of rope by which Judas Iscariot hung himself,” “Holy Shit from diners at the Last Supper,” and other objects not that far removed from the relics found in churches around the world. Liss’s poetic Sacrament Fluxkit, on the other hand, consists of a box that is labeled on the inside lid with everyday sources of the “holy” water in the nine specimen bottles: “well, faucet, pool, rain, brook, lake, snow, river, sea.” Liss implies that it’s up to us; if we want, we can choose to have a sacramental experience each time we encounter water. Nos. 43–48 Happiness? The question of happiness is really two questions: what is happiness and what does it take to be happy? Fluxus artists weighed in on both. Regarding the former, consider Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face from the 1966 Proposed Program for a Fluxfest in Prague: Performers begin the piece with a smile and during the duration of the piece, change the smile very gradually to no-smile. Conductor indicates the beginning with a smile and determines the duration by his example, which should be followed by the orchestra. Disappearing Music for Face is included in this section both as a film (no. 57) and as a flipbook, Fluxus’s low-cost, do-it-yourself version of a movie (no. 56). Happiness, Shiomi suggests, is both “catching” and fleeting, to be enjoyed while it lasts. As for how happiness is conveyed, consider George Maciunas’s Flux Smile Machine (nos. 51 and 52). Ostensibly a device for converting a non-smile into a smile, his somewhat malevolent “smile machine” consists of a spring-loaded device in a box whose label features a grimacing face. The effect of the machine itself would presumably be more artificial, perhaps even horrific. A related work, Maciunas’s Grotesque Face Mask (no. 53), is a Fluxus edition from c. 1976. Happiness is manufactured, Maciunas suggests; it must be made to happen, sometimes painfully. Yet he simultaneously implies the opposite by ironically suggesting that, to be “real,” happiness must come from within. Yoko Ono conveys a similar message with gentler humor in her Box of Smile (nos. 54 and 55). “I would like to see the sky machine on every corner of the street instead of the Coke machine,” Ono once said. “We need more skies than Coke.” Along those lines, Bici Forbes’s Stress Formula (no. 50) proposes that we need jokes more than drugs. A vitamin bottle whose label instructs “Take one capsule every four hours, for laughs,” Rx: Stress Formula contains clear pills holding tiny rolled-up slips of paper, presumably printed with humorous messages. Scientists have noted that simply raising the corners of one’s mouth tends to generate sensations of happiness. Fluxus artists propose that happiness is something we make for ourselves, not the result of something that happens to us. Happiness can be yours; it is a question of noticing . . . the sky, your friend’s smile, your smile. Nos. 49–57 Health? From a Fluxus point of view, even illness can be a springboard for humor. George Maciunas’s Solo for Sick Man (no. 58) provides an opportunity to transform the state of your health into a musical score. Bodily/medical events (some associated with asthma, with which Maciunas was afflicted) are listed in apparent random order in the left-hand column—“cough . . . spit, gargle . . . blow wet nose, swallow pill . . . use nebulizer-vaporiser . . . drop pills over floor”—while the sequence and number of seconds each act is performed are arrayed to the right as blank boxes to be filled in. This “solo” (one pictures Maciunas performing alone), which consists for the most part of involuntary acts, is here “scored” like an “event”—a work of art. Very different is Maciunas’s Fluxsyringe (no. 62), a multiple from c. 1972 consisting of a large metal cylinder with a pump handle terminating in a square of hypodermic needles. In a letter to collector Hans Sohm, Maciunas described his planned multiple as “a giant syringe with 64 needles.” It brings to mind the sixty-four kua of the ancient Chinese I Ching, suggesting that by taking appropriate action, however painful, we can transform, if not cure, troublesome medical conditions. In fact, Maciunas’s example has only fifty-six needles. On a more basic level, Fluxsyringe may simply embody the need to take our medicine for whatever ails us—and there are quite a lot of potential ailments, as the plethora of needles implies. With Maciunas’s help, a team of three Japanese artists calling themselves “Hi Red Center” produced Fluxclinic: Record of Features and Feats at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on June 4, 1966 (no. 59). In a letter to Ben Vautier, Maciunas wrote: Hotel event was a clinic in a room, where we measured the visitors for their head volume (head to pail of water) volume of mouth, weight of 1 minute saliva—some 40 bizarre measurements . . . it went very well, for some 30–40 minutes. Fluxclinic was a version of One Shelter Plan, which Hi Red Center had conducted two years previously at the Imperial Hotel in Hibiya, Japan. Participants were measured for a custommade fallout shelter, a theme especially resonant in Japan. The American version was more lighthearted, with cathartic overtones of playing doctor. Nos. 58–62 Love? Love is a fundamental human need. George Brecht’s 1961 event score titled Three Gap Events comments on love and loss by evoking first, a neon sign with missing letters; second, “between two sounds”; and, third, “meeting again.” Love is perhaps most strongly felt in absence. This may be the message of Milan Knížák and Ken Friedman’s Fluxus Heart Shirt (no. 64), which has a heart shape cut out of its breast pocket. The title may also have been intended as a play on “hair shirt,” worn to induce selfinflicted penitential pain. Geoffrey Hendricks and Bici Forbes turned their divorce into a performance about the end of love, or at least marriage. Flux Divorce Box (no. 67) defies the injunction “What God has joined together let no man put asunder” in hilarious, if not hysterical, terms. In a different vein, Takako Saito’s Heart Box (no. 63) suggests the omnipresence of love. A paper box whose sides display images of the family of Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles is filled with smaller paper boxes, which are in turn covered with drawings of objects and scenes from the world. Its lid features a large red heart and is inscribed on the inside: “Dear Dick, Alison, Hannah, Jessie, This is my love to you and all others. Takako.” Along the same lines, Milan Knížák writes in his piece Enforced Symbioses (no. 66): “Let us try to think of two as one, of three as one, of many as one.” According to him, love is the emotional experience of interconnectedness. Nos. 63–67 Nothingness? The question of nothingness has long been a focus of Western philosophy. It is also at the core of Asian philosophy, from Daoism to Zen. To the European-American mindset, emptiness or nothingness suggests vacuum or disappearance (see the Death? section); for the Daoist/Buddhist mindset, on the other hand, nothingness is a fertile source of everything that exists. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” insists the Heart Sutra, the most popular Buddhist scripture. Nothingness was a major theme for Daoist- and Zen-influenced Fluxus artists and their friends, permeating much of their work. The message-in-a-bottle of Ben Vautier’s God (no. 43), for example, can be read as: nothing is God, and vice-versa. George Brecht addressed the question of nothingness in similar terms in his 1961 score titled Two Elimination Events, on view in this section. The origin of Brecht’s interpretation can be found in chapter 11 of the Daodejing: We throw clay to shape a pot, But the utility of the clay pot is a function of The nothingness inside it. The text implies that the mind’s “utility” or creativity is a function of whether we can “empty” it of preconceptions and distractions. Brecht’s Two Elimination Events similarly moves us from objective to contemplative meaning. Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (nos. 76 and 77) is perhaps the best-known Fluxus work to address the question of nothingness. Issued as a Fluxus edition in 1965 in the form of a film canister containing approximately twenty minutes of clear sixteen-millimeter film leader, it was also editioned by Maciunas as a short loop for inclusion in Flux Year Box 2 (no. 6). Paik invited John Cage and Merce Cunningham to see Zen for Film, about which Cage later wrote, “The mind is like a mirror; it collects ‘dust the problem is to remove the dust.’ ‘Where is the mirror? Where is the dust?’ In this case the dust is on the lens of the projector and on the blank developed film itself. ‘There is never nothing to see.’” This statement recalls Cage’s observation “Art is everywhere; it’s only seeing which stops now and then.” In contrast with Cage’s emphasis on perception, Paik evidently intended Zen for Film to encourage viewers to empty their minds and allow an awareness of nothingness to arise. As Dick Higgins, who liked to refer to nothingness as “invitingness,” put it: “Starting with nothing is a good way to get somewhere.” Nos. 68–77 Sex? Sex rivals nothingness as a favorite topic of Fluxus artists. Concerning his Fluxpost (no. 79), Robert Watts wrote: I decided . . . to make my own postage stamps since most stamps are not very interesting any more . . . In making the stamps I found I was interested, evidently, in whiskey, W. C. Fields, girls, sheet music, gas cans, sex, pliers, pencils, breasts, alphabet letters and a number of other things. Some of the stamps have been declared pornographic, a subject that is of some interest to me. I wonder if anything really is. Watts’s question about whether anything “really is” pornographic was also addressed by Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri. Their “Flux Post Card,” from the series MONSTERS ARE INOFFENSIVE (no. 80), is captioned: “Men call pubic hair pornography but / monsters are inoffensive.” As these stamps and postcards illustrate, Fluxus artists challenged public mores and standards regarding sexual behavior. If, from our 21st-century perspective, some of their works in this vein appear sophomoric, bear in mind that Hugh M. Hefner published the first installment of his Playboy Philosophy in the December 1962 issue of Playboy magazine, and the year 1965 marked the advent of both the miniskirt and the widespread availability of oral contraceptives in the United States. The ’60s aura of sexual “freedom” evidently made some male Fluxus artists a bit giddy. Perhaps the most penetrating critique of pervasive attitudes toward sex at this time was Yoko Ono’s event score Cut Piece, first performed in Kyoto in 1964. Its instruction states simply: “Cut.” In her book Grapefruit, Ono added the following gloss: It is usually performed by Yoko Ono coming on the stage and in a sitting position, placing a pair of scissors in front of her and asking the audience to come up on the stage, one by one, and cut a portion of her clothing (anywhere they like) and take it. The performer, however, does not have to be a woman. This superficially simple concept turned out, when performed, to be emotionally charged with violent and sexual overtones. Its most provocative element is contained in the last sentence of Ono’s description: “The performer, however, does not have to be a woman.” Nos. 78–86 Staying Alive? FLUXUS way of life is 9 am to 5 pm working socially constructive and useful work—earning your own living, 5 pm to 10 pm—spending time on propagandizing your way of life among other idle artists & art collectors and fighting them, 12 pm to 8 am sleeping (8 hours is enough). So George Maciunas instructed twenty-year-old Tomas Schmit, who had decided that he could be more useful to Fluxus by not working. “Usefull [sic] by doing what?” Maciunas asked, rhetorically. “What were you doing the past-week? Fluxus should become a way of life not a profession. . . . I am very seriously suggesting that you complete your University studies. Study some totally non-art subject like science. OK?” Fluxus had more than its share of nonprofessional artists: George Brecht was a chemist who worked as a consultant for companies including Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and Mobil Oil. Robert Filliou earned a master’s degree in economics at UCLA and was sent to Korea as a United Nations advisor after the Korean War to help write the new constitution. Maciunas earned his living as a graphic designer and eventually became a real-estate developer. Food served as both frequent subject and medium for Fluxus artists, and meals were occasions for Fluxus performances, such as Maciunas’s New Year’s Eve Flux-Feast on December 31, 1969. He devised a menu that included: “Geoff Hendricks: clouds—mashed potatoes in 10 flavors (vanilla, almond, orange, mint etc.); Bici Hendricks: colored bread (purple etc.); Dick Higgins: gentle jello—tasteless jello (gelatin & water); Milan Knížák: sausage log cabin; Alison Knowles: shit [bean] porridge and Shit Manifesto; Elaine Allen: eel soup (with whole eel in fish bowl); George Maciunas (with Barbara Moore): eggs containing: vodka, fruit brandy, wine, noodles, cheese and coffee jello; . . . Joan Mathews: black foods; Hala & Veronica Pietkiewicz: shit cookies; Frank Rycyk, Jr.: unopenable nuts in openable paper enclosures; chocolate inside nut shells; Paul Sharits: jello in their own paper packs and wrappings; Yoshimasa Wada: vitamin platter and salad soup; Bob Watts: shooting with gun candies into guests’ mouths.” Clearly, Fluxus artists ignored the injunction not to play with your food. About his “snare pictures”—photographs or the actual remains of meals glued to tabletops—Daniel Spoerri wrote: It’s a question of territory. Because I had lost my territory since childhood, and even during childhood, I never had a territory . . . I was a Romanian Jew, evangelical in an orthodox country, whose father was dead, without being certain that he was really dead. I swear to you, the first things I glued down were all that, that feeling. Spoerri’s snare pictures, like Meal Variation no. 2, Eaten by Marcel Duchamp from 31 Variations on a Meal (no. 89), nurtured his friends and memorialized the event, thus “snaring” that feeling—in this case, of being fatherless, homeless, and without sustenance. Nos. 87–96 Time? “I must organize my time very efficiently—that’s part of FLUXUS-way of life,” George Maciunas wrote in 1963. Obsessed with time, Maciunas personified the motto: So much to do, so little time. His works often emphasize both the effects of time and the arbitrariness of measuring it— themes that became a Fluxus leitmotif, from Ben Vautier’s “signing” time (no. 97) to the many Fluxus versions of altered clocks and watches (nos. 99, 103, 104, and 105) to elaborate records of global events, such as the Fluxus edition of Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi’s Spatial Poem No. 3, a fluxcalendar (no. 106). One of nine separately scored “global events” instigated by Shiomi between 1965 and 1975, fluxcalendar consists of forty-three leaves. Maciunas suggested that these be bolted to a strip of cowhide so that the sheets could “fall,” like leaves from a tree. Instructions sent to participants framed time not as linear but as movement toward a center, as though events in time simply respond to gravity: “The phenomenon of a fall is actually a segment of a movement towards the center of the earth. This very moment countless objects are falling. Let’s take part in this centripetal event.” Robert Filliou contributed his version of the so-called “fall” of man: “My effort about this event consisted in trying to grasp what FALL means in relation to human beings. My Proposition: When man first stood up, he fell.” To illustrate Filliou’s “proposition,” Maciunas appropriated a diagram of the musculature of a standing and reclining baby. Marianne Filliou’s contribution reads: “My most intentional effort to make something fall occurred between 7 and 10 am, Jan. 14, 1961. What finally fell was my daughter Marcelle Filliou.” To illustrate her statement, Maciunas chose an Indian sculpture of a standing woman giving birth. The emerging child has its hands clasped over its head, as though diving into the stream of time. Nos. 97–107 What Am I? Ontology, or the study of the nature of being, asks how we fit into the universe—which is perhaps the biggest question of all. Fluxus proposed many answers. According to popular wisdom, we are defined by what we do; this is often thought to be especially true of artists. George Maciunas, on the other hand, was a firm believer in the uselessness—indeed, the harmfulness—of a strong sense of identity, in terms of one’s role in the world. Maciunas’s attempts to repress artists’ egos were only moderately effective; yet it is often difficult to identify the creators of Fluxus works. For example, Robert Watts’s Fluxfilm Trace No. 22 (no. 108) consists of X-ray footage of a person eating and speaking, said to have been fished out of Watts’s dentist’s trash. So is Watts the artist? Or is his dentist the artist? Or is it Maciunas, who incorporated the rescued snippet into his Fluxfilms? Maciunas’s packaging and design provided a distinctive identity for Fluxus editions like Watts’s Fingerprint (no. 114), a white plastic box containing white plaster of Paris marked with a black fingerprint; or the version of George Brecht’s Games and Puzzles entitled Name Kit (no. 112), which contains an assortment of small objects along with the injunction to “spell your name.” Maciunas adapted Brecht’s concept for his own name-kit boxes—for example, Gift Box for John Cage: Spell Your Name with These Objects (no. 113). John Cage could, in fact, have spelled his name with the first letters of the things in Maciunas’s box, which contains items such as a (pine) cone, acorn, glass (bottle stopper), and egg. Brecht was less literal-minded, or perhaps more evolved: he left open the answer to the question of the relationship between your name (and by implication you) and the things in the box—an approach that highlights questions of naming and categorization. Maciunas, in contrast, was a maniacal categorizer, as exemplified by his Excreta Fluxorum (nos. 110 and 111)—carefully labeled boxes of animal excrement ranging from caterpillar and grasshopper to turtle and iguana to lion and buffalo. These sample turds certainly look authentic, and one pictures Maciunas scavenging manure at the Central Park Zoo, much as Watts scavenged trash at his dentist’s office. Excreta Fluxorum is more interesting than one might expect. If we are what we eat, are we also what we excrete? And, as always with Maciunas, there is a zinger: if you examine every compartment, you’ll eventually come upon a white marble labeled “unicorn (unicornis fantasticus).” Is this just another one of Maciunas’s jokes, or is there a message here? Nos. 108–116

Starts Friday, Sep 09, 2011
Ends Saturday, Dec 03, 2011
Curator Jacquelynn Baas
Organized by Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College

Curated by Jacquelynn Baas, Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life was organized by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and is generously supported by Constance and Walter Burke, Class of 1944, the Ray Winfield Smith 1918 Fund, and the Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund. Additional support for the presentation at the Grey Art Gallery is provided by the Abby Weed Grey Trust; and the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends.