Ben Vautier’s massive installation Bizart Baz’art (Bizarre Bazaar, 2003) – a one-room structure emblazoned with the artist’s looping, maxim-prone cursive script, punctuated by mannequin legs, paper skeletons, paint cans and stuffed monkeys – is blaring Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’ (1974) and blinking with an LED sign proclaiming ‘COURAGE’. I am only on the second floor of the Fluxus pioneer’s stuffed retrospective (of about 1,000 works, 50 years, three floors and too many words to count or read) and I am already exhausted. How did we – Ben, as he is commonly known, and me – get here, to this flamboyantly indiscriminate structure located in the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon that looks like it could be some mystical outsider artist’s shrine in the backwoods of Louisiana? We should go back a bit.
Ben Vautier was born in 1935 in Italy, but his family soon settled in Nice, where he has mostly lived and worked since. Indeed, the coastal city provided a consistently sunny Mediterranean backdrop for his photo-documented conceptual performances from the 1960s and ’70s. Nice was also the site of Ben’s second-hand record store, Le Magasin, which he ran until 1973. Le Magasin’s façade and interior were a kind of proto-Bizart Baz’art, crazily collaged and manically packed. During this time, Ben became an integral part of the international Fluxus movement, famous for his curvy, cursive proclamations like ‘Tout est Art’ (All is Art) or ‘Ben est Art’ (Ben is Art). In the ’80s and ’90s, the artist made vibrant, naively illustrated paintings with text that readily evoke those of Dorothy Iannone and Niki de Saint Phalle. The past decade, meanwhile, has seen the marketing of Ben’s handwriting on items like socks and T-shirts, and a faintly alarming website. At this point, Ben is Nice’s famous égoïste, the loopy éminence grise of the art scene of southern France.
Subtitled ‘Strip-tease Intégral’ (Full Monty), Ben’s retrospective covers all this history and more. Enthusiastically organized by Fluxus expert Jon Hendricks, the survey opens in the late 1950s, as Ben finds his way. These early works – paintings of abstract motifs of the day; wacky sculptural assemblages à la Jean Tinguely; sly drawings of banana-like or phallic forms – have a sweet, cloying sensibility, but they also evince a deft handling of line, space and composition. As Hendricks curiously points out on the day I visited, Ben’s ‘Bananes’ preceded Andy Warhol’s – a line the curator takes at each stage of Ben’s early artistic development. If Hendricks’ argument about Ben’s place in art history seems defensive and oddly reasoned – does it matter who drew a banana first? – it perhaps explains the amount of work included here.
Ben’s breadth and productivity is amazing, particularly his brilliant, beguiling output in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1958, dizzy with Marcel Duchamp’s influence, Ben had his breakthrough: two three-word signs reading ‘Tout est Art’ (Everything is Art) and ‘des mots, des mots, des mots’ (The words, the words, the words). His ‘Sculptures Vivantes’ (Living Sculptures) series followed, as he declared himself author of, among other things, his daughter, Eva, by signing the blanket on which she laid and documenting it photographically. Such images are one of his strengths: elegant black and white photographs that convey the humour, intelligence and incisive beauty of his early projects, like placing signs and banners reading ‘To Change Art Destroy Ego’ around the city.
It’s in such photographs that the artist (and his distinctly Mediterranean sensibility) come into focus. Here he is, young and handsome, posing with a picture frame slyly placed over his face; destroying a pile of his hand-written signs; walking over a jetty to throw a box inscribed with the word ‘Dieu’ (God) into the sea; or signing a plate of glass overlooking the ocean. ‘Gestes’ (Gestures, 1961–76), Ben’s series of documented gestures, are wonderful, and the closest he comes to sobriety, evoking Bruce Nauman’s studio videos and Hanne Darboven’s collaged grids.
Ben’s phenomenal output did not flag in the ’80s, but unfortunately the quality did. The survey’s next two floors are packed with paintings, assemblages, park benches, globes, troughs, snapshots and T-shirts, all emblazoned with the artist’s inimitable script. The texts frequently discuss the artist’s ego, the idea of what art is, and asides like ‘Africa is not for sale’. Fifty years after Allan Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’ and Ben’s Dadaist anti-art inspiration, the idea that art is everything and nothing no longer holds the power it once did. Furthermore, so many maxims in close proximity dilute their meaning, a feeling perhaps common to any survey of an artist who works primarily with text. But Ben’s ideas can seem particularly facile due to his increasing lack of attention to the objects or surfaces on which he emblazons them. Every writer, as they say, needs a good editor, and this retrospective proves that rule. For an artist with appetites like Ben (‘I don’t like art. I prefer sex,’ he proclaimed last year, during one of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ‘Marathons’, before ripping up a Gerhard Richter catalogue), a curator must take on the sizable task of weeding out the unnecessary. Tout est art? Maybe, but not all of it belongs on display.