George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus
Published: January 3 2009 02:00 Last updated: January 3 2009 02:00
The art movement Fluxus was created by George Maciunas in 1961. Established in New York, Fluxus was yet another attempt to refresh and redefine the nature of the avant garde. Its spirit, in keeping with the spirit of the decade during which it emerged, was joyously and playfully counter-cultural. It aimed to épater les bourgeois (yet again) by mocking the idea of art as a collection of discrete and rarefied objects of great financial value trapped inside the walls of museums. In this respect, it reminds us of an earlier revolution, of 1917, in which Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal and called it art.
In its humour, and its rampant desire to poke fun, it also reminds us of the spirit of Dada. In its predilection for performance, it puts you in mind of the happenings of John Cage. And those whom Maciunas regarded as Fluxus artists came from many different parts of the world - America, France, Japan. Its international artistic representatives included Yoko Ono (whose show is running concurrently at Baltic), Ray Johnson, Walter De Maria and La Monte Young. It was a movement that spilled across all national boundaries.
This exhibition at Baltic, exhibited across two large gallery spaces, consists of hundreds of relatively small objects, all manifestations of the Fluxus spirit, and it feels not so much like a discriminating display of uniquely interesting works of art as an anthropological documentation of a cultural phenomenon. Maciunas would have been pleased: he wanted art to be at street level; he even wanted it to be out in the street, and perhaps indistinguishable from the objects you might happen upon out there.
The objects range from photographs to small boxes and bottles. The boxes, which usually have amusing labels, might be full of pebbles or faeces or playing cards or instructions to do something completely ridiculous. One of the objects on display here, mounted on a wall, consists of a letter written by Maciunas with instructions on how to make a generic salad. Fluxus works know no boundaries. They don't necessarily begin or end with the object you see before your eyes. Several of them are games. In order to benefit by their existence, the game needs to be played.
In various ways, Fluxus pioneered approaches to art which we now regard as commonplace. Art could emerge from the most humdrum of materials and situations. Many of the objects in the show are made from paper or cardboard and are infinitely reproducible. In fact, Fluxus liked the idea of producing art works in series so that they could be spread around, readily available to anyone who might wish to take an interest in them. There was nothing precious about Fluxus. It was happy to engage with the spirit of commerce, but this was not in any attempt to inflate the importance of Fluxus works by endeavouring to charge large sums of money for them. George Maciunas himself tried to set up Fluxus shops, but he was such a hopeless businessman that there was never much prospect of success. Fortunately, his character was so inimical to the idea of commercial success that had it happened, it would probably have been by pure accident.
Fluxus itself branched out in many different directions. Art was about making, but it was also about doing things out in the world. Performances were of central importance to the Fluxus group. The idea of authorship was not of paramount importance either - often Fluxus art projects consisted of schemes for activities which would be carried out by someone other than the person who had had the bright idea in the first place. So the realisation of the "art" could be passed from hand to hand without any loss of pressure or artistic integrity.
So, anyone coming to this show with an expectation of seeing singularly beautiful things is going to be disappointed. Fluxus set its face against conventional notions of beauty. There is much here to be intrigued and interested by, and little that you would truly love or wish to own. Good thing too, the slightly mocking and mischievous voice of Maciunas retorts.
Except, perhaps, for some small gouaches by Maciunas himself, which are on display in the upstairs gallery, in some far corner, well tucked away. He had been trained as a graphic artist, and here are three works by him, dating from the early 1950s. They are somewhat in the spirit of early De Chirico - in one with strange, yawning perspectives, for example, an ant-like column of people seems to be streaming up a wall to escape from the prying eyes of several giant, overbearing street-lamps. Several have fallen away from the column, into some terrible abyss. It is a haunting image of human isolation, of the collective madness of the crowd.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
Labels: George Maciunas