The conductor walks away. The crowd applauds. Beethoven’s 5th? A moving rendition by the orchestra? Eric Satie? Closer, but wrong again. The performer is Ben Patterson and he’s just completed George Maciunas’ “Solo for Conductor.” For this, he bent over to face the audience, placed his baton on the floor and, voila, he retied his shoelaces.
This had been preceded by “F/H Trace,” in which a French horn player spilled marbles out of the horn’s mouth as he bowed to the crowd.
We’re not at an exotic circus, but at Urawa Art Museum in Saitama, where Patterson conducted the “Saitama Once Only Fluxus Ensemble” on Nov. 23 to celebrate its current “Fluxus: Art Into Life” exhibition.
The first Fluxus exhibition autonomously planned by a Japanese museum represents the playful spirit of the movement, a group of artists loosely organized by George Maciunas in the early 1960s without any set manifesto, but sometimes described as “Anti-Art.” Fluxus members include artists Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, George Brecht and Nam June Paik.
The Fluxus Anti-Art works on display here include “Stomach Anatomy Apron” (anatomically correct entrails printed on steel), the “Picnic Garbage Placemat” and the “Crossed Nude Legs Tablecloth.” Some of the works invite participation, as did Patterson when he directed the audience to perform “Constellation No. 6” by Dick Higgins. To conduct the first movement of this piece, Patterson instructed audience members to make any vocal sound within the semi-circle he defined. For the second movement, the audience simultaneously repeated the sound at Patterson’s signal.
The concert opened with John Cage’s “4’33.” One of the audience who was unfamiliar with the work felt embarrassed for Patterson, who seemed to have stagefright and be unable to play the piano. He thought this until Patterson closed the lid at the end of the first tacet, or silent movement. Only then did that “listener” realize the nature of the work — in which not a single key is played for 4 min. 33 sec.
A Yoko Ono piece titled “Painting to Hammer a Nail,” invites you to hammer a nail into the canvas to participate in the work. Several other works also demonstrate how audience participation is key. “Racket Game” is a ping-pong table with an assortment of paddles set out on it to impede proper play. Viewers may here again become players — so bring a friend.
Works like these and the concert provoke questions as to the passive nature of most other exhibititions, their viewers — and art in general.
Other works on show include Fluxus publications, the Fluxkits — cases filled with curious items — conceptual playing cards; “Orifice Flux Plugs”; posters and other objects, many by Japanese Fluxus artists, notably Takako Saito’s chess sets.
Ben Patterson, a classically trained double bassist, is an original member of Fluxus. His book “Methods and Processes” was recently reissued in a bilingual edition. He gave this interview to The Japan Times at Gallery 360 in Tokyo’s Omotesando district, the primary Japanese venue exhibiting Fluxus works, and the publisher of his book.
What does Fluxus mean?
Fluxus artists try not to define what Fluxus is. The editor for the Beijing office of a German press agency interviewed me and described Fluxus as ‘The art of making art from anything.’ [This] is probably the closest to what Fluxus is, and still keeps it open to all the various forms it takes . . . To get the record clear, George Maciunas intended to publish a magazine printing texts and scores from various artists. The magazine title was to be Fluxus. That was also the title he had in mind for another magazine earlier that didn’t fly for the New York Lithuanian immigrant community about culture and politics in Lithuania.
Fluxus apparently means “liberation” or “freedom” in Lithuanian. About a year, maybe a year-and-a-half later, many realized they were so-called “Fluxus” artists. In the event there were different things (forms of art) but some performances didn’t fit into anything, so we decided “Ahhh!, that’s Fluxus!” If George chose the name “Arts in America,” it’d be the “Arts in America group!”
Is Fluxus still as relevant as it was in the 1960s?
It had a larger impact on artists in the 1960s than today because what we were doing was radically different, opening many new fields. For instance, video art was developed particularly by Nam June Paik. But at that point nobody was doing video art, nobody knew what it was or how to do it, but now everybody does.
How did Fluxus change and evolve from the ’60s?
Up until roughly 1965 or ’66, the work and the group was the strongest and most unified. Then, for one reason or another, people began to leave, or were “excommunicated” by George, for some reason such as performing for another group, blah, blah. Then other aspects began to creep in, rituals: Flux weddings and divorces having a more Dadaist approach than the original Fluxus concept . . . Flux Thanksgivings and Christmases. I think Fluxus began to change, and personally they were less interesting; they were amusing, but not something you could put into a concert format someplace else.
What’s happened since then?
Artists are artists — hopefully they move and change. I always say a leopard never changes its spots. It might get older, bigger, bruised or learn new tricks, but you recognize the roots and its origins. Also, Fluxus has become a historical situation. The number of Fluxus members has reduced since the original 35, I think about 20 are dead. We’re older! Of course there are second- or third-generation artists.
What have you been doing recently?
I have a classical music background, so I’m reverting to my roots and I wouldn’t say taking revenge, but reexamining the classic tradition from a Fluxus perspective. In May [in Japan] we did one piece featuring my restructuring of the three operas “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly” and “Tristan and Isolde.” All three in one hour! A theoretical point [in my Symphony No. 6, 2001] is the idea of Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-mades and the Assisted Ready-mades where you do a little bit to them. So you could say Symphony No. 6 is an Assisted Ready-made, or an Elaborately Assisted Ready-made.
Is there a spirit of art and play that makes the Japanese more sympathetic toward Fluxus artists’ approach to work?
I tend to think original, hard-core, pure Fluxus relates to haiku or Japanese traditional forms, where there’s great economy of means in a concentrated work. Very strict discipline and also the ambiguity of Zen comes into play more than in the European tradition, which wasn’t economical. So I think those aspects that are possibly a part of traditional Japanese forms of thinking not only fit very well to Fluxus, but probably had a lot to do with how Fluxus became Fluxus to begin with. The question might be, “Would Fluxus be Fluxus without the Japanese?”
Can you describe an interesting happening or an event that you have participated in?
There’s a work I call “Tour,” in which people are blindfolded and I take them on a city tour or whatever situation. I was doing this with about 60 people from the dome or cathedral in Cologne to the gallery, a 45-minute walk. We were about halfway through and suddenly a policeman asks me, “What is this? What is this?” Naturally he assumed it was a political demonstration requiring a permit, but I just said, “It’s art.” The policeman replied, “Acht, ahh!”