The following is an English translation of a short article of mine that appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken on Saturday 10 November. Currently, Politiken has a series on the subject of “nothing”. Readers can contribute with comments or photographs and have done so industriously. Of course my contribution takes Fluxus as its point of departure. Here it is:
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an exploration of the concept of Nothing without Fluxus. Not only has Fluxus had intimate dealings with Nothing during the 50 years of its existence, it even turns into Nothing itself as soon as one tries to tie it down. The experts still do not agree on whether Fluxus was a movement or a network. One thing we do know about it is that the name was invented by George Maciunas, who between 1962 and his death in 1978 organised many Fluxus concerts and published many Fluxus editions. However, history also shows that Fluxus can manage just fine without him. Many of the artists involved still create works in the no-man’s land between music, visual art, poetry et cetera in a true Fluxus spirit.
In connection with Fluxus, ”Nothing” should be understood in at least two ways, on the one hand as a Zen-inspired, philosophical, meditative flirt with Nothing and on the other as an art rebellion that would prefer to hurl Nothing into the face of the audience. The difference between the two can be hard to spot. French Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, for example, specialized in signing everything and therefore signed Nothing as well. Philosophical or anti-artistic? Even his own mother pointed out in connection with the signed Nothing that Nothing does not exists. Vautier embraced this maternal correction and wrote on a box containing Nothing: “This Box Contains Something” in a manner that can be understood as both the one and the other.
Maciunas’ plan to market Vautier’s box as a ”Flux Nothing Box” was never realised, but a Fluxus multiple that comes close in spirit is Vautier’s Flux Holes. The holes, too, take one of the artist’s own objects as their point of departure, in this case Trou portatif (”portable hole”, 1964), a box with a handle and holes in the sides. The Fluxus edition took the shape of small plastic boxes containing objects with holes in, cards with holes in or photographs of objects with holes in. The label showed bare ladies’ buttocks with the words “Fluxholes Gathered by Ben Vautier” right where the hole is or etchings of an anal examination. Vautier: “No comment. I just like holes, maybe because they have something to do with non-art”.
Fluxus’ first visit to Denmark in November 1962, with a festival consisting of six concerts, resulted in a scandal. Not because of the substance of the performances, but because of a perceived lack of same. Robert Naur, Politiken’s music critic at the time, wrote that Fluxus “wanted nothing, had nothing to contribute with and delivered nothing except an insistent, slow display of absolute impotence”. How? Danish author Uffe Harder highlighted in Dansk musiktidsskrift (”Danish Music Magazine”) a piece that had been performed during the fourth of the six concerts, Alison Knowles’s Proposition. What Knowles proposes is to “make a salad”, and that is exactly what she did, persistently and for a long time. Harder left the performance after twenty minutes, outraged by the implicit “demand to contemplate this nothing”, as he wrote. The problem was not that there was nothing there, but that he was forced to witness it. Vautier’s mother was right: Nothing does not exist. There is always a poor soul there to experience it.
In connection with the same Nothing, Harder also criticised Fluxus’ ”drive towards destruction, monotony and a point zero”. He did not understand Nothing to mean “no thing”, but the absence of several very specific things: of art, of development, of respect for the spectators’ busy lives. The Nothing that Harder experienced during the Fluxus festival consisted of the absence of several specific things he expected to experience, but in a provocative or thought-provoking manner felt robbed of. Like Vautier’s objects, Fluxus’ performances of Nothing were – and are – boxes that contain Something, namely the power to provoke and frustrate. And like Vautier we ought to say “No comment” if we want to hang on to Nothing, because as soon as we comment on it, Nothing changes into Certain Things and their absence.”