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State of flux (watch VIDEO)

By Stephanie Rieke Miller

One of the things—maybe the most important thing—that art is good for is thinking about life.

Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, an exhibition of more than 100 works by major artists, including George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik, on view at UMMA from February 25 through May 20 is designed for visitors to experience the radical and influential cultural development that was Fluxus, and perhaps learn something about themselves along the way.

Fluxus was an international network of artists, composers, and designers that emerged as an art (or “anti-art”) phenomenon in the early 1960s and was noted for blurring the boundaries between art and life. Maciunas (1931–1978), the Lithuanian-born organizer of the international Fluxus movement, reacted against the “high art” world and its intense commodification of art objects. He saw art, at its best, as part of the social process and attempted to create objects that celebrated collaboration, the ephemeral, and the everyday—with a touch of playful anarchy. Circumventing both aesthetics and the commercial art world, Maciunas wanted to empower all people to engage with essential issues via the Fluxus approach to life.

“The Fluxus phenomenon helps us reexamine our perspectives on art objects and on the issues in our own lives. It’s exciting to bring the energy and breadth of the Fluxus show to Ann Arbor, and we hope that visitors will engage with the exhibition and the events that surround it in fun and meaningful ways,” said UMMA Director Joseph Rosa.

Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life takes Maciunas’s approach as a touchstone. The exhibition is about how Fluxus works, and it encourages visitor interpretation and response through its design and layout. The exhibition playfully supply answers to fourteen themes, framed as questions, such as “What Am I?,” “Happiness?,” “Health?,” “Freedom?,” and “Danger?” A map of the exhibition will allow visitors to go directly to those questions in which they are most interested.

The objects elaborate upon the themes in various ways. Regarding “Happiness?,” Bici Forbes’s (now Nye Ffarrabas) Stress Formula proposes that we need more jokes than drugs. A vitamin bottle whose label is inscribed with the suggested dosage, “Take one capsule every four hours, for laughs,” Stress Formula contains clear capsules with little rolled pieces of paper, presumably printed with humorous messages. Fluxus artists seem to agree that happiness is something we make for ourselves, not the result of something that happens to us.

Regarding “Change?,” Fluxus artists conclude that going with it can be a lot more fun than trying to fight it. As Ken Friedman suggests with his Flux Corsage (a plastic box filled with flower seeds), you might get started by getting yourself some flower seeds, planting and nurturing them, and giving the blossoms to someone you love. The plant will die eventually and so might your love, but neither of them will disappear; they will change into some other form of energy.

Fluxus introduced two new things into the world of art, both integral to the exhibition: event scores and art-as-games-in-a-box, many of which were gathered into “Fluxkits” along with other ephemera. The idea was to sell these kits at low prices—not through galleries but by mail and through artist-run stores. The events were even more accessible. Sometimes consisting of just one word—such as George Brecht’s Exit, included in the exhibition in the section titled “Death?”—Fluxus events could be performed by anyone, anyplace. The essential function of Fluxus artworks is to help us practice life; what we “learn” from Fluxus is how to perform as an ever-changing self in an ever-changing world—and that a sense of humor helps.

Programs organized in conjunction with the exhibition include a public lecture by exhibition guest curator Jacquelynn Baas on Sunday, March 11; an evening of Fluxus performances featuring Fluxus originator Ben Patterson (photo left) and UM History of Art Associate Professor David T. Doris on Wednesday, March 14; In Memoriam… Kit Carson (1963), a non-linear opera by ONCE founder Robert Ashley, presented by the UM Digital Music Ensemble on March 30; and the premiere of DME Director and School of Music, Theatre, and Dance Professor Steve Rush’s U.S. Grant, a short opera about Ulysses S. Grant, rich with electronics and Civil War songs, also on March 30.

In keeping with the idea of exploring Fluxus as both of its time and resonant for life today, UMMA educators are working with UM faculty and students as well as with Arts at Michigan and the UMMA Student Programming and Advisory Council to create a host of Fluxus happenings. These will culminate in a special Fluxus-themed event on March 30 that will offer UM students access to the Museum after hours and will include Fluxus performances, music, and more. Whether recreating a historic Fluxus “event score” such as Alison Knowles’s Street Piece: Make something in the street and give it away from 1962, or creating and enacting new event scores, education activities will explore both the legacy and spirit of Fluxus.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and was generously supported by Constance and Walter Burke, Dartmouth College Class of 1944, the Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund, and the Ray Winfield Smith 1918 Fund. UMMA’s installation is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Health System, the University of Michigan Office of the Provost, and the CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund.


UMMA, 525 South State Street, Ann Arbor, 48109; 734.764.0395

Galleries open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday 12 to 5 pm; closed Mondays. Building open seven days a week, 8 am to 10 pm. Closed July 4, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

Admission is free.

Artwork: Home page — “Gift Box for John Cage;” top — “Flux Year Box;” bottom — “Flux Corsage.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Nicole Rhoads