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It almost seems like Justin Timberlake drew influence for his now-infamous “Saturday Night Live” skit from a piece currently at the Busch-Reisinger museum.
Entitled “Finger Box,” the work is featured in the museum’s new exhibit, “Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus,” which opened Feb. 24. “Finger Box,” by the artist Ay-O, is simply a cardboard box instructing the viewer to insert his or her finger into a hole in order to discover what hidden mysteries are lurking inside.
“Multiple Strategies” highlights the divisions and unintentional collaborations between the works of artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) and those of the abstract “Fluxus” movement, which included Ay-O and was led by George Maciunas (1931-1978).
Unlike Timberlake’s ballad about phalluses in boxes, however, this exhibition operates on multiple levels, and succeeds in teasing out the deep connections that run through seemingly disparate artistic ideologies.
In the exhibition, both Beuys and the Fluxus artists made use of the “multiple,” a term referring to a type of art that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.”
While Duchamp used industrially produced objects (i.e. a urinal) to break down the boundaries between “art” and ordinary commodities, Fluxus artists took Duchamp’s idea of the “readymade” one step further, choosing objects that are not mass-produced, but that appear to be: the “multiple.” To accomplish this goal, all Fluxus objects are subtly altered from their industrial counterparts and are personally assembled.
It is intention, and not medium, that separates Beuys from the Fluxus camp. This separation is evident immediately upon entering the “Multiple Strategies” exhibit. There is a photograph of Joseph Beuys, beside which hangs a work of his simply saying in bold, German print: “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated.”
Although Beuys employed the same ordinary materials for his art as the Fluxus artists and Duchamp, he held fast to the idea that art does, in fact, exist for spiritual rejuvenation, and not just wild experimentation.
The strategy of pairing Beuys and Fluxus in the same exhibit works well, drawing attention to the artists’ personal feelings on the purpose of art itself.
A WORLD OF PURE IMAGINATION
The exhibit is set in two different rooms, each filled with items that look like they might be found in a Twilight Zone version of an average grocery or toy store.
Although at first glance the objects appear ordinary, nothing is what it seems. A clock measures circumference rather than time (Per Kirkeby’s “Flux Clock,” 1969); a musical score reads only, “Keep walking intently” (Takehisa Kosugi’s “Theatre Music,” 1964).
But this subversion of reality is not wholly unsettling. In fact, I laughed out loud for the first time in a museum while observing a piece by Fluxus artist Jock Reynolds entitled “Fluxsport: Great Race,” which is composed of only a plastic, red box holding four aligned snail shells.
A piece by Fluxus goddess Yoko Ono demonstrates one of the principles most valued by both Beuys and the Fluxus artists: audience participation. Her piece entitled “A Box of Smile” (1971) is simply a black box with a mirror inside (how can you help but smile?).
The separation of this exhibit into two rooms is excellent, helping to foster thought on the very same ideas as the art itself. In walking from room to room you must pass by three paintings, whose conventional form appears to stand in stark contrast to the multiples.
Yet mysteriously the jars of honey or misfit toys featured in the “Multiple Strategies” exhibit seem no less “artistic” than the more traditionally acceptable oil paintings. The exhibit shows both the artists’ multiple strategies in creating art and their multiple interpretations of art’s function in society. The pieces, while lighthearted and humorous, will leave you wondering, “Is this really art at all?”
Like the works themselves, “Multiple Strategies” may only be an art exhibit because the museum says it’s so. Yet, if it makes you smile and makes you think, Beuys and the other artists of the exhibit have done the job they set out to do, even if they had very different reasons for doing it.
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