‘In this era, there is no wall to bang your head against’

‘In this era, there is no wall to bang your head against’
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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 12 16 AM IST

Patterson with A Short History of Twentieth Century Art (Photo by: Ramesh Pathania / Mint )
Patterson with A Short History of Twentieth Century Art (Photo by: Ramesh Pathania / Mint )
Updated: Fri, May 23 2008. 12 16 AM IST
Shopping trolleys with suit cases strapped around a piano, a framed artwork of cigarette-butts in the shape of a woman, test tubes that double up as chess pieces—a walk through the whitewashed ground floor labyrinth of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi will leave you astounded. On display are 300 pieces by 28 artists including Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and Takako Saito, all part of a travelling exhibition , Fluxus in Germany 1962-1994: A Long Story with Many Knots which is being held in association with the Goethe-Institut.
Fluxus, which means “to flow” in Latin, was a loosely-based term given to an international gathering of artists, designers and composers who, in the 1960’s, shunned “high” culture to create a multi-disciplinary, multi-media form of artistic expression. Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson spoke to Lounge about its origins and his association with this subversive period . Edited excerpts:
Fluxus was never classified as a movement. Why?
We never really thought of ourselves as a movement; it was a group of friends. We enjoyed working with each other because we had a similar approach and outlook to life, art…
But, isn’t that how movements begin—when people with a similar approach come together?
Patterson with A Short History of Twentieth Century Art (Photo by: Ramesh Pathania / Mint )
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, one strong person describes what art should be, writes a manifesto and everybody falls in line for a while. Surrealism and Andre Breton was a movement like that. But Fluxus was more an exchange of ideas.
Starting 1964, George Maciunas wrote at least five different manifestos about what Fluxus should be or is, but the problem is that nobody else ever signed it. So, they exist but, as I say, one should not take them terribly seriously. In retrospect, it is more documentation than direction.
What, according to you, was the catalyst for Fluxus?
The basic motivation of Fluxus was probably socially and politically oriented. But then to realize how one wanted to change the world, if you will, you had to find new ways to communicate, and so that was the reason for the experimentation.
By the mid-1950s—remembering that two strong areas for Fluxus were Germany and Japan—both countries had sort of recovered financially and had begun restructuring after devastating defeat. Many young people started to look at their culture, found causes of war and militancy in the culture itself and they wanted to change the basic approach to culture.
Is there a need for a similar attitude today?
The system is such these days that it absorbs everything. Even in art, everything or anything is acceptable, so that’s why nothing exciting is happening. In this era, there is no wall to bang your head against. When Fluxus artists got together in the 1960s, there were thick walls.
How did you become involved with Fluxus?
My original training is as a musician and composer. I had been working a little bit with “primitive” electronic music in the late 1950s. I met John Cage quite by chance in 1960 in New York and saw a performance of some works by artists who were doing experimental work. It was the pre-Fluxus era. It was an overnight conversion for me. I discovered I could do a lot of different things and so, I began working in this direction.
In 1962, George (Maciunas) came to Europe and, among other activities, created a festival to publicize a magazine he was working on, called Fluxus . He learnt about my work from various artists in Germany and asked me if I would like to participate in the festival, which I did. He published some of my works in the magazine. That’s how, in short, I came to Fluxus.
But you did not stay with Fluxus throughout?
To do an alternative kind of art, unless you have money from another source, is more or less impossible to continue. I made work and participated infrequently with the group after 1968, mostly because there was family to be fed and children to be sent to school. As a Fluxus artist, it wasn’t possible to do that financially. Let’s say, I did the day job (worked in art-related fields) and when there was time, I made Fluxus works.
The exhibition is on display till 4 June at National Gallery of Modern Art, Jaipur House, New Delhi
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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 12 16 AM IST