Adrian Searle on the dream of fluxus

Fluxus was a daring movement that spread art anarchy around the globe. Can its spirit really be captured in an exhibition? By Adrian Searle

In the gloom of the Baltic gallery, there are things preserved under glass: odds and ends in an upturned beret; a cabinet whose opened drawers are filled with stones; a plastic American breakfast (plastic fried eggs, plastic bacon); phials of liquid; stacks of money. I peer at a chromed tooth-brush, at bars of wooden soap, at a pair of spectacles with spikes that poke the wearer in the eyes, at trays of carefully sorted animal droppings.

All these little boxes - the spoof games, the surreal gags, the manifestos, the political placards and unplayable musical scores - are the sad reliquary of a dream. The dream was fluxus, a revolutionary movement that, during the 1960s and 70s, encompassed Europe, America, Japan and beyond. It hovered between art and anti-art, neo-dada and nouveau realism; it embraced artists, composers, poets, philosophers, amateurs, cranks, enthusiasts and passersby. Yoko Ono filmed a parade of naked bottoms. A man festooned in string did things to a violin, as a free piece of street theatre. Pianos were ritually abused. Pavements were scrubbed and "mystery boxes" filled with rubbish - both as art and as a way of getting rid of garbage.

For a while, fluxus was everywhere. There were festivals no one attended, performances no one saw, promises of money that never came, revolutions that never happened. When Ono and John Lennon held their bed-ins, that was the nearest fluxus got to worldwide fame. The photographs and films, the anecdotes and stories that record these perplexing events cannot do them justice. Fluxus never went down well either with the public or with collectors. For the former, it was baffling, regarded at best as yet one more joke at their expense - those crazy artists, at it again. Never mind that fluxus work rarely cost anything to make, and not much more to buy, and its single laudable aesthetic premise was to avoid wasting resources. The problem for most art collectors was that fluxus was too cheap and too ephemeral. Take Ben Vautier's God, an empty wine bottle. "If God is everywhere, he is also in this bottle," Vautier claimed, in an accompanying note. Not even the Vatican could argue with that.

Fluxus was resolutely against skill, artiness, expression, form and pomposity. Fluxus was a mystery probably even to some of those who espoused its restless ideals. Paradox was at the heart of the movement - just as it is at the heart of The Dream of Fluxus, an exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. It is also the title of a biography of George Maciunas, the architect, graphic designer, amateur art historian and photographer who founded the movement, if movement it was.

The exhibition and accompanying book by its curator, Thomas Kellein, somehow fail in their tasks. Both fluxus and Maciunas slip away from us the more we look and read. Fluxus itself is ill-represented by its objects, and needs a living context, while Maciunas and his complications burst the seams of Kellein's book. A second show, of work by Ono, has also just opened at Baltic.

Maciunas was fascinating, talented, and by all accounts a nightmare. Like André Breton, godfather of the surrealist movement, Maciunas would invite artists, composers and even philosophers to take part in activities. He would charm them, boss them around for years, then perform summary excommunications, banishing those who displeased him. Other artists, such as Joseph Beuys, would claim fluxus as their own. Maciunas would take against individuals for no good reason - composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was one - and damn by association those who had anything to do with them. All this was wearying.

One fluxus artist said that Maciunas "walked a tightrope extended between the two poles of avant garde anti-art and mass entertainment". One might say the same of much art today. Interestingly, the show opens with shelf upon shelf of all the medications Maciunas used in one year, all his light bulbs, all the fruit juice he drank.

Inert and under glass, fluxus appears as dead matter in this exhibition. Yet - as one peers at its museological corpse, the remains of so many empty gestures - the spirit of fluxus, its playfulness, zest and anarchy, fitfully reasserts itself, if only by association. Here's a scrunched-up piece of paper that makes us think of a work by Martin Creed. There's a musical score that takes us back to John Cage and Kurt Schwitters. Here are placards, protesting the Vietnam war, just as apposite as arguments against American and British activities in Iraq.

All the objects in the show have stories to tell, or demand to be played with. One wants to get up and play Joe Lones's adapted Flux Harpsichord and his mechanical bells, or Takako Saito's Sound Chess Set for John Cage. But you can't. I'd stay away from the Flux Toilet and the Human Flux Trap, inoffensive though they probably are. It's hard to tell. You can't actually reach out and touch anything, and almost nothing is explained. The Flux Mystery Boxes remain mysterious, the adapted musical instruments unplayed. All the life's been sucked out of everything. It's a shame.

Richard Long's walks, Gilbert and George posing as living sculptures, Sarah Lucas's early work and a million other small gestures, actions and ephemeral objects can trace their origins back to fluxus. It was a conduit through which ideas and personalities flowed, and still flow today. Fluxus inevitably failed, and came to be seen as old hat. It was partly a problem of packaging - though Maciunas was a very good graphic designer, for whom no detail was too small to be worried over. Fluxus's aim to eliminate music, theatre, poetry, fiction and all the rest of the fine arts combined was doomed. Only the mass entertainment industry might achieve such a thing.

If anything and everything could be art, and everyone was an artist, the whole system would collapse, fluxus thought had it. If only things were so simple. There were even complaints from hardcore fluxus artists that people with too strong a personality left too much of a trace of themselves in their work. These are the aesthetics of the Khmer Rouge.

Born in Lithuania in 1931, Maciunas was a sickly child. He suffered respiratory complaints all his life, and died impoverished in 1978. His family spent the war years in Germany, emigrating to New York in 1948. George became an architect, but left the profession to embark on a life that was as difficult as it was idealistic. Kellein gives a good account of his enthusiasms and plans: attempting to rewrite art history, denouncing architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe as frauds and swindlers; the homemade travel guides he produced; his infatuations with shamanism and the diasporas of nomadic tribes; his desire to write a history of the avant garde; his doomed money-making ventures; his bankruptcies; the insane dictatorial letters he wrote; his impossible demands and his relationship with his mother.

"Rather than seeking bourgeois erotic delights," writes Kellein, Maciunas "set store by hard work and a modest lifestyle, and refused to entertain the thought of smoking or hard drinking." This monk-like abstinence turns out to be not entirely true. For years, stories have circulated of Maciunas's sexual masochism and the games he liked to play. At the end of the book, Kellein reproduces a series of photographs, taken with a self-timer in the mid-1960s, of Maciunas in drag, undressing for the camera. He's obviously enjoying himself. Maciunas married not long before he died, swapping clothes with his wife for a fluxus wedding.

Quite what Maciunas's erotic life - bourgeois or not - has to do with his role in fluxus is never clearly spelled out. In fact, were his entire life not so much at the centre of fluxus, and his masochistic streak the inverse coin to his penchant for issuing orders and edicts, our interest in it would be prurient. But there we are. Maciunas smiles back at the viewer, holding up a pair of frilly panties. It's a kind of relief for us, too, after reading so much about Maciunas the control freak. Maciunas was the lightning conductor for something that was already in the air. An expert at scuppering his own projects, he has as much to answer for in the larger failures of fluxus. Impracticality, and one kind of impossibility or another, was all part of the charm.

George Maciunas: The Dream of Fluxus is at Baltic, Gateshead, until February 15. Details: 0191-478 1810/


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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