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by Martin Patrick

Iconoclastic and Irreverent (Buddhist-inflected) Simplicity in Fluxus Performance and Artworks


I think I brought a lot of domesticity into performance that wasn’t there at all.

—Alison Knowles[1]


All teachings must be abandoned, not to mention non-teachings.

—Diamond Sutra[2]


Breaking Through

Owing to a wildly variegated community of artists and scholars with an allegiance to Fluxus, almost everyone has their own vision of this non-movement. To some it is hyper-organizational, to others driven by its objects, others orient it around key artists. There exists no singular, determinate, and accurate theorization of Fluxus, simply many competing narratives. This opens a trap door for the scholar, as the meanings of the words inscribed end up as indeterminate as the works themselves. The emphasis then shifts toward the reader-viewer/spectator-participant: it’s (y)our problem now.

The Fluxus considered here involves a dispersed network of diverse artists with a history of anarchic performances and absurdist artworks. What I intend to consider in the following paper is how these aspects relate to strands of Buddhist philosophy running through certain artists’ works and projects (specifically those of Alison Knowles, Robert Filliou, Geoff Hendricks, and Nam June Paik). These strands are meanwhile interwoven with other related facets and themes: domesticity, immateriality, repetition, mindfulness, contingency, simplicity, and play.

Throughout the history of Fluxus, we see metaphorical and associative links made by the artists themselves with Zen practice. As Alison Knowles commented in 2006: “I was thinking of the Zen encounter of the koan and the breakthrough a person makes through their own understanding of it. It is a metaphor of the piano destruction event, of breaking through into a newer kind of music though it involved a destructive act.”[3]In much Fluxus performance, the object is indeed present but also often scorned and shunned, abused and “hurt,” or becomes a ritualistic performative device, a prop, and not entirely an artwork in itself. Buckets of water pouring. Toys, trinkets, and foodstuffs. Grotesque and ridiculous masks, disguises, and costumes. Knowles’ mending of furniture and her bean papers as instruments. Early Fluxus performances in 1960s Germany; these involving a simultaneous destruction of expectations and the carnivalesque mutilation of instruments. In later events, gender norms fluidly shift in a Flux Divorce and a Flux Wedding, cultural norms in a Flux Mass. Celebratory gatherings, reunions, and dinners replace theatrical and street events. Entities and assumptions, involving both things and people become upended and uprooted.

Fluxus consistently involved the directness of a seemingly simple performance opening on to a breadth of existential and aesthetic questions: What is sound? What is an action? What are the relations between ostensibly destructive and potentially liberatory forces? A “breaking through”—although this type of breaking through often involved in the initial Fluxus actions a continuing reiteration of performative actions, establishing new variants of and parameters for art caught in the midst of and drawing upon life.

Fluxus either brought the everyday into art, or art into the everyday. But to concentrate on everyday phenomena, seen through an artful lens initiated a powerful and profound undoing of art. Dripping, shaving, throwing, hammering, cutting, yelling. Actions that implicate us in precarious, incidental moments, summoning the present. We might anticipate, experience, then relax once again. Cycles of affect that remind us of daily actions and interruptions: fighting, cleaning, organizing, eating, coupling, excreting, sleeping, waking, and ultimately dreaming through an art of what ifs. But the revolutionary transformations that George Maciunas for one held so dear never eventuated. But in place of that, smaller, more modest, and ultimately highly significant changes and creative developments, calling upon ever-shifting considerations of present existence; more performative entanglements than static representations.

I find widespread among Fluxus artists’ statements the expression of an avowal/disavowal; acceptance/non-acceptance, and outright contrarianism regarding the influence of major themes that one might consider of central importance to the Fluxus ethos. This would be rather expected given this international constellation of energetic individuals and a notable hybridization of artistic and philosophical phenomena, including the 20th-century avant-garde, socialist, and communitarian ideologies, and Eastern spirituality.

Within this dispersed grouping of individuals there exist/ed manifold, intricate tensions: interpersonal conflicts, aesthetic differences, political disputes; disagreements over both the course of specific Fluxus activities and endeavors, and notions of its place within art (and life) in broader terms. Fluxus works often exemplify a radical skepticism and some form of antagonism, veiled or not, and similarly in the views of the artists themselves there are many attitudes regarding the role of the spiritual as central to their practices. In artist Emmett Williams’s idiosyncratic 1992 memoir My Life in Flux and Vice Versa he argues that Zen has both everything and nothing to do with Fluxus:

Ultimately, there is only one way out of the Fluxus-Zen dilemma: the art of zenzen. Zenzen allows you to have it both ways. It teaches us that Fluxus is totally involved with Zen, Fluxus is entirely involved with Zen, Fluxus is quite involved with Zen, Fluxus is completely involved with Zen, and, even more important, Fluxus is not at all involved with Zen.[4]

As the Japanese word zenzen is often translated as “not at all,” Williams gets to indulge himself in a bit of wordplay, conflating this adverb with Zen itself, and the embedded contradiction he advocates for resembles a Zen koan itself.


Nam June Paik’s Zen Ambivalence

Nam June Paik, Buddha game, 1991, television set, pages from a printed book, two gold leaf wooden Buddhas, neon, antenna,  five television monitors, 147.3 x 92.7 x 59.7 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 2002 © Nam June Paik Estate

Nam June Paik, Buddha game, 1991, television set, pages from a printed book, two gold leaf wooden Buddhas, neon, antenna, five television monitors, 147.3 x 92.7 x 59.7 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 2002 © Nam June Paik Estate

Using the example of musician LaMonte Young’s instructional score Draw a straight line and follow it, probably most often recorded via photos of artist Nam June Paik’s enactment entitled Zen for Head in which the artist painted an ink line with his body, critic Lori Waxman perceptively notes that: “These scores are obtuse not in the sense of being difficult to understand, but rather being so dumbly basic as to open themselves up to constant reinterpretation. [Ken] Friedman indicated this with the term ‘implicativeness,’ by which he meant that each Fluxwork implies many others, almost inexhaustibly so.”[5]The strongest difference from an emphasis upon small-scale domesticity might be the globally stretching technological transmissions of Nam June Paik’s video art of the 1970s and ‘80s. But even given that, Paik repeatedly emphasized the domestic association with the television, what media theorist Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic hearth.” Paik’s early sculptures, rather than using taped video, manipulated the actual electronic signal of the television image itself, distorting it by way of magnets.

His later sculptural installations and projections then amassed way more images at once than could be comfortably or coherently processed and taken in by the viewer. This intentional barrage of images was prescient in terms of the disembodied overload of the social media era, simultaneously too much and not enough. Paik’s Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) was an altogether ambitious effort for video art, which followed up on the implications of previous works, such as his psychedelic montage of appropriated and newly conjured imagery entitled Global Groove (1973).

Paik transmitted a counterargument to George Orwell’s dystopian literary vision live by satellite to 25 million viewers on January 1, 1984. A kind of variety show featuring “everything from rock and roll to comedy to avant-garde music and dance” according to host George Plimpton, it reputedly suffered from many technical glitches, making it function less than smoothly, and the residual footage of Good Morning Mr. Orwell offers a rather awkward time capsule compendium. Nonetheless, such an aspirational and idiosyncratic effort by the artist who coined the term “information superhighway,”curiously resonant with our current moment, as we are Zooming our spectral visages around the globe.

Paik understood the immediacy of entangled luminous signals and materials at play with one another. In a 1990s Flux Festival held at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, the artist passed a ball back and forth from stage to audience, with a small camera attached to it, the resulting, seemingly chaotic, and topsy-turvy imagery projected alongside previous footage of artistic colleagues including Cage and Beuys. Thus, real time and recorded time via video are both simultaneously on offer, along with a gamesmanship that returns such efforts back to earth, or at least the stage-audience dynamic, again creating a playful flow back and forth. Artist in control, temporarily releasing control, gaining control once again. Improvised music and sonic experimentation providing another real-time context.

At the same Fluxus festival, the Anthology of Fluxus Films was shown. I was very happy to be able to see all these films together, projected, and in this fabled venue, especially in an era before YouTube streaming and widespread, desktop access to avant-garde and experimental films. The first film in the montage, which includes works by Yoko Ono, Joe Jones, George Brecht, and others, was Paik’s Zen For Film. This work consists of a blank screen, and within a few minutes of its starting, several spectators had left the cinema. Actually, at the previous live performance of Paik’s, apart from what appeared to be a rather formal, well-dressed Korean contingent, there were also very few attendees. This gave a sense of Fluxus being out of time: becoming part of history, yet not embraced emphatically as such. Again, interstitial, intermedial, in flux.

Q: I suppose your explorations of new
media are like swimming in an endless ocean.

A: A tabula rasa, you know a white paper.
Video is a white paper, a tabula rasa.

—Nam June Paik interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg[6]


Nam June Paik, Buddha game, 1991 [DETAIL].

Nam June Paik, Buddha game, 1991 [DETAIL].

The young Nam June Paik was antagonistic towards Buddhism and Confucianism, the cultures that surrounded him, and as an emerging musician and artist looked toward Western ideas, technologies, and “progress.” As Edith Decker Phillips notes: “It was only beginning in 1958, through John Cage, that he became interested in Zen Buddhism.”[7] Interestingly, Hannah Higgins notes that Cage’s own adoption of Zen thought was influenced by his “experience-based, progressive education that had shaped him. The best-known proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, was much admired by Suzuki, widely read at the time, and active on the board of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Cage taught in the summers of 1948 and 1952.”[8] While in Japan in 1964, Paik met Reginald Horace Blyth, a renowned scholar of Buddhism, whom he respected greatly. It would also seem reasonable to expect that Paik would critique both spirituality and commercialism, as he was an avid student of Marx’s writings.

Paik noted in a 1991 interview with David Ross that:

Pop, like Fluxus, mocked the ideas that art could be transcendent and that the artist had anything at all to do with providing people with a transcendent path. If there was any spirituality in it at all, then Pop Art and Fluxus were sort of like Mahayana Buddhism, where the only way that you can become enlightened is if you’re enlightened yourself. No individual has the responsibility or capability to enlighten another, just to recognize his or her enlightenment.[9]

Paik as a hyper-curious and highly energetic polymath never seemed to locate an interdisciplinary connection that wasn’t worth pursuing. Allan Kaprow wrote of his practice in 1968 that, “Nam June Paik is embracing as a whole, artist, spectator, medium, creativity, education, and social welfare. The West, until lately, has traditionally separated these, and it may be some time before the majority of us will accept the change he is helping to bring about, and act on it.” Further he noted that, “His knowledge of, and respect for, the past was a condition for his forceful liberation from its grasp.”[10]


Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1976, television monitor, video camera, painted wooden Buddha, tripod, plinth, installation dimensions variable.  Art Gallery of New South Wales Gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection 2011. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.  © Nam June Paik Estate

Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1976, television monitor, video camera, painted wooden Buddha, tripod, plinth, installation dimensions variable. Art Gallery of New South Wales Gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection 2011. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. © Nam June Paik Estate

Sculptures like his renowned TV Buddha (1976) exemplify manifold aspects of Paik’s artistic sensibility all at once. That, along with its concise and novel description of the old and new worlds in entangled tension, make it a resonant and powerful work still today. Paik created various versions of this piece, but the major consistency is the video camera “gazing” at the Buddha statue which is in turn “gazing” back at it. This seemingly eternal cycle being generated by a temporal disconnect, a glitch between past and present, between spiritual energy and electronic signal, the enduringly iconic in dialogue with ephemeral imaging.

But an irreverent humor runs through the piece, a humor that today recalls the young Japanese tourist in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train who flips through her scrapbook of images that resemble Elvis Presley, the Buddha’s visage being chief among them. TV Buddha, Elvis Buddha, internet Buddha, Western capitalist hybridized Buddhism. Paik seemed to (as he often did) see into the future like the best sci-fi practitioners or speculative artists. What next and what if?

But Paik’s interest in the energetic displacement and cultural shifting in the contemporary era from spiritual belief systems to electronic transmission networks was among the most important emphases of his work. Although today so much spiritual material travels via the same networks. And one might say that energy obeys no restrictions nor boundaries.

Filliou: Eins. Un. One.

Some Fluxus protagonists including the Frenchman Robert Filliou advocated for and participated in mail art transmissions directed outwardly, what the artist termed the “eternal network.” This was a characteristic strategy of a postwar universalism, utopianism, and optimism even in the face of the Cold War, and working particularly effectively within those confines as well, as Central European artists corresponded often with artists abroad, and Fluxus gained a strong presence in that area of the globe. And these networks following on from the notion of implicativeness, became markedly iterative, referential, and intertextual and pointed towards an infinite capacity for continuation.

Robert Filliou, EINS. UN. ONE…, 1984. Coll. MAMCO. Photo: Ilmari Kalkkinen. © MAMCO, Genève

Robert Filliou, EINS. UN. ONE…, 1984. Coll. MAMCO. Photo: Ilmari Kalkkinen. © MAMCO, Genève

In his 1984 work Eins. Un. One., a plethora of dice (approximately 16,000 in number) varying in shape, size, and color are unified by a sprawling grouping across the floor and their numerical traits: each of their six sides displaying but one point. In this, one of his last major works, we find the veritable unification of scattered chaos into a large, installational statement. A related photograph depicts Filliou and his family throwing the dice into the air at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover that year. The photo has a distinctive lightness, characteristic for Filliou, as it depicts a playful performance of sorts.

As scholar Steven Harris has noted of Filliou’s artwork: “Value is equalled out, especially where games of chance are concerned, and the work also surely embodies the democratic aspirations of his notion of permanent creation, in which individuals are together singly, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense, on equal terms, rather than imagined as an undifferentiated mass. He once described the ideal organization of society as enabling ‘a happy solitude for every human being’, rather than an unhappy or alienated one.”[11] In Filliou’s own estimation: “A random stream of 5000 or more cubes on a flat surface, in the hope that this will—at least—give rise to a subtle impression of the interpenetration and identity of the entire cosmos.” Or, further: “Let one cube be given to 5000 individuals who will then carry the exhibit in their pockets as a tangible souvenir of the unity (of the whole).”[12]

In 1964, earlier in his artistic journey, the artist proposed “Le Filliou Idéal” an “action poem” its score consisting of: “not deciding/not choosing/not wanting/not owning/aware of self/wide awake/ SITTING QUIETLY, DOING NOTHING.”[13] This notion echoed closely a Zenrin poem which states: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”[14] Alan Watts, the British-born popularizer of Zen Buddhism in the West, cited this poem in his 1957 book, The Way of Zen, which became widespread reading in the same era as the development of Fluxus. In Filliou’s own life, he moved from being very influenced by Zen ideas, in part due to his living in Korea and Japan during the 1950s, toward Tibetan Buddhism in his last years, prior to his death by cancer, while pursuing a retreat in a monastery in the south of France.

Robert Filliou, Danse-poème aléatoire collectif (à performer deux par deux, chacun(e) tournant une roue)[Collective Dance Poem by Chance  (To Be Performed by Two Players, Each Turning One Wheel)], Reconstruction of a performance from 1962, two metal wheels and charcoal on wall, diameter of each wheel: 64 cm. Courtesy of Estate of Robert Filliou & Peter Freeman, Inc. Photo: Nicholas Knight Studio. © Estate Robert Filliou

Robert Filliou, Danse-poème aléatoire collectif (à performer deux par deux, chacun(e) tournant une roue)[Collective Dance Poem by Chance (To Be Performed by Two Players, Each Turning One Wheel)], Reconstruction of a performance from 1962, two metal wheels and charcoal on wall, diameter of each wheel: 64 cm. Courtesy of Estate of Robert Filliou & Peter Freeman, Inc. Photo: Nicholas Knight Studio. © Estate Robert Filliou

In Filliou’s work, Danse Poème Aléatoire (Aleatory Dance Poem) first created in 1962, two bicycle wheels are attached to the wall, with three pointers on each, while around the perimeter of the wheels basic and simple phrases have been written on the wall (or board), in Filliou’s characteristically childlike handwriting. Thus, many permutations of chance poetry can be generated from this simple device. Here, Filliou is no doubt referencing both a simple mode of transportation, the bicycle, along with Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Bicycle Wheel readymade. But rather than calling attention towards the readymade, he uses the wheels as a prompt for imaginative discovery, and of parallel communication, with two participants able to interact with the work simultaneously. And the chance operations in play also relate to the approaches of other Fluxus artists, such as his friend George Brecht’s event scores presented as loose cards. Filliou would similarly use cards and chance configurations throughout his career, as in the blindfolded card game held at Leeds in the 1970s, or his Telepathic Music #5, which presented playing cards on a spiral of thirty-three music stands, along with written prompts for the participants to read, fostering an ephemeral, energetic—perhaps telepathic?—connection.

The everyday for Filliou speaks towards a transitory reality in constant flux but bespeaking a joyful potential. As Filliou noted in his book, Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts, “This is what I suspect the art of the future will be: always on the move, never arriving, ‘l’art d’être perdu sans se perdre,’ the art of losing oneself without getting lost.”[15] This sentiment in turn reflects Filliou’s acknowledgement of the Buddhist notion that loss of self is not a negative thing, but a positive one. And that in that very process, an enactment of one’s truthful existence occurs.

A friend of mine one day met in Paris a Tibetan lama, whom she had known a few months before in India. She asked him: “What do you think of the West now? Do you find that we are different from you?” The Tibetan lama answered her: “We Tibetans, you see, are used to watching life as if it were television; whereas you Westerners, you watch television as if it were life!” [16]

A Deceptive Simplicity

The importance of a real-time experience and how the viewer/spectator can co-create an event along with the artist’s materials and objects, instruction is central to a performative reading of Fluxus. As Lori Waxman notes: “Given how virtual media has all but taken over as the provider of intelligence about the world today, Fluxus seems positively prophetic in its promotion of a bodily means of learning about the world.”[17]But is part of this framing of experience a kind of deceptive simplicity? That is, a gesture refined down to about as direct and clear an imperative as possible? Drip music from a stream of water, a smashed instrument, preparing a salad. Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nhat Hanh has noted: “Abstract ideas can be beautiful, but if they have nothing to do with our life, of what use are they? So please ask, ‘Do the words have anything to do with eating a meal, drinking tea, cutting wood, or carrying water?’”[18]In a 2009 interview with artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, Yoko Ono stated: “Some artists will try over time to communicate in more and more complex forms, you see. But in my case, I started very complex and then wanted to communicate in a simpler way, so that we would really reach each other.”[19] On a similar note, contemporary French philosopher André Comte-Sponville stated: “Intelligence is the art of making complex things simpler, not the opposite.”[20]

But a direct connection to something can also seem an unlikely one. Why were so many Fluxus performances and artworks involved with everyday commercial objects? Owing to their accessibility, but this very nod toward accessibility and simplicity can also point out the arbitrary qualities of our immediate surroundings such that we might better distance ourselves from them. That is, to more closely acknowledge our shifting identities within a morass of capitalist, physical objects that likely seem far more important than they actually are.

And the industrial 20th-century capitalist system offered overt militarism, violence, and unforeseen destruction, as Fluxus artist Ben Patterson noted: “Perhaps the one thing everyone forgets or represses is that I, and my generation of Fluxus artists, were all more or less twelve to fourteen years old when the first atomic bomb exploded and left its mark on civilisation. Perhaps only Zen or existentialism could begin to deal with such finality [...].”[21]

Scholar and curator Jacquelynn Baas writes: “The pedagogical function of Fluxus artworks is to help us practice life; what we learn from Fluxus is how to function as an ever-changing self that is part of an ever-changing world.”[22] Baas has also noted that both Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp acknowledged the influence of Daoist thought on Dada. And further that: “For many of the Fluxus artists, Daoism would have come packaged with Zen Buddhism (Buddhism + Daoism = Zen). For Maciunas who had been ‘like a son’ to historian of ancient Chinese culture Alfred Salmony, Daoist philosophy was a fundamental part of his intellectual arsenal.”[23]

Scholar Natasha Lushetich has argued: “The simple truth is that Fluxus defies discursivity because it questions the very logic in which discursivity is embedded. It questions the propositional, deeply dualistic logic which separates the method of analysis from that which is being analysed.”[24] And non-duality is a core principle of Buddhist thought.

In Alison Knowles’ work, The Identical Lunch (1967), her score reads:

A tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a large glass of buttermilk or a cup of soup was and is eaten many days of each week at the same place and at about the same time.[25]

While the work is on one level about as significant as one can imagine, addressing daily sustenance and the prosaic rituals that construct our life, it remains far from the modus operandi of “high art” spectacle. Initiated from a score, inspired by Knowles’ own daily life, The Identical Lunch was manifested through multiple performative iterations, as well as photo documentation onto silkscreens, and an artists’ book edited by fellow Fluxus artist Philip Corner, The Journal of the Identical Lunch (1971), which featured responses by participants to the performance, such as: “What’s there to write about? It’s just a lousy tunafish sandwich.” —Gertrude Brandwein (G’s Aunt Gertie from Parkchester).[26]

In an interview with scholar Harry J. Weil, Knowles noted the comparative rapidity and spontaneity of writing up her scores:

AK: We were in Europe, and through our friendship with Daniel Spoerri and Emmett Williams, we had all these dates set up to perform across France and Germany. Dick and I were picking up fellow travelers to perform with us, but we didn't have any work. So I sat down one night and wrote the event scores.

HW: All in one night?

AK: Well not exactly in one night, but they came along pretty quickly because they had to be performed in a short period of time while we were traveling Europe. That is how Make a Salad and Identical Lunch came about. I wrote them up, and we would meet a class and perform the scores.[27]

Which in turn recalls the notion often espoused by Buddhist Beat poet Allen Ginsberg: “First thought, best thought,” also attributed to Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Writer Jeremy Hayward notes that: “‘First thought’ is ‘best thought’ because it has not yet got covered over by all our opinions and interpretations, our hopes and fears, our likes and dislikes. It is direct perception of the world as it is.”[28]

“Paint sky on everything, 1965”

—typed score by Geoffrey Hendricks

In artist Geoffrey Hendricks’ works, he devoted himself to depictions, evocations, and manifestations of the sky, earning the alias “cloudsmith,” recalling another Zenrin poem: “The blue mountains are of themselves blue mountains; the white clouds are of themselves white clouds.” In Hendricks’ Sky Crated (1965), an ordinary wooden pallet as one finds in any commercial delivery setting encases a painting, all treated as the sky. That which is grounded in gritty concrete materialism operating in tandem with the ephemeral, the floating, and contingent clouds passing by. This seeming split or dualism in this instance effectively becomes one. In the late 1970s, Hendricks sold paper bags painted sky blue as well, another example of the Fluxus multiple, an artful mysticism insightfully displaced onto the most basic of found materials.

Unlike Robert Filliou, discussed earlier, of whom artist friends ridiculed his lack of material skills, Hendricks was a highly proficient craftsperson and painter, his watercolor images of the sky for example having a beauty not dissimilar from the studies of the 19th-century painter John Constable. And consider the following exchange between Hendricks and performance artist Annie Sprinkle:

Annie: Of course since we’ve become ecosexual, I appreciate your sky paintings as a kind of eco-erotic art. When we met and I saw your paintings they were sky paintings, but now they’re like paintings of my lover, you know?

Geoff: Sure, sure because you’re both [here referring to Sprinkle’s partner Beth Stephens] married to her.

Annie: Yeah and I so appreciate them, and I see your paintings in the sky now. Which is fun, I think “hmm, there’s one of Geoff’s paintings.”[29]


American performance artist and professor Geoffrey Hendricks, dressed in a tuxedo, sits atop a pile of dirt in a silent performance that also involved  a white mouse (on his right leg) at the Eighth Avant Garde Festival at the 69th Regiment Armory (Lexington Avenue at 25th Street), New York,  New York, November 19, 1971. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

American performance artist and professor Geoffrey Hendricks, dressed in a tuxedo, sits atop a pile of dirt in a silent performance that also involved a white mouse (on his right leg) at the Eighth Avant Garde Festival at the 69th Regiment Armory (Lexington Avenue at 25th Street), New York, New York, November 19, 1971. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

In his 1971 Ring Piece, a work performed at Charlotte Moorman’s Avant-Garde Festival at the New York Armory, Hendricks sat on a mound of dirt, meditating silently for twelve hours, from noon to midnight. Hendricks and his former partner Bici Forbes Hendricks (now Nye Ffarrabas) had recently separated after ten years of marriage, commemorated in their Flux Divorce performance of earlier that year. Hendricks had proposed the work to Moorman as “an act of mourning for the end of one important chapter of my life.”

Within the dirt lay selected relics of their marriage, including two halves of a mattress, the remains of two torn overcoats, and a torn marriage certificate. The title of the piece came from Hendricks’ wedding ring that was initially intended to be buried along with ten bells in a box, with the other artefacts. As Hendricks described the work:

The work was situated in the exact center of the Armory. At this central spot I built a mound of black earth, about six feet high and eight feet in diameter, surrounded by eight lengths of red barrier cord supported by chrome-plated poles. I sat in tails on top of the mound of dirt, writing in a small, dark red, sketch book/journal, holding a small bell on a string around my ring finger. As the day progressed I was joined on the dirt pile by almost all of the twenty four mice from Dick Higgins’ piece Mice All Over the Place.

Moorman’s festivals have only recently become more historically examined, acting to a degree as parallel festivals to Fluxus, as they often incorporated many of the same artists and types of actions, but George Maciunas’s harshly negative comments towards Moorman ensured that they remained separate endeavors. Maciunas said that he would “boycott anyone” who exhibited work that he assisted with making in the Avant Garde festival. A position of self-described “total non-cooperation.” Given that Maciunas helped source a box for Hendricks’ ring, the artist omitted it from the buried articles.

A small book published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press enacted the realization of this performance work as a text. Renowned Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah’s image of Hendricks atop the mound graces its front cover. The volume is small, easily able to fit into a pocket, similar to a poetry chapbook. As Higgins notes in a short piece on the back:

The book, RING PIECE, is, apart from the introduction, a small red journal [...] such as Hendricks has been keeping since the early 1960’s. Little red books. This once was written during the 1971 performance from which it gets its name. Watch out. Hendricks is alive and to be considered dangerous.[30]

Much of the book records Hendricks’ attempts to stay free of peoples’ reactions. He reminds himself to breathe, not to pose, not to respond. “John & Yoko come by—John makes a funny face and sticks out his tongue, trying to get my attention.” Writing in this journal in response to all the calls from friends and acquaintances, Hendricks notes: “It’s not that they have anything important to say [...] but they want me to recognize them, to affirm their existence.”

“I am at the center but I am paying too much attention to what is off center. Here I am wanting to focus inward and a mouse is nibbling at my crotch—” Another spectator says: “You’re the only island of peace in the whole show!” For Hendricks: “Work is always affected by the environment. The people around me are part of the piece.”

But the artist also notes: “Earlier—watching ants—the mound suddenly had its own life. There were creatures right there with me and they were doing their work purposefully, moving dirt and stuff, as if the Festival weren’t there. The ants are a model for myself.”

Indeed, the situation within a situation that Hendricks notices presents the idea of moving towards a lack of self-consciousness, a gesturing toward notions of non-self. Although the ego and the artist’s awareness of his familial changes and interpersonal situation shifting became the platform for the work, the outcomes transformed into other notional and experiential ideas. Again, according to the artist: “Evolving ecology. New life image. Growing out of/after tomb sculpture. Image putting to rest old relationship. New growth out of it. Work/piece itself part of this new growth.”

Hendricks was raised as a Quaker, a faith which focuses itself around mindful silence, meditative gathering, and supporting peace and justice. However, as Hendricks has remarked:

My mother went to Earlham, a Quaker college in Indiana. My father grew up Norwegian Methodist, (or something like that), but they both helped found the Quaker meeting in Chicago and then I’ve been involved in the Quaker meeting up in Putney, Vermont. But I feel myself as much a Buddhist and also nothing, just one who communes with nature and the outdoors. Nye/Bici my ex-partner and I were at Tassajara Zen Center in ’68. That was a special and important moment where we sat in a regular way. There were stretches of silence and being involved in that whole discipline but my life is too free flowing to get into it in a regular way. You know it’s all part of my outlook on the world and life and who I am and that impacts the work too.[31]

Throughout Fluxus, you have skeptical believers, mindful irreverence, humor taken seriously. This concatenation of paradoxes that exists at the heart of Fluxus keeps it contingent and contentious even as historical accounts attempt to resolve some of this irresolvable messiness.

And, of course, the Fluxus events, works, ideas, and writings can intriguingly be considered in light of all that has happened in the contemporary era, roughly since the late 1950s. Prescient in terms of its ethic of iterative questioning and transformation rather than depending on one static creative ideology, Fluxus has continued to inspire younger generations just as it has defied expectations across many decades. The art market and museum collections, even as they have come to valorize the artworks in terms of monetary status and institutional prestige, are subsequently alienated and distanced from Fluxus’s general intentions, which included a more democratic circulation of everyday objects. It’s difficult for connoisseur-like procedures of the art market to consider works (most often multiples and editions) which were comprised of dime-store trinkets, novelty commodities, and printed ephemera as the “highest of art,” being too rough, small, indirect, challenging. They appear to not offer enough material to grant an aura of significance.

Within the dynamic and ever-shifting actions of Fluxus artists, performances created objects, and objects served to create performances. This knotting up of the two offered a shattering of artistic assumptions but a wide range of methods that emphasized our prosaic journey toward incremental awakening. Realizations of our embodied circumstances within always fleeting, elusive, and confounding settings of daily existence.

Martin Patrick, an art critic, historian, and writer, is an Associate Professor of Art at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. A regular contributor to and reviewer for many international publications, his book Across the Art/Life Divide: Performance, Subjectivity, and Social Practice in Contemporary Art was published in 2018 by Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press. He contributed the chapter “Exploring Posthuman Masquerade and Becoming” to Animism in Art and Performance (C. Braddock, ed., Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017). He has presented his research as a keynote speaker, chair, and panelist at public galleries and museums, conferences, and symposia. He is a member of the advisory boards for several arts organizations and publications. He is currently compiling an anthology of his selected art criticism.


[1] Video available at http://methodsofart.net/artist/alison-knowles/?ask=production&mode=a, accessed January 21, 2021.

[2] Cited in Thich Nhat Hanh, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992), 57.

[3] Ellen Pearlman, Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde 1942-1962 (Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2012), 71.

[4] Emmett Williams, My Life in Flux and Vice Versa (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 163.

[5] Lori Waxman, Keep Walking Intently: The Ambulatory Art of the Surrealists, the Situationist International, and Fluxus (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 206.

[6] Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 288.

[7] J. G. Hanhardt, G. Zinman, and E. Decker-Phillips, eds., We Are in Open Circuits: Writings by Nam June Paik (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019), 386.

[8] Hannah Higgins, “Food: The Raw and the Fluxed,” in Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, ed. Jacquelynn Baas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 15.

[9] T. Stooss and T. Kellein, eds., Nam June Paik: Video Time – Video Space (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 62.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] Dr. Steven Harris, “The Theory and Practice of Filliou and Giacometti,” May 22, 2013, Henry Moore Institute Online Papers and Proceedings, 8, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.henry-moore.org/research/online-papers/2013/05/22/the-theory-and-practice-of-filliou-and-giacometti.

[12] “EINS. UN. ONE...Robert Filliou, MAMCO and the ‘Nuit des Bains,’” accessed January 21, 2021,  https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-nz/experiences/cities-culture/art-culture/art/eins-un-one/.

[13] Robert Filliou, A Filliou Sampler (New York: A Great Bear Pamphlet/Something Else Press, 1967), 13.

[14] Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage, 1989), 134.

[15] Robert Filliou, Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (Cologne: Koenig, 1970), 24.

[16] Robert Filliou in Telepathic Music No. 2, video, 1979-80.

[17] Waxman, Keep Walking Intently, 204.

[18] Nhat Hanh, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, 2.

[19] “In Conversation: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Yoko Ono,” Artforum (Summer 2009), accessed January 21, 2021,   https://www.artforum.com/print/200906/in-conversation-rirkrit-tiravanija-and-yoko-ono-22964.

[20] André Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues (New York: Holt, 2002), 152.

[21] David T. Doris, “Zen Vaudeville: A Medi(t)ation in the Margins of Fluxus,” in The Fluxus Reader, ed. Ken Friedman (New York: Academy Editions, 1998), 114.

[22] Baas, Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, 2.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24] Natasha Lushetich, Fluxus: The Practice of Non-Duality (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2014), 3.

[25] Alison Knowles, Journal of the Identical Lunch (San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press, 1971), 1.

[26] Knowles, Journal, title page epigraph, np.

[27] Harry J. Weil, “Sandwiches, Silkscreens, Swatches, and Scores: A Conversation with Alison Knowles,” Afterimage (Mar/Apr 2011): 18.

[28] Dr. Jeremy Hayward, “First Thought,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Spring 1995), accessed January 21, 2021, https://tricycle.org/magazine/first-thought/.

[29] Geoff Hendricks 1/7/11 interview with Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, accessed January 21, 2021, http://sexecology.org/research-writing/geoffrey-hendricks/.

[30] Subsequent quotes from Geoff Hendricks, Ring Piece (West Glover, VT: Something Else Press, 1973).

[31] Stephens and Sprinkle.

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Issue 51


by Martin Patrick and Dorothee Richter

by Natilee Harren

by Ann Noël

by Ken Friedman

by Peter van der Meijden