June 30, 2010  |  Artists, Fluxus
Unpacking Fluxus: An Artist’s Release

Note signed by James Riddle (American, born 1933). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

We found this note attached to an object shrouded in tissue and quarantined within three Ziploc bags. The initials “JR” belong to James Riddle, an American artist involved with Fluxus throughout the 1960s, who allegedly exhibited bottles of his urine in the Perpetual Fluxfest held on August 22, 1965. Though it should have served as a warning, the note piqued my curiosity: Did Riddle successfully sell his urine on an August day back in 1965? And did Gilbert and Lila Silverman—whose recently gifted Fluxus collection is currently the subject of an installation at MoMA—really keep it around for forty-five years?

The revolting odor that escaped when I opened the first bag was proof enough that there was indeed human waste inside, and it prevented me from investigating further. I swiftly re-sealed the Ziploc. The introduction of Riddle’s urine into an art collection—housed, almost a half century later, at MoMA—had evidently rendered the artist’s waste at once more abstractly valuable and physically noxious.

In the spring of 1961, four years before Riddle hawked his urine at the Perpetual Fluxfest, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni produced a notorious edition of ninety small cans, each sealed with the label Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit). Manzoni then sold the cans for their weight in gold. Unlike Riddle’s work, the particular odor of which substantiates its conceptual label, the contents of Manzoni’s cans remain an enigma: opening them up would destroy their accorded value as art objects.

George Maciunas. Fluxus Manifesto. 1963. Offset. The Museum of Modern Art. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

George Maciunas echoes Manzoni’s scatological critique of the commercial art market and bourgeois culture in his 1963 Fluxus Manifesto. In this manifesto, comprised of collaged dictionary entries and handwritten notes corresponding to the word flux, Maciunas positions bodily release as its primary meaning. Beneath the dictionary definition of flux as “a flowing or fluid discharge from the bowels or other part,” Maciunas elaborates, “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual,” professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art…”

Maciunas’s Excreta Fluxorum fluxboxes—the “Anthologies of Animal Shit” he began in 1972 and compiled until his death in 1978—exemplify the non-artificial, purged-rather-than-crafted art of “flux.” Each box contains a carefully curated assortment of animal poop—from a tiny mouse turd nested in a pill capsule to a flaking mound of cow manure—separated in plastic containers and classified in Latin. We unwrapped the tissue containing the Cro-Magnon specimen with trepidation, only to find a small rock (the feces of Unicornis fantasticus are represented by a marble). We have come across many examples of this particular edition, as well as bags of excrement that Maciunas used to assemble it—including a recently unearthed envelope labeled “Tortoise Shit for G.M.,” perhaps given to him by a thoughtful friend.

George Maciunas. Excreta Fluxorum. c. 1973–78. Plastic case with offset label, containing various mediums. The Museum of Modern Art. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Rather than imposing order and fixity of meaning, perhaps it is the practice of collection that truly throws the distinction between waste and art—dissolved, for instance, by the scent of aged urine in an art museum—into complete ambiguity.

“Unpacking Fluxus” contributing authors:

Gretchen L. Wagner, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books

Lily Goldberg, 12-Month Fluxus Intern, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books

Gillian Young, Temporary Cataloger, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books