The Walker's "Art Expanded, 1958-1978": When avant-garde becomes archeology

Ben Vautier 

Ben Vautier 

"USE THESE MATCHS [sic] TO DESTROY ALL ART" reads Ben Vautier's inscription on a matchbox. It goes on to urge viewers to destroy museums, art libraries, pop-art, and even this particular work. Vautier (or Ben, as he is also referred to), created the piece in the 1960s. It's still around, prominently displayed at the Walker Art Center along with several other of his works, in "Art Expanded, 1958-1978." Like Ben's Total Art Matchbox, the works in the exhibit -- which include pieces from Fluxus, as well as avant-garde artists such as Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, John Cage, George Brecht, and Yvonne Rainer -- challenge the status quo of the art world, at times giving the finger to the art establishment while pushing the limits of different disciplines to create new forms. 

There's a bit of irony looking back at Ben's work in particular, as his various screeds and declarations ("absolutely anything is art") are now housed in one of the country's most prominent museums. In Ben's Window, we see a 1992-93 reconstruction of an installation he originally produced in 1962 for the Festival of Misfits in London, where he lived in a shop window and offered himself up for sale for £250. (See here for an archival video.) According to Marina Puglies in "Ephemeral Monuments: History and Conservation of Installation Art," Ben included a statement with the piece in 1999: "So you see, this is not a theatrical set... it was real life. When I did the window, Fluxus was supposed to be life and fun. Today, it is archeology." 

Indeed, the problem with preserving this type of rebellious, provocative work is that while the message may very well stay relevant, its institutionalization drains it of its power. 

The Fluxus artists, drawing inspiration from the Dadaists earlier in the 20th century, are far from irrelevant, however. One only needs to take a walk through the exhibition to see how its merging of dance, music, film, sculpture, and other media would be influential in years to follow.

"It's a noisy show," says Eric Crosby, who curated the exhibit. That's because it has so many sound and film pieces to explore, including works from Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer, who besides challenging traditions within dance, were also incorporating visual art as part of their projects. There's also Nam Juke Peik's awesome TV Cello, an actual playable cello made up of working televisions (check out here for a demonstration), and Bruno Contenotte's gorgeous Metaphysica Quantica, a liquid light projection. 

<i>Ben's Window</i>

Ben's Window

Sure, some of these pieces (particularly the performative ones) don't quite give you the same experience as you might have had when they were actually happening, but there's still a lot to chew on. It makes one appreciate that we live in a world where some of these types of things can be preserved. 


"Art Expanded, 1958-1978"

Through March 18, 2015

The Walker Art Center