Fluxus!

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 15:53 -- damien

Fluxglissando: shortly fluxartists will be suspended in the sky in Paris and subsequently pulled through the sea in a boat near Copenhagen, Italian fluxpublisher, Francesco Conz, related with delight during his recent visit to Brisbane. His voyage to Australia was orchestrated to co-curate together with Nicholas Tsoutas and Nicholas Zurbrugg an exhibition of FLUXUS textile art-multiples, all of which were published by Editions Francesco Conz, Verona. The exhibition was hosted by Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art (I.M.A.) and is currently touring within Australia.

Francesco Conz sees fluxart as "the last…the only possibility" for humankind. He deems a marriage between art and technology/science as necessary and inevitable, perhaps for our physical continuance, and certainly for our continuance con brio.

One might have believed oneself listening to the Futurist poet F. T. Marinetti in the days prior to World War 1, though Conz does not claim the position as a "new" one. But the fact remains that the speaker is Francesco Conz in 1990 in Brisbane. Conz is making his Australian fluxcontribution to a year that has celebrated the...well, let's not call it an art movement...FLUXUS mentality. His participation is very timely in the wake of the post-Duchampian focus of the Sydney Biennale, the full-on investigation of FLUXUS at the 1990 Venice Biennale, and the various spin-of shows in Australia and elsewhere.

As to why FLUXUS does not lend itself to being deemed an art movement (and how and why do we call anything an art movement in any case?) - this might be elucidated by the designation of the American fluxartist Emmett Williams:

In the beginning there was confusion. This confused beginning began in Europe in 1962 when George Maciunas said "Let there be FLUXUS" and then there was FLUXUS ever after...1.

FLUXUS is still in flux. Let us hope the flux remains in FLUXUS.2

FLUXUS is said to have "fluxed", and to the extent that any "principles" can be abstracted from its diverse manifestations, the I.M.A. has stamped its exhibition with two statements about what FLUXUS is not, and three about what it is. Let me begin at the beginning of the I.M.A. definition attributed to the English-born American fluxartist Dick Higgins, who is represented in the show by the work Africa, 1988. I begin, advisedly, with the first and last pronouncements. Fluxus is not a moment in art history...Fluxus is a way of life and death.3

Looking around the white walls of the I.M.A. my radar hones in immediately on the French/American Jean Dupuy's works Where, There and Here, 1989, (black lettering with a "typography" that employs mostly inward-pointing arrows). This is a paradigm of spatial disruption, for the works are tendered as "logical" equivalencies. The "where" is not posed as a question per se, for there is no question mark. It is neither exclusively "there" nor "here". It is precisely "not a moment in art history", for a moment, a definitive "now", necessarily entrains a definitive "here". The separation of the three works in the I.M.A.'s installation, augments the sensation of spatial and temporal disruption. Dupuy's interest in subverting temporal "norms" can also be seen in his contributions to 1990 Venice Biennale: two three-dimensional forms, both entitled Noon, and one slightly rotated form (1981-90).4

On the subject of time, the "preciseness" of the aforementioned date of 1962 could be rightly contested, as Williams admitted, when writing the text alluded to above. Indeed, this viewer's instinctive desire to associate some FLUXUS initiatives with the work of the early 20th century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his "calligrammes" (not unlike Emmett Williams' Mississippi?) was not in the least refuted by Conz.

Mississippi: A Marching Song in the Shape of Ten Dixie Cups (1966/1989) indicates the intended mood of the song or the march by the connoted rhythms of  the words "Mississippi" and "Dixie". Dick Higgins coined the term "intermedia" in the context of fluxart, and described the work of Williams as an intermedium between music and sculpture.5 The description is apt for Mississippi, where the distribution of letters on textile reads top to bottom "Mississippi" to "ippi". The patterns formed by the arrangement of letters also designate cups. There might be a suggestion of drinking in the "music" or listening to music and drinking!

Rumanian born Daniel Spoerri, who has worked mostly in Europe, is represented by erst letzt das 1955/1984. This consists of three similar pieces in red, blue and black and reaffirms the (deliberate) confusion of time, or non-time in fluxart. Each piece begins with the words of the abbreviated title, and explores all possible configurations of temporal disruption in this typographic ballet. Erst (first) is substituted for letzt (last) and vice versa, and das erste (the first) for das letzte (the last) in similar fashion. The work generates "first last", "last first", "first first" and "last last", set in various combinations against "the first" and "the last" etc. The (final?) pronouncement is "last last the first first the first last the last first". Alpha and omega are therefore rendered impossible to dissociate, and notions of life and death are falsified. This perhaps reinforces the all-embracing commitment to a life-term project which does not end (i.e. FLUXUS), or which transcends temporality.

It is noteworthy that FLUXUS is defined in terms of its negativity, as well as its positivity. ("Fluxus is not...Fluxus is not... Fluxus is a way...of death").6 Its silence, what it is not or might be, is the theme of a number of works on in this show.

The influence of American composer John Cage and his work, Silence (1970s), is legendary. Perusing the small selection of exponents of the fluxmentality in the current exhibition, the echoing silences and reverberations  are deafening.

Philip Corner, an American musician who studied with Olivier Messiaen, has "scored" a piece entitled precisely Silence, 1989. The work juxtaposes two forms of handwritten script and the spareness of both suggests something of the Korean-inspired calligraphic notations which so influenced him. It gives rise to a number of possible sequences of reading, but a likely one is "Some Silences just simply or (not-so-simply) are". Corner poses the opposition between "silence" and "noise" (which is really no opposition in this Buddhist mode of thought in any case). The more complex terms that ensue would be those of "silent noise", "noisy silence" and so forth.

The more apparently "noisier" works in the I.M.A. exhibition would include the American Joe Jones's Cage music was..., 1986, with its depiction of a potentially motorized stringed instrument, and text below. Jones began his career as a jazz drummer and composer, and constructed the first Music Machines, a mechanical orchestra, and other such (apparent) whimsy as a violin in a bird cage (pun intended?), a dog symphony and more. Jones's 3RD Rail, also from 1986, comprises a more elaborate drawing with a clock alarm on the left. The clock shows the time and is attached to a stringed 'instrument' (the 3rd rail). Connected to this is an electronic metronome which is again attached by seven strings/wires to an electric fan that can chime.

Again we see his concerns with time-rhythm-motorization (in fluxart/music). He describes the work as "pocket theatre" and it was in fact originally a construction of found objects, made in New York in 1963-4, and used in performances. Another intriguing idea for potential marriage between art and technology is Jones's Music Wagon for Asolo, 1986, which depicts a driver, vehicle, and percussion gear for the "Tone Deaf Music Company". Jones's plan was to devise a horse-pulled music wagon with driver on top, the piano player in the centre of a steam Koliapy, complete with drum set. He adds he would like to drive the contraption around the Venito (where he lives) giving free concerts in summer.

Charlotte Moorman's Green Cello, Yellow Cello and Blue Cello (1989), attest to her background in classical cello. The cellos, whose paint application is modulated expressively are, however, only potentially vessels to produce sound: they face away from us. In the United States Moorman is especially known for her collaboration with Nam June Paik in various performances. Notable amongst these are those illustrating Paik's interest in "erotic" music. At least one led to the mandatory arrests such performances so frequently engendered.

American George Brecht is represented by three experimental enlargements, and his work again suggests the alignment of technology and art addressed by Conz, Jones and others. Chemistry Music: Thistle Funnel and Chemistry Music: Man with Clarinet show something of Brecht's background as a chemist as well as his fluxinterests. We read the notes and marks of musical notation in the funnel, where the odd non-musical mark also turns up (e.g. a flower). Brecht has often explored the theme of sound-producing instruments being rendered mute, and non-sounding instruments or non-instruments becoming sounding. The sounds from the chemist's funnel might exemplify one of these goals. We are unfortunately not treated to an example of his passion for the cedilla in this exhibition. Neither do we see evidence of his great interest in the yam, which led to the fluxyam and the fluxyam festival!

The Italian Guiseppe Chiari of "all music is the same" and "art is easy"7 fame has contributed Una tromba da carnevale, 1984. Chiari is celebrated for his (usually rough-lettered) statements and instructions for musical performers, the written specifications for the "arrangement" of the performers and the like. His words about the 'Carnevale trumpet' specify the desired number of beats per second, down to the level of five beats per 7/3 of a second! No mean feat for a trumpeter! Fagotto or Bassoon begins with the prescription that a major limpid note will be emitted. Chiari's "score" proceeds variously to the tottering of a glass on a table, a hand on a key-board leafing through a book of music to produce a whispering sound ... (since "all music is the same" ... )

Series of five pieces by American Jackson MacLow ("a notated vocabulary for Eve Tosenthal, 1978") plays with numerous morsels of musical staves and musical notation, although no discrete element is musically connected to another to constitute a long "piece" or "pieces".

The staves are accompanied by words which are related via rhyming, assonance and other linguistic associations. His chosen lexicon relates variously to music, anatomy, food, mythology, literature, emotions and animals, as well as a range of quotidian words. The inference is that "artistic themes" are given parity with everyday activities like "shave" and "shout" and generally with being. This is in keeping with the rotation of the staves contrary to any principles of traditional musical notation, even to the extent of turning them completely upside down so as to be (technically) illegible. This "subversion" is, in short, in the spirit of Cage's edict that music is "purposeless play" and that "play is an affirmation of life".8

Works by Paik, Patterson, Knowles, Hendricks might be described as more "expressionistic" (the "neo-baroque" as opposed to the "neo-haiku"). American artist, Alison Knowles, who made yam hats for the much touted Yam Hat Festival, as well as bean works, is represented here by Virtu del Minestrone, 1988. The virtuous minestrone includes garlic, potatoes, lemons, fagiolini, dill, peppercorns, clamshells (?), soap (?), funghi and so on. Interspersed with these graphically browned-in ingredients are the words Sostanza, Vigilanza, Servita, Sapienza, Prudenza , Poesia, Pede nell'amicitia and Volonta. These are represented by classical female figures: the Virtues of traditional high art. In celebrating the simple beauty of the act of preparing food for friends, Knowles argues for a consideration of the everyday alongside of, or even instead of, so-called typical subjects of high art. The Korean artist Nam June Paik ("Fluxus is akin to the Korean plant that when apparently ready to die suddenly blooms again"9) is identified with a complex work entitled Fluxus Island in Décallage Ocean (1962/1989).

Paik, who moved from Korea to New York via Germany, pioneered the use of the robot as a "happening" instrument, and co-produced one of the first video-synthesisers. He is cited as having hope for the twenty-first century when the world can be one continuous video screen or wall-to-wall television. Fluxus Island might be a metaphor for pre-united Berlin, for New York and its artistic divisions, for Europe and its diverse historical splits, and more. It is halved by the thirty-eighth parallel which would rightly run approximately through Moscow. It is again internally divided by a cross on its side, the upright axis being called "the transparent plastic wall à la Ghetto", and the horizontal axis entitled "the glass wall à la Berlin".

The island is bounded by the Yellow Sea, the Black Ocean, the Schonberg Channel, and the (mythological) Harbour of Freedom. It is further surrounded by islands - for neo-Stalinists and neo-nazists (to the north), for female homosexuals, the "isle de devant", "Utopia in Paradise". Land features and demarcations include the Swiss Alps, spots for Paik's ex-wives, the Boulevard St Maciunas, Galerie 22, a Chinese restaurant, the Mountain of the Russian Tanks of 1945, the Land of the Everyday Coup d'Etat, the Cap, and beyond this landmark and into the sea, Carnevale Territory. We also find the Paris subway (stops Stalingrad and Franklin Roosevelt), the Institut for Painless Suicide, a Statute of Marilyn Monroe, the Land Drainage Canal of Warsaw's Resistance, Auschwitz and so it goes on!

This dense fictional/factual work lists various "fluxpeople" participating in FLUXUS in 1962. It illustrates what Ben Vautier says in a sentence, "Ethnic groups fighting for the right to be different".

Fluxus Island is in keeping with Conz's stated position that the wars of the twentieth century (or indeed any wars) have achieved nothing, for Europe is united again in any case and not as a result of any war. Even for those of us who are anti-war, but cynical enough to wonder about the permanency of Europe's unity, we must accept that FLUXUS is a "way of doing things" that has permeated at least three continents (why not four?). Is this why Dick Higgins fluxes his old map of Africa, the remaining continent?. His nomenclature "Ethiopian Sea" is one index of the aged status of the map, and of Higgins' ideas on colonialism.

We move from Décallage Ocean through the "Ethiopian Sea" to the seas, mountains and especially skies of the American Geoff Hendricks. This artist has long been a "cloudsmith", performing sky research, producing sky paintings, sky billboards, a sky bus, sky postcards and so on. He is devoted to painting skies, but only in the context of saying something else. He is not making a mere statement about "skyness", which art has been doing for centuries. His works of 1988 position anatomical features, depicted in great detail, into the landscapes. Elsewhere there is a bandaged head, a bandaged foot, a bandaged arm.

Events relating to Hendricks' obsession with skies have included the stencilling of stars on subway or underpass vaults. His graphic, anatomical detail, however, reminds of da Vinci. "Would we call da Vinci an artist or a scientist today?" asks Francesco Conz. "And what would we then call Einstein?"

While Conz can be described as "anti-painting" and "anti-traditional art", as his statements "close 95% of art schools in Italy" and "why sculpt after Brancusi?", indicate, he believes it appropriate to paint (skies) as long as the paintings are also performing some other social function. Hendricks' bandaged body parts clearly are.

Conz justifies his position against painting and against tradition by the assertion that we are now at the level of the fourth generation of conceptual art. He takes heart in the survival and persistence of the fluxmentality and believes vehemently in the democratic possibilities of dispersion of the poster format he produces. He describes painting as "handicraft" when done for its own sake, making the analogy that training artists to paint today is akin to teaching them to stuff animals in a world where no stuffed animals exist. He dismisses the various "revivals" of painting in recent years as art historical manipulations.

For Conz, art's future can only be aligned with technology (Gesamtkunstwerk), and the twenty-first century will be one of fluxsforzando (or, with apologies to Andre Malraux, it will not be).

notes: 

1. E. Williams, The Readymade Boomerang, Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, 1990. p 143,

2. ibid, p152

3. D. Higgins, FLUXUS!, I.M.A., Brisbane, 1990

4. A.B. Oliva, Ubi Fluxus ibi motus 1990-1962, La XL!Ye Biennple di Venezia,1990 Fabriele Mazzotta, Milan

5. H. Ruhe, FLUXUS: the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties, 'A', Amsterdam, p. 113

6. D. Higgins, FLUXUS! op. cit.

7. The Readymade Boomerang op. cit, pp. 216-7,

8. H. Ruhe, op. cit., p. 63

9. K. Friedman, FLUXUS! op. cit., p. 13