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Issue 24

A Long Story with a Lot of Twists ­ Fluxus in Germany 1962­1994

BY Marius Babias, translated by Shaun Whiteside in Reviews | 09 AUG 95

If René Block is involved, Fluxus can't be far away. Of this endangered art movement, supported for a lifetime by the former Berlin gallery-owner, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Robert Filliou, Joe Jones and George Maciunas are dead, and George Brecht, Nam Jun Paik and Emmett Williams are getting on in years ­ their works either in inaccessible private collections or cast to the four winds. One thing that has been missing for a long time ­ a satisfactorily comprehensive Fluxus collection in public hands ­ has been assembled by Block and Gabriele Knapstein, for Stuttgart's Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA). They've brought themselves a great deal of praise, and a fair amount of trouble as well. The most intense criticism has come from the IFA's General Secretary Klaus Daweke. According to him, Block, who has been director of the IFA's exhibition service since May 1993 but on leave since the beginning of this year to work on the Istanbul Biennale, has been combining private and business interests. This is a ludicrous accusation because, through his years as a gallery-owner and important Fluxus collector, Block has access to extremely useful contacts for anyone setting up a Fluxus archive. Involving Block was the only possible way of buying works from artists and private collectors. To take an interest in the aged Fluxists while they are still alive isn't so much a way of saving the species as a way of preserving their stock for posterity.

Although Fluxus may have enjoyed a high public profile, particularly in Germany, its protagonists ­ from Maciunas via Dick Higgins and Knowles to Ben Patterson ­ were almost exclusively foreigners. Starting out with the 'International Festival of New Music' in the Städtische Museum, Wiesbaden in 1962, the exhibition provides a chronology for the movement that takes us through to the present day ­ 'a long story with a lot of twists', as the exhibition's title suggests. The Gera show features original works, film documents, audio tapes and radio plays. The outstanding catalogue contains an offprint of the first edition of S.D. Sauerbier's magazine Revue Rendez-vous, consisting entirely of questionnaires, which was put together in 1965-6 but never published. The questionnaires are answered in turn, revealing the individual differences within a shared programme. Ben Vautier's questions ('what is important?'), for example, receive different answers from Patterson (Everything'), Jir(breve)í Kolár(breve) ('Each moment') and Nam Jun Paik ('Socialist structure').

Recent iconographic art history has great difficulty in defining Fluxus. Despite the stylistic use of video by Paik, music by Jones and poetry by Dieter Roth, the heterogeneity of their artistic means makes it more difficult to construct a collective aesthetic; criteria that are binding today may cease to be valid tomorrow. But from the point of view of the Fluxists themselves, for all their individual freedoms and refinements, there are three obligatory credos which, taken together, form a Fluxus work: mixed media, an international message and a critical social and political reference. This last criterion has often been misconstrued as a short-lived joke or a provocation in the Dada tradition.

Rising from the shadow of the economic miracle and the Vietnam war, the members of Fluxus wanted to inject spirituality into post-war society. They did so with particular success in public concerts, which regularly ended in brawls and riots. Beuys, who had hitherto trodden a fairly traditional path as a sculptor and draughtsman, very quickly recognised the mobilising opportunities in such spectacles and perfected the public event as a means of political agitation. The founder of Fluxus, George Maciunas, went further: he declared all real political relations to be the artistic field of action. He developed a social model for SoHo, a New York district that was run-down in the 60s; artists bought shares in houses due for demolition, renovated them and moved in. Within 20 years the problem area had been redeveloped and commercialisation was unstoppable, although that isn't exactly what Maciunas had in mind. Today, SoHo may be the centre of the art world, but it's a long time since it was in artists' hands. The socialist utopia became the basis for small-scale capitalism. Given all this, the flight of many Fluxus members into oriental philosophy and religion can be seen as a sort of resignation. Fluxus might have extended the boundaries of society's tolerance towards art, and thus indirectly stabilised the art market, but its representatives, a few exceptions aside, hardly participated in it. Paik and, in the end, George Brecht, were able to convert their reputation into hard cash, but the others ­ like the late Al Hansen, Tomas Schmit or Dick Higgins, who invested his whole inheritance in the legendary 'Something Else Press' ­ went away empty-handed.

The revival of interest in Fluxus has its commercial side-effects. Those members who practiced art as a way of life throughout their lives, who saw the artistic attitude as primary and the work itself as secondary, and therefore produced cheap multiples or organised unsaleable events, are now building music machines, painting pictures, producing objects and generally trying to cash in. You can't hold it against them, but these nostalgic reminiscences have little to do with Fluxus. Since most of the classic works have already been bought up by multinationals like the Silverman Collection, the market has finally dried up. The best works still available are now on show in Gera ­ an exhibition that's booked into museums around the world until 2002, and which will, for a long time afterwards, remain one of the last great Fluxus exhibitions.