Snapshots of a revolution
Fluxus was a daring movement that spread art anarchy around the globe.
Can its spirit really be captured in an exhibition?
By Adrian Searle, The Guardian.
Bandaged Orchestra during the Fluxus Festival arranged by Yoko Ono at
Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images
In the gloom of the Baltic gallery, there are things preserved under
glass: odds and ends in an upturned beret; a cabinet whose opened
drawers are filled with stones; a plastic American breakfast (plastic
fried eggs, plastic bacon); phials of liquid; stacks of money. I peer at
a chromed tooth-brush, at bars of wooden soap, at a pair of spectacles
with spikes that poke the wearer in the eyes, at trays of carefully
sorted animal droppings.
All these little boxes – the spoof games, the surreal gags, the
manifestos, the political placards and unplayable musical scores – are
the sad reliquary of a dream. The dream was fluxus, a revolutionary
movement that, during the 1960s and 70s, encompassed Europe, America,
Japan and beyond. It hovered between art and anti-art, neo-dada and
nouveau realism; it embraced artists, composers, poets, philosophers,
amateurs, cranks, enthusiasts and passersby. Yoko Ono filmed a parade of
naked bottoms. A man festooned in string did things to a violin, as a
free piece of street theatre. Pianos were ritually abused. Pavements
were scrubbed and “mystery boxes” filled with rubbish – both as art and
as a way of getting rid of garbage.
For a while, fluxus was everywhere. There were festivals no one
attended, performances no one saw, promises of money that never came,
revolutions that never happened. When Ono and John Lennon held their
bed-ins, that was the nearest fluxus got to worldwide fame. The
photographs and films, the anecdotes and stories that record these
perplexing events cannot do them justice. Fluxus never went down well
either with the public or with collectors. For the former, it was
baffling, regarded at best as yet one more joke at their expense – those
crazy artists, at it again. Never mind that fluxus work rarely cost
anything to make, and not much more to buy, and its single laudable
aesthetic premise was to avoid wasting resources. The problem for most
art collectors was that fluxus was too cheap and too ephemeral. Take Ben
Vautier’s God, an empty wine bottle. “If God is everywhere, he is also
in this bottle,” Vautier claimed, in an accompanying note. Not even the
Vatican could argue with that.
Fluxus was resolutely against skill, artiness, expression, form and
pomposity. Fluxus was a mystery probably even to some of those who
espoused its restless ideals. Paradox was at the heart of the movement –
just as it is at the heart of The Dream of Fluxus, an exhibition at the
Baltic in Gateshead. It is also the title of a biography of George
Maciunas, the architect, graphic designer, amateur art historian and
photographer who founded the movement, if movement it was.
The exhibition and accompanying book by its curator, Thomas Kellein,
somehow fail in their tasks. Both fluxus and Maciunas slip away from us
the more we look and read. Fluxus itself is ill-represented by its
objects, and needs a living context, while Maciunas and his
complications burst the seams of Kellein’s book. A second show, of work
by Ono, has also just opened at Baltic.
Maciunas was fascinating, talented, and by all accounts a nightmare.
Like André Breton, godfather of the surrealist movement, Maciunas would
invite artists, composers and even philosophers to take part in
activities. He would charm them, boss them around for years, then
perform summary excommunications, banishing those who displeased him.
Other artists, such as Joseph Beuys, would claim fluxus as their own.
Maciunas would take against individuals for no good reason – composer
Karlheinz Stockhausen was one – and damn by association those who had
anything to do with them. All this was wearying.
One fluxus artist said that Maciunas “walked a tightrope extended
between the two poles of avant garde anti-art and mass entertainment”.
One might say the same of much art today. Interestingly, the show opens
with shelf upon shelf of all the medications Maciunas used in one year,
all his light bulbs, all the fruit juice he drank.
Inert and under glass, fluxus appears as dead matter in this exhibition.
Yet – as one peers at its museological corpse, the remains of so many
empty gestures – the spirit of fluxus, its playfulness, zest and
anarchy, fitfully reasserts itself, if only by association. Here’s a
scrunched-up piece of paper that makes us think of a work by Martin
Creed. There’s a musical score that takes us back to John Cage and Kurt
Schwitters. Here are placards, protesting the Vietnam war, just as
apposite as arguments against American and British activities in Iraq.
All the objects in the show have stories to tell, or demand to be played
with. One wants to get up and play Joe Lones’s adapted Flux Harpsichord
and his mechanical bells, or Takako Saito’s Sound Chess Set for John
Cage. But you can’t. I’d stay away from the Flux Toilet and the Human
Flux Trap, inoffensive though they probably are. It’s hard to tell. You
can’t actually reach out and touch anything, and almost nothing is
explained. The Flux Mystery Boxes remain mysterious, the adapted musical
instruments unplayed. All the life’s been sucked out of everything. It’s
Richard Long’s walks, Gilbert and George posing as living sculptures,
Sarah Lucas’s early work and a million other small gestures, actions and
ephemeral objects can trace their origins back to fluxus. It was a
conduit through which ideas and personalities flowed, and still flow
today. Fluxus inevitably failed, and came to be seen as old hat. It was
partly a problem of packaging – though Maciunas was a very good graphic
designer, for whom no detail was too small to be worried over. Fluxus’s
aim to eliminate music, theatre, poetry, fiction and all the rest of the
fine arts combined was doomed. Only the mass entertainment industry
might achieve such a thing.
If anything and everything could be art, and everyone was an artist, the
whole system would collapse, fluxus thought had it. If only things were
so simple. There were even complaints from hardcore fluxus artists that
people with too strong a personality left too much of a trace of
themselves in their work. These are the aesthetics of the Khmer Rouge.
Born in Lithuania in 1931, Maciunas was a sickly child. He suffered
respiratory complaints all his life, and died impoverished in 1978. His
family spent the war years in Germany, emigrating to New York in 1948.
George became an architect, but left the profession to embark on a life
that was as difficult as it was idealistic. Kellein gives a good account
of his enthusiasms and plans: attempting to rewrite art history,
denouncing architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe
as frauds and swindlers; the homemade travel guides he produced; his
infatuations with shamanism and the diasporas of nomadic tribes; his
desire to write a history of the avant garde; his doomed money-making
ventures; his bankruptcies; the insane dictatorial letters he wrote; his
impossible demands and his relationship with his mother.
“Rather than seeking bourgeois erotic delights,” writes Kellein,
Maciunas “set store by hard work and a modest lifestyle, and refused to
entertain the thought of smoking or hard drinking.” This monk-like
abstinence turns out to be not entirely true. For years, stories have
circulated of Maciunas’s sexual masochism and the games he liked to
play. At the end of the book, Kellein reproduces a series of
photographs, taken with a self-timer in the mid-1960s, of Maciunas in
drag, undressing for the camera. He’s obviously enjoying himself.
Maciunas married not long before he died, swapping clothes with his wife
for a fluxus wedding.
Quite what Maciunas’s erotic life – bourgeois or not – has to do with
his role in fluxus is never clearly spelled out. In fact, were his
entire life not so much at the centre of fluxus, and his masochistic
streak the inverse coin to his penchant for issuing orders and edicts,
our interest in it would be prurient. But there we are. Maciunas smiles
back at the viewer, holding up a pair of frilly panties. It’s a kind of
relief for us, too, after reading so much about Maciunas the control
freak. Maciunas was the lightning conductor for something that was
already in the air. An expert at scuppering his own projects, he has as
much to answer for in the larger failures of fluxus. Impracticality, and
one kind of impossibility or another, was all part of the charm.
George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus is at Baltic, Gateshead, until February 15.
Details: 0191-478 1810
Fluxus: an impressionable art movement
by Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times
December 7, 2008
Better art critics than I have had trouble defining Fluxus. Even in a
field as cluttered with vagaries as the history of the post-war
avant-garde art movement, it commands an especially ungraspable corner.
It’s like an eel in the water or the insight from a haiku: sometimes you
see it clearly and other times you can’t see it at all. Yet this
elusiveness is usually, in my experience, the mark of something
worthwhile in art. The movements you need to be suspicious of are the
ones that say it all with their first breath. Let me put it another way:
who is the better actress, Jessica Alba or Meryl Streep?
One thing we can all agree on is that Fluxus was important. The artists
it helped to unveil — Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik — are
sizeable post-war figures. People who counted were drawn to Fluxus. Not
only did it redefine art, it did so in hugely influential ways. For a
first sense of that impact, don’t even bother going into the lively
Fluxus exhibition that has now arrived at Baltic, in Gateshead, but
linger instead in the gallery shop and look around for things to give
people at Christmas.
See the little fold-up snow scenes and the dinky origami gingerbread
houses from the Museum of Modern Art in New York? Those were influenced
by Fluxus. See the range of dotty alternative Christmas cards with
amusing David Shrigley messages that nearly make sense? Fluxus.
Everything in here that can be sent in an envelope or folded at home,
every off-centre social insight and faux-naive cultural opinion, even
the sense of clutter, the sheer range of disposable knick-knacks, was
preceded by Fluxus. Indeed, take the rebellious intent out of Fluxus and
you’ve got the Baltic knick-knack shop.
So, what was it? A 1960s version of Dada would be the pat reply,
although that begs the question: what was Dada? Which is even harder to
answer. Prior to this event, I was content to accept the usual
dictionary definition that Fluxus was an anti-art art movement that
originated in New York in the early 1960s and soon became international.
How can an art movement be anti-art, you may be thinking? Fluxus was
anti-art in the sense that it attacked the old ways of being an artist.
It was against museums, galleries, dealers, résumés, retrospectives,
corporate commissions, the whole shebang. According to tortuous Fluxus
thinking, commercial success was something to be avoided rather than
Instead of producing expensively autographed trophy objects that only
the rich could buy, Fluxus artists set out to mass-produce witty,
ephemeral think-art that everyone could afford and that carried
subversive messages out of the gallery system and into your daily life.
Walking into this Fluxus show is indeed like walking into the gallery
shop. You’re greeted by busy display cases filled with small things,
printed and folded, gathered in boxes, labelled and mounted. There’s a
jokiness afoot as well, which you recognise from the default tone of
modern advertising. Read anything in here and the chances are that it
will a) need to be read again and b) make you smile.
For these same democratic reasons, Fluxus pioneered outdoor happenings
and street events, particularly of a musical bent. If a cello player
stripped naked to play Berio, or someone began wrapping their violin in
sticky tape at the climax of a Ligeti composition, they were probably
doing it for Fluxus reasons. Baltic’s reading of the Fluxus tea leaves,
however, is drawn exclusively from the famous holdings of the Gilbert
and Lila Silverman collection in Detroit; and, rather than present the
entire movement as a floaty international art tendency shared by many,
which is what I was expecting, the show seeks instead to define it as
the specific aesthetic creation of one man: the renegade Lithuanian
uber-nerd George Maciunas.
Maciunas arrived in New York in 1948 with a dodgy past and a scrambled
sense of self. Born in Kaunas in 1931, to a father who worked for the
German Siemens company (and who, ingloriously, continued to work for
them long after the war started), Maciunas lived most of his life with
his mother and married only a few months before his death in 1978.
A classic self-absorbed mummy’s boy, suffering, I would suggest, from
some form of OCD, he should have been a librarian or a stamp collector:
that is where his talents for filing and collating usually lead people.
History, however, had infected him with a revolutionary gene, so he
became the chief organiser of Fluxus instead.
The show’s full title is George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus, and its
overwhelming ambition is to present Fluxus as his personal achievement.
The catalogue refers to him habitually as “the Chairman”, and everything
we see here — the boxes filled with wacky objects, the movies of
people’s bottoms, the typed instructions to turn on the radio and turn
it off again at the first sound, the all-white chess sets, the street
theatre — was organised by him. Maciunas it was who invented the name
Fluxus, with its promise of constant change and its hints of biological
discharge. Trained as an architect, he assembled the Fluxus boxes
himself, by hand, and designed all the movement’s typography.
The first official Fluxus show was in Maciunas’s gallery in 1961, and
when nobody noticed it, he fled the country to escape his creditors. He
ended up working as a graphic designer for the US army in Germany, where
he continued to organise Fluxus events and promote them on army-issue
typewriters, using army stamps and army petrol coupons. In Germany, he
launched the Fluxus Festival, and his methods certainly struck a German
chord. Much of what Fluxus produced was the result of his kind of feral
creativity, which depended on scavenging. The artist I would have named
before this show as the most important Fluxus artist of all, Joseph
Beuys, encountered Maciunas round about now and learnt many things from
So, Fluxus undoubtedly owes Maciunas a lot. But does it owe him
everything, as this display implies? Beuys, for instance, isn’t even in
the show. And, although Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik are included, it is
as beneficiaries of Maciunas’s efforts on their behalf, rather than as
co-conspirators. Of course, one of the telltale signs of an active
avant-garde art movement is the vicious infighting that accompanies it,
and the subsequent squabbling over credit. Fluxus was no different.
The Baltic show is the equivalent of a surrealism exhibition that
focuses exclusively on André Breton and ignores Dali, Magritte and Man
Ray. So intent are the organisers on purifying the movement and
presenting Maciunas as its presiding genius, a sense of its greater
achievements has been lost. What I consider the classic Fluxus event
isn’t mentioned either. I’m thinking of John and Yoko’s bed-in of 1969.
Their ambition was to protest about the war in Vietnam, but instead of
marching on the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, they sat in bed in
a hotel in Montreal for a week and sang Hare Krishna tunes. And the
whole world noted them doing it. That Christmas, the world’s in-trays
were flooded with sweet printed messages saying: “War is over! If you
want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” That, surely, was Fluxus
at its best.
George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus is at Baltic, Gateshead, until
George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus
BALTIC explores the history and works of Fluxus through the renowned Gilbert and Lila Silverman
Fluxus Collection, Detroit. This unprecedented exhibition of over three-hundred and fifty works
from 1961–1978 is the largest display of Fluxus ever mounted in Britain.
Fluxus is often historically regarded as a global network of influential and vibrant artists who shared
a unique, if not united, aspiration to revolutionise the avant-garde. Through the introduction of
concept art, intermedia, and radical performance practices, Fluxus pioneered an aesthetic
appreciation for the everyday. By intentionally confusing the boundaries of how and when an
artwork could begin or end, exiting a room, making a salad, or ending a war were transformed
into performative works of art.
Open Daily 10.00-18.00 except Tuesdays 10.30-18.00.
Last entry 15 minutes before closing.