Fluxus on a Dublin scale

Tue, May 5, 2009, 01:00

When he arrived in 1960s New York and linked up with George Maciunas, Yoko Ono and others in the Fluxus art movement, Larry Miller felt he had ‘finally found some playmates’. But 40 years on and in Dublin with his work, he still resists definitions of what the movement does, he tells BELINDA McKEON

‘I WANTED TO do things,” says Larry Miller. “I wanted to speak.” Miller is looking back to the late 1960s, when he was beginning to find his identity as an artist. At first, it seemed that this would mean becoming an actor. And sure enough, he lived the actor’s life on the west coast for a brief period – that is, he lived, for a brief period, in his car, “thinking about acting”, before seeing that it wasn’t quite going to work out for him.

“I quit theatre,” he says, “because they wouldn’t let me change Eugene O’Neill’s script. Or Shakespeare. And so I thought, well, okay, then I don’t want to be an actor, if I can’t make up my own words.”

Miller laughs a high, delighted laugh – and it is a laugh with, not at, his younger self. It’s not hard to see why: that defiance, that determination, that single- mindedness about what he does and does not want his art to be have informed Miller’s practice ever since.

Maybe this is because shortly after his vagrancy in the actor’s realm, he found his artistic home in a movement which was then newly emerged on the other coast: the loose collective of artists, composers and performers named Fluxus in 1961 by the Lithuanian-born artist, George Maciunas. Forming, as Miller now calls it, a “confluence” in 1960s New York, the Fluxus artists – inspired by the art of Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock and the compositions of John Cage, among others – comprised a growing nexus of creation and conceptualism across genres, across forms and across media (“intermedia” was a central notion of the movement). Cage himself was involved as the movement reached its peak over the next two decades. So too were artists such as Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, Jackson Mac Low, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Robert Watts and La Monte Young.

For the Fluxus artists, meaning and interest resided not in the ego of the artist but in the experience of the viewer (they rejected, in other words, the artist-centric notions of Abstract Expressionism). For the Fluxus artists, there were no limits to what could be considered artistic material or to what could be considered art. Their objects and their actions drew gleefully on the everyday and the ordinary, and revelled in a sense of the random and the arbitrary (they were strongly influenced, in other words, by both Dada and Surrealism).

But, Miller and his partner and Fluxus associate Sara Seagull are at pains to point out, the movement was never a specific, well-defined entity. Miller quotes Robert Watts, who said that the most important thing about Fluxus was that nobody knew what it was. Questions of definition and of consensus have proven controversial with Fluxus, not just in terms of membership of the movement – who belonged and who did not – but in terms of the movement’s duration. Some collectors, curators and art historians believe that the movement ended in 1978, with the death of George Maciunas; others believe it still endures. The Fluxus artists themselves, not surprisingly, tend to be of the latter faith.

MILLER HIMSELF FIRSTcame across the Fluxus energies in the art department of Rutgers University, New Jersey, where he had gone after his unsuccessful stint on the west coast. Not only had the impulse toward acting foundered, but he had given up on his first love, painting, and had become interested in an apparently incompatible web of artistic media: music, poetry, performance, sculpture in organic materials such as grass and roots and stone.

His head was full of Pollock and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and he had heard, too, back in the Midwest, about those intriguing-sounding events called happenings, the idea of which excited him hugely, although, he says, he barely knew what they were.

Rutgers was the right place to go for answers. Its faculty included Allan Kaprow, who would prove a pioneering figure in performance art and who had been instrumental in inventing the happening. In fact, the art school at Rutgers in the 1960s was itself a pioneering force in the US avant-garde: George Brecht, Geoffrey Hendricks, Charlotte Moorman and Robert Watts were also teachers there, and George Maciunas was a regular visiting artist, sweeping the experimental air of New York into the studios and classrooms of New Brunswick.

Although Miller confesses that he thought Maciunas a “loony tune” at first, he quickly recognised in Fluxus the sort of playing field he had been craving, one in which he could make the words up as much as he liked, one in which art and acting – or rather, action – no longer needed to be set far apart.

That playing field came into being quite literally in 1970, when Miller assisted Maciunas in the creation of the Flux Olympics, which brought absurd races (the Three-Steps-Forward-Two-Steps-Backward contest, the Metronome Dash) and outlandish sports (Blow Soccer, Tennis Basketball, Bicycle Polo and badminton with six-foot-long rackets) to the university track and field.

As with the Flux Mass, which Miller and Maciunas had created in the Rutgers Chapel earlier the same year, the idea was to throw a playful spanner into the works of a cultural norm so established that it had long been accepted unthinkingly, drifting along without question or consideration of its constructs. By “fluxing” the realms of sport and worship, Miller and his mentor illustrated the boundlessness of Fluxus art. Anything could become its materials: objects, ideas, actions (in 1978, Maciunas was the groom in a Flux Wedding. Just three months later, his Flux Funeral took place).

Anyone could create Fluxus art and perform it. And it could happen anywhere, at any time.

“The whole purpose, as I see it, of Fluxus, is to do away with boundaries between the disciplines in art, the boundaries between people who are artists, professionally, and people who aren’t artists,” says Miller. “And to just become more aware of your everyday life and see the artistic elements that exist in it. To make play of those ordinary rituals.”

Yet for all that the movement was open to anyone, it did operate, at least for a time, as a collective.

“We didn’t sign on the dotted line like the Dadaists did,” says Miller. “It was more like gravity, the attraction of mutual friends who had the same kind of sensibility and were doing new kinds of experimental work. Like Yoko Ono striking a match in 1955 and calling it an art event, a piece.”

It was important to Maciunas, he says, that the artists identified as a collective as well as as individual makers, and to a certain extent, “we did it for George, because we loved George, or we loved/hated George”.

But was it useful, the experience of the collective?

“You know what? To me, I felt like I finally found some playmates,” he says.

NOW FLUXUSis happening in Ireland, with the Dublin gallery, thisisnotashop, hosting an exhibition of Miller’s solo works in tandem with a series of Fluxus-inspired events orchestrated by him. These include an artist talk at the National College of Art and Design, a “Flux Clinic” at the Market Studios and a live performance of Miller’s 1969 piece, Figure/Ground, by Miller in the Benburb Street gallery space and in Phoenix Park. In SS Michael and John, meanwhile, Miller arranged and conducted a concert of Fluxus “scores” (written instructions, some just a few words long, for actions first devised by artists such as Cage or Ono) with 15 Dublin-based artists as the Fluxus “choir”.

The Dublin concert, says Jessamyn Fiore of thisisnotashop, is a more intimate version of the large-scale Fluxus performance which took place last May in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, when Miller conducted 24 performers, a string quartet and two opera singers.

But it’s the small scale of the Dublin venues that makes them a good fit for Fluxus, Miller believes.

“That wall between art and not-art, and performer and not-performer is broken down, so that the audience audience becomes also the performer, becomes involved,” he says. “And once they do that, they break down this barrier between the preciousness of art in galleries that costs millions of dollars, and an experience that you can have in a little place like thisisnotashop, made out of cardboard and some carrots.”

The Dublin show certainly places Fluxus in its historical context, with a dedicated reading room in the gallery and with the concert consisting of a programme of classic Fluxus actions. Brecht’s Drip Music(1959), Ben Vautier’s Paper Bag Music(1961), Mieko Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face(1964) and Ono’s Sky Piece for Jesus Christ(1965) are among the many works from which Miller chooses.

But for Miller, it’s clear, Fluxus is no museum artefact. Over the past 30 years, his original compositions have added significantly to the collective’s catalogue, many of them focusing on issues of human genetics, identity, and the coding of human DNA. His Genetic Code Copyright Certificatework, which allows users to claim the copyright to their own personal genome, will be part of his Dublin show.

The Fluxus catalogue has remained a living entity, too, through Miller’s interpretation and staging of those classic scores which would otherwise fade into the archives. This has not exactly been light work. Take, for example, the Cologne and Newark revivals of a performance of George Brecht’s 1960 Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event) for John Cage, involving more than 40 vehicles (fire trucks, police and military units, the lot).

Why does he keep the faith?

“To me, life is far more fascinating than art,” Miller says. “I mean, I love art, but I don’t likeall of art. To me, the art/life dichotomy and the argument that splits what makes something art and not art, is fun dinner conversation. But in the end, it doesn’t mean much. As somebody asked John Cage once: ‘Why is this art?’ And Cage said: ‘Well, what else could it be?’ ”


Larry Miller: Figures in the Groundis at thisisnotashop, 26 Benburb Street, Dublin 7, until May 16; www.thisisnotashop.com