Sometime in the late-1950s, Fluxus began to appear on the
landscape. Decidedly contagious and surprisingly robust, it bounced
from city to city in tattered knapsacks and the trunks of Buicks,
establishing itself whenever and wherever it found a compatible host.
It crept down back alleys and lingered in the flickering light of
subway tunnels. It drifted into living rooms, offices and public
parks. From elegant high-rise apartments to cramped fourth-floor
walk-ups, it seemed Fluxus was everywhere.
Fluxus was, and continues to be, a pivotal movement in the
development of contemporary art, music and performance. An attempt to
reposition art back into people's everyday lives, Fluxus was nothing
short of a creative revolution, and, like all good revolutions, it
questioned the norm, bucked the system, and placed the power of change
firmly in the lap of the people.
University of Maine artist and professor Owen Smith could easily be
described as one of the high priests of Fluxus. The author of the book
Fluxus: The History of an Attitude, and numerous articles about the Fluxus phenomenon, Smith is a highly respected historian on the genre.
He also is an accomplished artist. And, as Smith readily admits, the
marriage of the two professions can be a bit complicated.
"Even though I'm a Fluxus historian, I don't call myself a Fluxus
artist," says Smith, whose expressions of art range from performance
pieces and installations to paintings and video. "There are a lot of
similarities between my work and Fluxus: in how I engage in thinking
about art, where art exists and what it looks like. My work is in the
Fluxus vein, but I am not a Fluxus artist."
In truth, the matter of who is and who isn't a Fluxus artist is a
point of contention among historians and artists. Many artists' works
are influenced to varying degrees by the Fluxus legacy, but Smith sees
the time and place in which an artist became involved in the movement
as critical. Smith references himself as a case in point.
"For me, Fluxus is a movement aimed at reconnecting people to art,
but it is also an historical movement during which established Fluxus
artists lived and worked, and that is a period that I am separate
According to Smith, the Fluxus movement began in the 1950s. From
Nam June Paik's One for Violin Solo (where the performer slowly raises
the violin over his or her head and then smashes the instrument) to
George Maciunas' Burglary Fluxkit (a small box of numerous found
keys), Fluxus had a strong antiart and anticommercial focus, sought to
make art part of people's lives, encouraged participation of the
audience in the creative work, and valued simplicity over complexity.
Although not universally defined, Fluxus was an international group of
artists, writers, musicians and performers who explored new forms of
art, making and creating what is now often referred to as intermedia
(intersections of differing media) that stressed a commonness and
simplicity of materials for maximal effect, similar to haiku poetry.
In addition to its existence as a historical group, Fluxus also is a
philosophy and a way of thinking that is deeply engaged in the
importance of play as a creative process and mechanism, an approach
Smith has referred to as "being serious about not being serious."
Perhaps most important, Fluxus is an attitude that Smith's work
embraces. At the heart of any Fluxus work — and at the heart of
Smith's work — is the all-important seminal concept: the seed idea or
question that forms the foundation for the artistic expression.
"My connection with Fluxus lies in the idea that a work starts with
a concept or an idea, not with a particular medium," says Smith, whose
Fluxus tendencies were seen most recently at the Center for Maine
Contemporary Art in Rockport, Video Space in Raleigh, N.C., and the
Artists' Book Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
A Semblance of Resemblance: Art and the Nature of the Image, an
exhibition by Smith, Alan Stubbs and Andy Hurtt, is on display through
Aug. 3 in Lord Hall on campus.
"Once you have identified the concept, you find whatever media or
material that seems most appropriate for the work. Fluxus tends to
include a lot of humor and play, which is often part of my work, as
well. The core of my work is in using art to investigate art itself,
to get at how art affects our thinking, our culture and our values."
A professional artist since the mid-1980s and a UMaine faculty member
since 1991, Smith has built an extensive and strikingly diverse body
of work that examines political, social and personal issues with
challenging insights and a uniquely descriptive aesthetic.
His work has been included in more than 60 national and
"Whatever medium I choose to work in, the art itself is about the
idea. What ideas are worth exploring? What questions are worth asking?
I want people to think about what I explore or present in my work. I
don't offer answers. I don't want to. I want people to think."
Smith's desire to "get people to think" is a common theme that
links his varied pursuits as artist, teacher and UMaine New Media
Department chair. It is, perhaps, the source of his energy and
enthusiasm, as well.
After wrapping up a spring show at the Center for Maine
Contemporary Art, Smith headed across the Atlantic this past May,
playing yet another role in Copenhagen as the co-organizer of an
international conference on Events and Event Structures at the Royal
Danish Academy of Art.
In the classroom or around the world, the exploration of ideas and
the challenges they pose are the moving forces behind Smith and his
"Art ultimately is not about me gluing two things together, it's
about me asking a question," says Smith. "The viewer then thinks about
an answer, and it is in that exchange where the art resides."
by Margaret Nagle
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