at Grey Art Gallery
in the Villages area
This event has ended - (2011-09-09 - 2011-12-03)
at The Museum of Modern Art
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2011-09-21 - 2012-01-16)
A certain segment of New York’s art world is buzzing with what some say is a long overdue excitement about Fluxus, an art movement that often draws from the same lineage that nurtured Pop and Dada but has not been celebrated as vigorously. As examples consider the NYU Grey Art Gallery’s “Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life,” the Museum of Modern Art’s “Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–1978,” Rutgers University’s “at/around/beyond: Fluxus at Rutgers,” and Performa’s Fluxus Weekend, all of which speculate about how Fluxus should be framed within the art canon. Critics and art historians will of course continue to debate the ultimate success of this effort and the overall legacy of Fluxus artists. But at the very least, the shows provide an opportunity to assess how Fluxus confronted the nature of everyday objects and situations as well as cultural producers’ voice in the public sphere. The ongoing Wall Street sit-in is but one reflection of today’s generalized urge to loudly decry the country’s economic prospects as well as an intense hunger for some sense of what should be done. It is therefore fitting that these shows explore the future of Fluxus for a world so dramatically in flux.
As the Grey Gallery’s exhibition indicates, Fluxus embraces several problems perennially raised by artists, particularly a resistance to confining art to the white cube of the gallery and a celebration of a do-it-yourself sensibility. More profoundly, Fluxus engages basic questions of human existence, including the dangers of fixed identities. The aesthetic openness to the everyday and the readymade yields clear ties to Dada and Pop. Links to the latter of these are most evident in the glittering hot dog and chrome pear of Robert Watts and Claes Oldenburg’s box of miniature rubber food. Al Hansen’s collage is made up of bits of Hershey’s candy wrappers that spell out words like “Hey,” “Oh Yes,” and “Her”. Titled Homage to the Girl of Our Dreams, he thereby interweaves two carnal cravings: a yearning for confectionary sweetness and the desire for a woman. Given Fluxus artists’ attempts to push the viewer toward a reckoning with the surrounding world, it is no great surprise to see their playful use of the mirror, our primary instrument for perceiving the reflected self and contemplating our physical projection. Completely in line with her love of whimsy, Yoko Ono’s A Box of Smile consists of a box with a mirror inside: the smile, the object sought within the box, is of course provided by the viewer. The Multifaceted Mirror of Fluxus founder George Maciunas consists of a set of multiple square-shaped mirrors that perfectly reflect the viewer’s fragmented self.
At a recent NYU panel on Fluxus moderated by Karen Finley, lectures about Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys were complemented by the audience performing Yoko Ono’s own Fluxus “instruction” to scream against the wind, wall, and sky. At the panel I sat alongside Al Hansen’s daughter Bibbe, an artist who has been able to draw upon the work of her father, her time as the youngest of the Warhol Superstars, and her own career as a respected cultural producer. Like the panel’s speakers, including the artist Martha Wilson and curator Barbara London, Bibbe can contribute unique insights into the legacy of Fluxus and how it continues to have an impact on the art world and its response to current crises. As part of Performa’s Fluxus Weekend, Bibbe will deliver a lecture about her father’s work, including his legendary Happenings and the creation of his Ultimate Academy in Germany.
Sitting with Bibbe for an interview, she recalled being involved in some kind of artistic practice from the very beginning of her life. Curiously, she remembered being obsessed with making birdhouses, those mini-shelters that are staples of American suburbs but largely absent from the traffic-choked avenues of the city. From an early age then, Bibbe might have appeared destined for a life of nurturing the practice of artists and in turn being nourished by art. This early aesthetic interest in boxes designed to cultivate life was complemented by her use of a local cemetery as a space for childhood performances of Billie Holiday songs for her friends. As Bibbe told me, “I had to have an audience.” Later, as a teenager living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she would participate in community theater, the Judson Church experimental dance scene, and her father’s Happenings. When not performing, Bibbe’s childhood revelry included screenings at the loft of Fluxus fellow traveler Jonas Mekas and hanging out at her father’s Avenue D loft with Patti D’Arbanville.
Throughout an adolescence also marked by stints in juvenile detention halls, Bibbe found sustenance in New York’s art world in at least two ways. Both her sense of creative process and her stomach were fed by encounters with icons like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. At the time, she and her father struggled financially while the wealth and fame of friends like Warhol grew steadily. When I first interviewed Bibbe, she recalled meeting Warhol at a diner, where he was eating with a group that included Lichtenstein. At one point, Warhol looked over and plainly asked the teenage girl, “And what do you do?” Subsequently pulled into the mad swirl of the Silver Factory, she befriended Superstars like Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick. Bibbe’s time in juvenile detention inspired Warhol’s Prison film, in which she starred alongside Sedgwick. She also appeared in Warhol’s Restaurant and two screen tests.
Building on her Fluxus foundations and Pop past, Bibbe went on to do plenty. Becoming a respected artist in her own right, she raised three children who are also involved in the arts and collaborated with her husband Sean Carrillo, drag performer Vaginal Davis, and several artists who work in the Second Life virtual environment, what she describes as an “all-avatar performance group.” She participates in this Second Front collective as the avatar Bibbe Oh. In conversations with college students, including my own summer culture seminar at Columbia, Bibbe reflects on this rich past but then turns toward the future, speaking about the intense interest of today’s cultural producers in the social aspirations of Fluxus and the vivid gleam of Pop images. When asked to account for the continuing allure of the Warhol Factory, for example, she replied, “Community. I think that’s something people really long for. […] I feel it. My favorite work has always been collaborative.”
Writing about the New York art world, it is often exhausting to hear endless laments and gripes about the status quo. What makes a conversation with Bibbe Hansen so invigorating is her enthusiasm about the future of culture production and the joy of seeing early-career artists develop their own practice and process. She beamed, for example, when mentioning the Adam Green film made entirely with an iPhone. It was the same vivid smile that one sees on the face of the teenage girl seated next to Warhol and Edie in iconic photos taken by Bob Adelman. Being alive during today’s turbulent times, we can see why Bibbe thinks that a world of fragile identities needs a little Fluxus, or a little Pop following the burst of the economic bubble. Given my own curiosity about contemporary stardom, I was intrigued to hear Bibbe say that she receives phone calls and letters from fans of Fluxus, Edie, and Warhol, many of these devotees being from the middle of the country. What do they want? What do they hope to find? Bibbe didn’t hesitate in replying, “What they’re reaching for is art. Art is calling them. Art is, as my father said, pulling them by the elbow and dragging them into the arena, and saying, ‘You need to be here now.’”