You will decide to read or not read this article; having made your decision, the happening is over — you’ve just experienced Fluxus Art. The University of Michigan Museum of Art Fluxus opening will have a slightly modified version of Ken Friedman’s “Mandatory Happening,” which was known to the Fluxus artists as an event score.
Fluxus and the Essential Question of Life Gallery
Tomorrow through May 20
With spring quickly approaching, UMMA is preparing to launch an extensive project: an exhibition, “Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life,” and four months of programming surrounding this topic. To kick the Fluxus festivities off, UMMA is opening its gallery show tomorrow.
Describing art as disconnected and spontaneous as Fluxus is difficult, since the movement is neither clear nor linear, according to Educational and Curatorial Deputy Director Ruth Slavin. She said Fluxus only makes sense in little, fleeting epiphanies.
“Perhaps the best way to conceive of Fluxus art is to think of the movement as one centered on a conceptual base and not on an aesthetic or form,” Slavin said. “In that way it was very avant-garde, very unique for the Cold War era.”
Though the range of debates about Fluxus is immense, its edginess is rarely debated. Founded by Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas, Fluxus was inspired by the experimental music of John Cage in New York, and the movement became a group of international artists organized by Maciunas. The Fluxus artists were not bound by culture or medium but were instead connected by a desire to question the high art of the museum and to blur the lines between art and life. Their tool was a form of performance art often using prop-kits, which they called Fluxkits. These Fluxkits and event scores — like the Friedman — made up the Fluxus events, which they termed “happenings.”
“Sometimes these Fluxkits and event scores were humorous; sometimes, they were boring or offensive, silly or even annoying, but they always raised questions about the art itself,” said Lisa Borgsdorf, public programs and campus engagement manager for UMMA.
Take Alison Knowles’s 1962 event score “Proposition,” a plain piece of paper with the inscription: “Make a salad.” Below it, a video of Knowles making the salad plays on a television screen.
“It’s actually quite interesting, once you get past the reaction to looking at a piece of paper and what appears to be a loop of the Food Channel,” Slavin said. “It questions creation, domesticity and whether the art of salad making rivals the museum canvases — where is art’s valuation?”
Another debatable issue is whether it’s the event score that’s vital or the actual trial of enactment that carries artistic value. For example, Knowles’s “Wounded Furniture” reads: “This piece uses an old piece of furniture in bad shape. Destroy it further, if you like. Bandage it up with gauze and adhesive. Spray red paint on the wounded joints.”
Since no original version of this piece exists, University Housing has allowed students in five dormitories to recreate the event and actually destroy a piece of furniture. One of these final pieces will have the honor of being the first student work to ever be exhibited in the gallery.
“Swaying between intrigue and annoyance is not the ‘wrong’ way to feel about an event score,” Borgsdorf said. “Works like Knowles’ force you to think outside the traditional aesthetic and formal terms. Instead, it asks you to debate whether it is the idea, the work or the performer who is creating art.”
With works like these plain event scores, which almost require enactment and participation to understand their message, the question of organizing a museum show true to the Fluxus mood has become a focus for the UMMA staff.
“In presenting the show, we’re trying something very different,” Slavin said. “Because Fluxus was so anart — that is, against fine-art labels — it really is only reaching the museum as a historic item. That’s why we’re striving to break the show’s concepts down and ask people to experiment and experience Fluxus in their own time.”
The exhibit explores how Fluxus works by isolating the different themes and splitting them into 14 major questions — such as “What Am I?,” “Happiness?” and “Danger?” — which drove the movement. Since there is no specific pathway along the exhibit, a provided map will direct visitors to those questions in which they are most interested. The objects in each theme reflect an answer or ask a further question.
“In (the theme) ‘Change?’ Fluxus artists conclude that going with it can be a lot more fun than trying to fight it,” said Stephanie Miller, manager of public affairs and publications at UMMA. “As Ken Friedman suggests with his Flux Corsage — a plastic box filled with flower seeds — you might get started by getting yourself some flower seeds, planting and nurturing them, and giving the blossoms to someone you love. The plant will die eventually, and so might your love, but neither of them will disappear; they will change into some other form of energy.”
Fluxus was an integral part of pioneering performance art and bringing anart into perspective. Even though the movement has now passed into history, the mantras and ideals held by the group exist today.
“I’m convinced that if they had the Internet, they would have used it,” Slavin said. “Maciunas would be tweeting and on Facebook. The sprit of Fluxus lives on in the intermedia today; the flash mobs and the viral videos are the new happenings.”