A pain in art's ass

Mar 10, 2004 at 12:00 am

A few years ago, a young scholar in London mailed a note to a group of freethinking artists, inquiring about the loose and contended identity of their international social art network of the ’60s. He penned one question: “What is Fluxus?” Some weeks later, New York City Fluxus artist Alison Knowles returned an envelope containing dried beans.

This month, Marygrove College spotlights Knowles’ perpetually arousing “ordinary” objects and events with an installation of her paper musical instruments and Fluxus-inspired works by Detroit artists.

In the early ’60s, artists such as Knowles were deeply inspired by John Cage’s teachings at the progressive New School for Social Research in New York City and Buddhist teachings. Today those provocative philosophies seem to amount to little more than green tea, a yoga mat and four seconds of silence. Back then, they inspired Fluxus’ self-appointed leader, George Maciunas, along with artists George Brecht, Emmett Williams, LaMonte Young, Dick Higgins, Ben Vautier, Yoko Ono and dozens of others across the globe, to blur distinctions between art and life. Knowles was among the first to offer glimpses into raw spaces more intimate than glass-clean galleries.

Fluxus artists were irresistible art flirts and menaces. They refused tickets to snobs, patronized critics and dared the public to find a point to art. They pushed the boundaries of what is considered art and, as Fluxus artist Nam June Paik wrote, turned you and me into the same clowns as Goethe and Beethoven. In short — they leveled the playing field.

During a relatively new age of mass consumerism, Fluxus unveiled itself in the witticism and riddling of “happenings” (indeterminate performances), chain mailings, graphic pamphlets, installations, found objects and ironically branded commercial consumer objects (aka “ready-mades”).

On the evening of the opening reception for the exhibition at Marygrove, dozens of people show up to see what Knowles has in store. The artist takes the stage with Marygrove students to perform several favorite Fluxus events, producing a sensual, probing encounter.

For the chaotic re-creation of “Newspaper Music,” the students simultaneously read from different newspaper articles at varying levels of volume, according to Knowles’ directions. The result, as intended, is cacophony. But Knowles becomes noticeably irritated with one student’s distraction with the audience. She hisses at him to pay attention and insistently raises her palms upward to convey a crescendo to the oblivious young man. Even absurd experimentalism has its limits.

Looking at and being around Knowles’ latest work with objects, most of which double as sound props for her performances, I am comforted that the artist lovingly dubbed “Bean” has not lost her enthusiasm for things of this world. She says she can see traces of mapped land within a piece of crinkled muslin. But some of her recent handmade pieces look too quaint.

There are two standouts at Marygrove’s gallery. In-Flux artist Jef Bourgeau’s video/sound installation “The Sea” is a captivating, minimalist film that explores the relationship between sensing and knowing. Phaedra Robinson’s heartbreaking bake sale features stained, deformed bread, a charred heart-shaped cookie, and other cookies with sayings like “Food/Death,” and little cakes proclaiming words such as, “Alone.” Robinson makes a bittersweet proposition to sell you what you wouldn’t want to buy. Aside from these, some of the works by local Detroit artists — like the wall installation of packaged fingernail clippings or the prank groceries — are dulled versions of been-done art.

Thankfully, I find Fluxus hiding behind a partition, where strangers standing in a circle quietly make fools of themselves. An array of sound sculptures, made from found objects by Knowles and Marygrove students, instruct visitors to do silly things with their bodies while distracting them from noticing how ridiculous they look. One girl holds a box of beans while rocking back and forth. A boy poses with a bottle of caffeine-free Diet Coke to his ear. These unassuming visitors have just been Fluxed.

The cunning spirit that is Fluxus thrives today in artists who refuse to amount to an art-world “ism” and art enthusiasts willing to act like a fool if it enhances a personal experience. In contrast to many of today’s art stars, entirely uninterested in what the public thinks of their work, Knowles is refreshing, an exceptional breed of artist who makes the audience experience her priority.


Alison Knowles and In-Flux show at The Gallery at Marygrove College until March 28. The gallery is open Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Call ahead on weekends. The gallery is at 8425 W. McNichols, on the fourth floor of the Liberal Arts building. Call 313-927-1370.

Rebecca Mazzei is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]