Panta rhei

Jan Winkelmann

Panta rhei, everything is in a state of flux and motion. This is particularly true of artistic conceptions and hence of art history in general. Despite the end of the historical avant-garde, the traditional historical-dialectical model of art history here in the sense of movement and counter-movement retains its validity for contemporary art. Using historical references I shall attempt, by employing these terms or concepts, to define what the generation of artists represented in shift have in common and the artistic positions which paved the way for them. I am less concerned with a historical arrangement or classification than with showing the similarities and differences, notably with regard to Fluxus; nor do I wish to establish parallels with concept art, which play a secondary role in this context and are not examined in this article.

When, during a series of events organised by George Maciunas entitled Fluxus, Festspiele Neuester Musik in Wiesbaden in 1962, Phil Corner's piece Piano Activities (for 1 piano and many players) was performed, the planned demolition of a piano by several performers caused quite an uproar. Referring to the title of the series, press and television reviewers dubbed the participants the Fluxus group(1). This was grist for the mill of that tireless promoter of fluxile ideas, George Maciunas, who regarded himself as the driving force behind them. He was considered the prime mover of a group of artists whose better-known members were George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Ben Patterson, Wolf Vostell and Emmett Williams, bound together, if one could call it bound, by very tenuous organisational structures. It is largely due to a few programmatic statements issued by Maciunas and his efforts to set up an international communications network of artists, authors, musicians and theorists that he is seen today as a kind of Fluxus father-figure.

Fluxus wanted to react to the 'pure' painting of the prevailing Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism by going beyond and expanding established forms of art and presentation by redefining the concept of art. In the same spirit that prompted Duchamp to expand that concept by ushering the ready-made into the dimension of everyday life, this new, radical artistic mentality propagated a coalescence of art and life. Like other avant-garde tendencies of the 20th century, it hoped to improve life by dint of aesthetic, or aesthetically inspired, principles. Art was supposed to bring about a change in the awareness of reality, a change which in turn, due to the changed actions of the individual, would have positive effects on society in general(2). The Fluxus artists duly showed themselves to be extraordinarily progressive not only in the domain of art but in their attitudes to society too.

In their antithetical attitude towards modernism they did not regard their artworks as masterpieces in the traditional sense of the cult of genius, to convey an unmistakable meaning. They considered the beholder to be part of the work, which was not complete without his powers of association and mental ability. To achieve this purpose they adopted Duchamp's aformentioned concept of the ready-made. The use of apparently banal, for the most part industrially manufactured everyday objects were meant to render their art more accessible and hence more easily understandable to the beholder, from whose non-artistic world of experience these objects did after all stem; in addition, transferring a trivial object from its ordinary context into an aesthetic-artistic context in turn thematised artistic issues such as authorship, uniqueness, etc.

It would however be wrong to reduce the formal 'achievements' of Fluxus to merely the use and recontextualization of ordinary objects. As traditional artistic techniques, painting and sculpture were being jettisoned, the borders to other artistic disciplines such as music, theatre, film and literature were being crossed. The emancipation of the artistic object was followed by an intermedialization which was new in this form. A consequence of breaking down interdisciplinary borders was that the static object extended towards a processual art. The 'happening' and the 'event' were born.

The social stance of the Fluxus artists was reflected accordingly in their attitude towards the commercial aspects of the art business. In the mid-sixties George Maciunas had embarked on the production of 'flux-boxes'. Fairly cheap and simple, these toylike receptacles were produced in large runs and mailed all over the world. Their low price made them affordable to a wide public. At the same time, the democratic principle of 'art for all' was accompanied by a subversive principle which opposed the possession of art and the concomitant social status.

That was in the sixties. Similarities to Fluxus in terms of both form and content are apparent not only in the renewed vogue for the medium of the multiple in recent years(3) witness two major exhibitions in Hamburg and Leeds(4) devoted exclusively to the theme, and the increased production of multiples by artists of the younger generation but also in the growing interest evinced by artists born after 1960 in themes relating to everyday existence, personal living and working circumstances, social phenomena and the 'condition humaine' of the individual in general.
Before examining this in greater detail, I should like to outline the 'situation of art' in the nineties within the given framework in what is of necessity a highly condensed form. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and to a greater extent the previous collapse of one of this century's last great socio-political ideologies, and the recession and consequent 'collapse of the art market' in the early 1990s, caused a new generation of artists to take fresh bearings and embark on a critical evaluation and questioning of the values which had determined the art of the eighties.

Art began to 'concern itself with itself'. The prevailing work aesthetic of the eighties gave way to a contextualization of art production which, under the heading of Kontext Kunst, was propagated as a new artistic avant-garde(5). "Kontext Kunst thematisiert die formalen, sozialen, und ideologischen Bedingungen, unter denen Kunst produziert, distributiert, präsentiert und rezipiert wird. Die Bedingungen, unter denen ein Werk entsteht, werden Ausgangspunkt des Werkes oder das Werk selbst."(6) Art is intellectualised, thematised, more or less exclusively concerned with itself in a 'semi' or 'quasi' scientific manner. While Kontext Kunst is slowly emerging as the art of the nineties, a new generation of artists is appearing on the scene by the back door, so to speak, almost unnoticed. No father-figure à la Maciunas is there to invest them with a kind of corporate identity nor any curator who by subsuming them under a label admits them to higher orders of art history.

Their shared point of departure, and that seems to be the major thing they have in common with the Fluxus artists' aims, is their endeavour to restore the almost forgotten relationship between art and life. They do not regard themselves as a kind of 'neo-Fluxus', though. Let it be established from the outset: the crucial difference is that although I refer to them in the third person plural for practical reasons, they cannot be pigeonholed under a collective programme or manifesto proclaiming a universal idea. By the same token, they do not adopt a protesting stance. And although they reject the maxims of the eighties work-aesthetic, they refrain from banging any drums.

It is as if the social catchword of the early nineties, 'cocooning', has encroached upon the domain of art production. Withdrawn and concerned with themselves, artists in their studios devise answers to individual questions of existential states, whether they are to be found in the collective social realm, the personal individual realm, or a realm in which the two overlap. All-embracing social structures like power, economics, media, politics, ecology, communications and suchlike are thematised in the same way as social problem complexes Aids, criminality, homelessness and so on. No universal solutions claiming general validity are proposed. Their chief consideration and here we see a parallel to the Fluxus idea again is to sensitise individual consciousness to social concerns, as a basis for a responsible attitude which can change individual action which in turn can have an effect on all society. Unlike Fluxus and thus transcending the Fluxus approach the idea is no longer to change consciousness of reality per se; this general step is taken for granted in order to facilitate a purposeful orientation towards 'praxis'. Fundamental to comprehensive ethical action though and this is the prime concern is individual recognition and awareness of self as part of a collective reality.

The Fluxus artists achieved their 'goal' by radically reformulating the concept of art. Today, when anything goes, such a radical ideology of counter-culture is no longer conceivable, and so formal means are employed which are distinguished either by apparent lucidity and concentrated intensity, or by subtlety and the power of suggestion. The beholder is either confronted with a flood of sensory impressions or barely realises that his perception is being infiltrated. In their effect, the works thus reflect 'radical' Fluxus methods and after the initial shock are more deceptive, for they address the beholder in such a direct form that she/he cannot evade their impact. In neither case is there any question of the customary casual stroll through the contemplative atmosphere of the exhibition space. The usual assortment from which one may partake or not, as one pleases, no longer exists. The exhibition space completely absorbs and wins over the beholder.

Where Fluxus declared the traditional artistic media to be obsolete and superfluous, here the renunciation of traditional forms of art is not an explicit programme but is instead connected with the inherent inability of the artistic media to take the offensive when communicating. Although Fluxus opened up the borders to other forms of artistic or non-artistic expression, its art was often linked with a concept of the object which, although revolutionised, was still moulded by tradition. In shift the object usually renounces its claims in favour of open, variable structures which are formulated in only one, if any, possible way. While Fluxus transferred the commonplace object into an artistic context in which it was transformed into an object with a semantic charge, a 'state' from which it did not return to the everyday world(7), here the ready-made objects are not assigned any comparable meaning. After exhibitions they frequently return to their everyday context without acquiring a meaning above and beyond their ordinary function, or a special value.

In this connection we must return to the role of the recipient. The beholder of a Fluxus work sees an open work of art which only assumes its definitive guise by virtue of his associative powers of imagination, whereas here the artistic product remains fragmentary. An aesthetic or semantic value is rarely inherent in the work of art per se, which rather preserves its open structure; this is only effective when it remains variable and is actually or cognitively formulated further. In common parlance: in the one the recipient is desired but not strictly necessary, whereas in the other he is the indispensable premiss for its communicative effect, which can only result from mutual reaction. In that sense these works cannot be regarded singly but are distinguished by an inherent processuality.

On the other hand, though, this processuality is reflected in the manner of presentation in the exhibition. Like a net, many of the works, often consisting of numerous elements, are not only spread over all the galleries at De Appel but occupy architectural spaces not usually intended for the presentation of art, such as corridors, lobby, toilets and staircases. Since no hierarchical distinction is drawn between these 'high' places meaning areas intended for art and 'low' ones mundane, non-artistic places all of them being equally valuable and meaningful, art and life embrace again, while on the other hand a certain amount of institutional criticism is issued. This should not be equated with Fluxus' own brand of institution-criticism. This only acknowledged traditional mediation structures to a certain extent and transferred not only its effective range but also its range of activity to non-artistic domains. In complete contrast, the institutional framework for the art show in shift is of crucial importance. Not in the sense of being placed in question itself, but in the sense that the visitor's expectations are undermined, at least partly. Visiting an exhibition is usually an individual visitor's voluntary decision to concern himself with art or artistic products, forms of expression, concepts etc. But here, and this probably does not tally with his expectations, in a framework geared to the reception of 'traditional' art, he is confronted in exemplary fashion with domains which do not primarily refer to the expected framework but to areas of life outside it. In this sense, a union of art and (everyday) life is effectuated with the aid of conventional mediation structures, a union which would not have been possible in this form without those structures.

(1) Compare Thomas Dreher, 'Vom Event zum Postevent', in Kritik. Zeitgenössische Kunst in München 2 (1993), p. 20-33.
(2) Compare Roland Scotti, 'Die Metamorphosen des Alltäglichen', in Fluxus und Concept Art, cat. (Ludwigshafen/Rhein: Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, 1991), p. 14-20.
(3) See Erika Ledermann, 'Multiplication', in Art Monthly 2 (1995), 20-22.
(4) Das Jahrhundert des Multiple. Von Duchamp bis zur Gegenwart (Hamburg: Deichtorhallen, 1994) and Art Unlimited. Multiples of the 1960s and 1990s (Leeds: Metropolitan University Gallery, 1995).
(5) See Peter Weibel (ed.), Kontext Kunst (Cologne, 1994) to the eponymous exhibition held in Graz in 1993.
(6) Peter Weibel, 'Vorwort', in ibid., p. XIV.
"Kontext Kunst thematises the formal, social and ideological conditions under which art is produced, distributed, presented and received. The conditions under which a work is made become the points of departure for the work or the work itself."
(7) Compare Scotti, p. 16.

(Translation: Ruth Koenig)

published in: Shift, cat. De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam 1995

© 1995 Jan Winkelmann