SAVIOUR OF THE SILLY

His life's work is to preserve the relics of the most ephemeral art movement of the century. John Windsor meets Francesco Conz, high priest of Fluxus
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The Independent Culture
ON THE outskirts of Verona, Francesco Conz, art dealer and publisher, throws open a warehouse door to reveal his collection of artists' relics. Among the 5,000 items, stacked from floor to ceiling, are six dusty cars, one with concrete poetry painted over it, 40 pianos, some of them burned during stage performances, bicycles, musical instruments, plastic-wrapped typewriters, suitcases, hats, shoes and socks. All are signed and dated by the artists who owned them.

The bicycles look familiar; they are stacked upright against the cars, like the chariot wheels in King Tutankhamen's tomb. The similarity is more apt than it might appear. Conz believes that art is the new religion. His hoard of relics - both artworks and artists' possessions - is his attempt to confer an afterlife on the artists he values. He leans on a ready-made work - a butcher's bacon slicer - and gestures expansively. "Artists are today's saints", he says; "and these relics of theirs are fetishes. I much prefer them to saints' teeth."

Conz, 64, is the black sheep of a well-to-do Paduan family proud of its Austro-Hungarian origins, and one-time footman to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He wears flowered waistcoats, fancy braces, the most expensive socks he can find, and any one of his collection of 100 hats.

He is convivial, renowned for his bibulous hospitality, and not obviously loopy. But before allowing oneself to be embraced by his family of inter- media artists, who fly in from Europe, America, Australia or Japan to eat, drink and be published, it is as well to bear in mind the Italian saying: "The Venetians are grand gentlemen, the Paduans are great doctors, but the Veronese are tutti matti - all mad."

And the Italians as a whole are art-mad. Stopped for speeding? Tell the policeman that you are an artist. It has been known to work. Short of ready cash? Offer an artwork instead. Even Juliana, who cleans Conz's gallery and flat in the three-centuries-old Vicolo Quadrelli, Verona's tiniest street, gets paid in art. So does the proprietor of the trattoria where Conz and his artists carouse.

Conz is not selling any of his 30-year accumulation of artists' relics - yet. But he believes that they will become bankable in 10 years; already, he reasons, relics of the false saints of the pop industry are changing hands for silly sums ($107,000 paid at auction for an Elvis stage suit), and appreciation of artists' relics is just beginning (pounds 2,990 paid at Sotheby's for one of Man Ray's cameras).

Conz's artists are, of course, not any old artists - though most of them are the wrong side of 50. They all produce inter-media works - jokey musical happenings, incongruous performances, sound poetry, verbal/visual graphics - in the spirit of Fluxus, the radical art movement of the Sixties inspired by the New York composer John Cage and held together with difficulty by the Lithuanian Communist architect-designer George Maciunas.

The last time an artist formally joined Fluxus was in 1977. Maciunas died the following year and the movement seemed doomed to art history, along with Cubism, Constructivism, Dada, Futurism and the rest. But by globetrotting, publishing, dealing, donating core collections of Fluxart to public galleries and universities and, not least, by popping corks in Verona, Francesco Conz has guaranteed Fluxus an afterlife.

In Britain, people remember Fluxus only dimly. Wasn't it something to do with kicking a guitar offstage and round the block? Indeed, it was (Robin Page was the first, at the Misfits Show in London in 1962). It was also Yoko Ono's loft at 112 Chambers Street, New York, where Maciunas attended neo-haiku events. It was the artist in John Lennon offering Ono an imaginary five shillings to hammer an imaginary nail into one of her "thought paintings", when they first met at the Indica gallery in London in 1966. The Lennon-Ono bed-in was pure Fluxus. But to Beatles fans and the press it was madness.

Fluxus was the late cellist Charlotte Moorman getting arrested, and sacked from the American Symphony Orchestra, for a public performance during which she followed an instruction in one of the South Korean Nam June Paik's inter-media scores: "Take off clothes."

The Getty Museum has the Fluxwork that Lennon made for Maciunas. It is a paintbox containing a card that Lennon typed: "Piece for George Maciunas who can't distinguish between these colors. 1971." Maciunas was colour- blind.

The Conz collection has the entire Moorman archive, including the court proceedings, posters of her Sixties New York Avant-Garde Festivals, photographs - and her red Volkswagen with a bomb on top, which she fitted with strings and played as an anti-Vietnam protest. For a decade, she drove artists in the car - including Cage, Lennon, Ono, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg - to and from her performances in New York. Moorman once performed sitting on a window ledge atop the 80ft clock tower at Count Orazio Baglioni's palace in Asolo, northern Italy - where Conz lived and communed for six years in the Seventies - playing a cello suspended from a fishing rod.

Conz's wife, a blond woman from Hamburg disapproved of by his family, the mother of his two children, could not abide the artistic antics at Asolo - among them, a ritual by Al Hansen, co-inventor of "happenings", in which he ran naked in circles on a hilltop by moonlight. She left Conz to marry a provincial magistrate.

I watched Conz buy yet another artist's car-relic when I visited him in his art-encrusted flat. It was a 20-year-old Austin Mini with 252,000km on the clock. He shook hands on $3,000 with its owner, Bernard Heidsieck, a French pioneer of sound-poetry.

The previous night, at a private view of his works on paper in the gallery downstairs, Heidsieck, a 70-year-old former banker and member of the Champagne family, had broken into a sweat while reading his sound-poem "Vaduz" for about the 130th time.

He wrote it in 1975 for the inauguration of an art foundation in Vaduz, capital of Lichstenstein, but missed the deadline. The poem begins "Autour de Vaduz ... ", and consists of an 11-minute recitation, delivered slightly out of sync with a simultaneous sound recording of the same poem, naming all the world's ethnic groups, in concentric circles around Vaduz. "Il y a des Abyssins, des Shilluks, des Dinkas ... "

As he reads, his faded 10-metre typescript of the poem piles up on the floor. At the end, the sound recording climaxes in the colossal din of a stadium crowd. Everyone in the gallery cheers and claps. Heidsieck once read "Vaduz" to an impatient, yelling audience of youngsters awaiting a pop concert in the Elysee Montmartre, Paris. It silenced them.

After the private view, 40 artists, dealers, collectors and academics are Conz's guests at the Trattoria Isolo. There is polenta con baccala, bardolino and grappa. Jerome Rothenberg, a 66-year-old pony-tailed former beat poet, now Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California in San Diego, whirrs his yellow plastic boogle around his head and recites a sonorous Seneca Indian poem, "The Animals Are Coming", in a language that only he can understand. The poet Alain Arias Misson ties up three guests in used typewriter correction tape, then unwinds it, reading aloud the nonsense letters as he goes. "Poesie trouve", he explains. Cameras flash and the diners applaud. A crowd at the bar jostles to see what is going on. "Artisti," the patron tells them in a stage whisper. They nod sympathetically.

Conz has hired an opera tenor to lead the after-dinner sing-song. We sing "Sole Mio", "Over The Rainbow" and "Roll Out The Barrel". "Sshh", says Conz, as the tenor draws breath for a solo. But the grappa has taken hold of Fabrizio Garghetti, Conz's rotund "intellectual son" and photographer, who flings an arm round the singer and launches into a duet. A happening appears to be colliding with a performance. Conz sits him down like a naughty schoolboy, but he is on his feet again within seconds. The same thing happens four times. There is uproar.

The only glum face at the dinner is that of "the coyote", Michel Giroud, head of inter-media art at Besancon School of Art, who wears a Chinese Red Guard cap and is nicknamed because he hops from foot to foot as he talks. He usually talks incessantly, but the hubbub has drowned him out. "Our art is eccentric art," he shouts into my ear. "I mean ex-centric. Like the art of shepherds and nomads. When you live outside cities you make more connections, you make inter-media art, especially if you can't write. Jerome's American Indian sound poems are rural avant-garde."

The morning after, as Conz is briefing me on fetishism and Fluxart in his flat, Garghetti appears, camera in hand, rubbing his head. He follows Conz like a modern Boswell. Having clicked away for a while, he blushes and retreats, having forgotten to load his camera.

"Here's a good fetish," says Conz. He digs out a copy of the Duchess of Windsor's memoirs. It is inscribed in flowing handwriting, "A Francois Conz, Noel 1959. Wallis, Duchesse de Windsor."

"The duchess was my inspiration for fetishism," he says. Aged 25, he spent six months in the Duke and Duchess's service in Paris in order to learn French (he now speaks six languages). One of his duties was to put on white gloves to serve fillet steak and carrots to their two pugs. The Duke and Duchess collected snuff boxes, some of them inscribed mementoes of meetings with celebrities. "They had a great love for this fetish," says Conz.

In the art and antiques trade, fetish objects are known by the less lurid description "association items". Their value lies in their proven association with celebrities: a stage suit that Elvis performed in, for example - or a book inscribed by the Duchess of Windsor.

Such fetishism does have pulling power, as I discovered when Conz presented me with one of the 14 handwritten menus that he had nicked from the Duke and Duchess's table, at the risk of being sacked. I tucked it in my notebook for safekeeping, but within hours I had lost it. I felt a pang. Attachment had already set in. We could find no other menu that recorded roast partridge served for breakfast. Historians will have to consult me about that one.

In Conz's opinion, Yoko Ono's stage performance Cut piece (1965), in which she challenged members of the audience at the Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, to snip off her clothes, was not only an attempt to expose latent desires in those who dared - the cut pieces became fetishes.

There is scarcely a stick of furniture in Conz's flat that has not been fetishised by visiting artists. The French sound and visual poet Henri Chopin, Conz's amanuensis - who spent six years in Essex avoiding arrest for his part in the Paris riots of 1968 - has glued a signed pair of his sandals to the stove cover, upon which the American Alison Knowles, visual poet and associate of Cage and Duchamp, has inscribed in French a multicoloured eulogy, in the style of "Vaduz", to the world's umpteen varieties of beans. She has a thing about beans; her A Bean Can is the first livre d'artiste on record in America. The fridge door bears a laconic slogan from Allan Kaprow, who coined the term "happening": "Look inside for a good idea." On the inside he has written "Look outside for a good idea." A flick of paint has transformed a kitchen appliance into a fetish artwork.

In wooden racks in the room next door are dozens of empty wine bottles, similarly immortalised. One has written on it "Bu et approuve, Jean Baudrillard 25/01/93". There is a plastic space-gun, signed by Higgins, co-founder with Maciunas of Fluxus, and a signed photograph of him firing it at his last performance, in New York. Higgins, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is credited with coining the term "inter-media". He died last October.

Emily Harvey, who deals in Fluxus art in New York and Venice, breezes in and helps herself to fruit juice from the fetishised fridge. "Ken Friedman's Volkswagen bus is still alive," she tells Conz. "You have a chance of getting that."

Garghetti, having found a film, snaps their conversation. He snaps Heidsieck, sitting quietly at a table signing Conz's deluxe boxed edition of "Vaduz" (edition of 34: $1,000 for the first five, $4,000 for the last four), he snaps Rothenberg and his wife Diane as they join us round the lunch table. He snaps me taking notes.

There are two cubic metres of Conz's photographic negatives stacked in the flat. For followers of Fluxus, photographs are a major fetish, especially if signed by the artists they depict. Not only is photography a "concrete" artform in tune with Maciunas's concept of the innocent eye - what you see is what you get: better a rotten tomato than an artist's impression of one - but it is a record of art history.

Whenever artists are gathered together in the spirit of Fluxus, art history is made. So they believe. Life blends with art. Eating and drinking together turns into a ritual witnessed by celebrants as if through the eye of a camera.

Juliana brings a ham salad and bread. Conz brings wine. He rises, glass in hand, and the performance begins. He toasts in turn Jerome and Diane Rothenberg, Harvey, Heidsieck and his wife Francoise Janicot, Juliana and me, complimenting each of us on our virtues. We follow suit. I compliment Janicot on her nerve (on stage, she is cocooned in cotton wool and passe- partout). She compliments me, back-handedly, on being well-dressed. We pass round visiting cards to be fetishised (signed). Garghetti's camera clicks. My initiation into an art-historical footnote is complete.

Janicot's show in Conz's gallery, running side by side with her husband's, is of her photographs of Fluxus performances and gatherings since 1965. That year, she began by snapping a sound-poetry reading by Heidsieck in Paris, when he was flanked by two firemen wearing skimpy swimming trunks who performed hand-to-hand exercises. The Janicot collection is now art history; can that really be Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in her photograph of Heidsieck, Chopin and others in Amsterdam in 1981? Janicot also produces art photographs: her best-known are of blank sheets of paper.

It was Maciunas's wheeze to sell art as ready-made art history. He published $10 art-for-all Yearboxes, containing anthological records of artists and their performances, with bits of memorabilia. Not only were they cheap and collectable, they helped to define the movement and hold its members together. He was strict: "Either you are in or out of Fluxus," he used to say, and there were frequent sackings. Today, although few describe themselves as Fluxus artists ("in the spirit of Fluxus" is the preferred term) they retain a strong sense of fraternity.

But whereas Maciunas published cheap Yearboxes, Conz embarked on a grandiose venture, employing Italian master-printers in textiles to reproduce Fluxart, originally on paper, on big banners of the finest linen. He sold off his gallery of Italian moderns, then his gallery of chic Pop multiples and finally the family furniture factory.

An exceptional edition of 10 prints by the Danish composer Eric Andersen, 5ft high and 160ft long, had 107 colours and obliged the printers to walk a total of 9km with silkscreens in their hands. Conz has also published a nifty edition of 100 nightshirts silkscreened by the founder of concrete poetry, the 73-year-old Swiss Eugen Gomringer.

Although he says he chooses expensive linen in order to honour his saints, the medium does tend to lend a mock monumentality to what is essentially playful, ephemeral art. Some of the most banal visual quips are the ones that stick in the brain longest, like jingles. There is Emmett Williams's Mississippi: A marching song in the shape of ten dixie cups (1966-89) collaged from bits of the word Mississippi, which sounds like a sibilant protest when recited. Heidsieck's deluxe volume of "Vaduz" contains, besides the poem in hard covers, a CD and photographs, a silk headscarf printed with names of ethnic groups in concentric circles targeting Vaduz. It looks profound but is just a cartographical whim.

Such gentle, Zen-like confusion of the intellect is the peculiarity of Conz publications. They lack the aggressive assault upon the senses of Cage or Duchamp, Fluxus's forefathers. Instead, they seem to resolve the very contradictions that they present. They exude equanimity. Never mind if the arrows and circles tease the brain. They are just innocent tricks to deprogramme the mind. "Art", says Conz, "should raise consciousness. It should change people's lives."

This is where the saintliness comes in. The artists whose lives Conz shares are as self-effacing as their art. Even their more outrageous performances have the innocence of party tricks. They prefer their own communality of spirit, with its frequent libations, to the reputation-making machinery of the art market, which largely ignores them, anyway.

Many still lead simple, reclusive lives. The Brooklyn drummer and composer Joe Jones, who introduced Conz to Fluxus in 1972, used to be a Franciscan monk. The 83-year-old American visual poet Robert Lax lives a monastic life on the island of Patmos. The visual musician George Brecht in Cologne leaves mail unopened and speaks on the telephone only by prior arrangement.

Conz says: "The Church has failed to create new saints - that is, people who have sanctity and power. As for the politicians, instead of bringing wealth to the people, they make bombs. It is today's inter-media artists who have the most spiritual attitude towards life."

Compared with Fluxart, young British contemporary art - pickled sharks, mannequins of penis-nosed children - looks like arte pomposa. It is over-pondered, heavy, whereas Fluxart is light and inconseqential. It is easier to identify the spirit of Fluxus in an artwork than it is to identify the artist. With young British art, it is the artist's ego that hits you first.

Conz spreads the Fluxus gospel by infiltration - he barters Fluxart into private art collections (recently, he exchanged a Fluxart work for a saleable satirical portrait of a general by the Italian painter Enrico Baj) and he makes donations of Fluxart, both original works and his own editions, to the few universities and public galleries that he trusts to exhibit them. To the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, he gave a collection worth an estimated $750,000. In England, he has begun donating a Conz archive to Leicester's De Montfort University. So far, he has given 32 of his silkscreen banners, including Gomringer's sound poem of an arrangement of the letters in the word "wind". He is negotiating a donation to Zagreb Museum.

One of Conz's biggest champions is De Montfort's Professor of English and Cultural Studies, Nicholas Zurbrugg. It was Zurbrugg who, when a lecturer at Brisbane's Griffith University, introduced Conz to the city's avant-garde art scene and curated his first public exhibition. At De Montfort last October, Zurbrugg pulled off an academic coup that would have been stifled at birth at Redbrick or the ancient universities. The university and 24 sponsors financed three days of performances and an exhibition of Fluxus-oriented work under the title "Rethinking the Avant-Garde", attended by 230 people at the Phoenix Arts Centre, at which 18 inter-media artists performed and 40 academic papers were read. Stelarc from Melbourne demonstrated his third arm, an electronic prosthesis, and wired himself with tiny microphones to amplify body noises. Among the British contingent, 78-year-old Bob Cobbing, one-time projectionist for Ono's film of naked bottoms and a performer at her soirees, marched up and down uttering what he calls "articulated vocal sound".

Will the art market catch up with Fluxus-inspired art? Performances, unlike painting and sculpture - which Fluxus abhorred from the start - garner only ticket sales. Just their by-products last, such as smashed pianos, which explains why Conz hoards them. "They used to laugh at me," he says, "but I have been collecting for 30 years. They can't catch up with me now."

But the name Fluxus is a bit of an albatross, especially in an art market that values individuality above collective initiative. And the Fluxus veterans' insistence on the term "inter-media" has yet to catch on.

A hint that there might be hidden gold in Fluxart lies in the sky-high prices paid for the work of the late Joseph Beuys, a prominent Fluxus activist who broke away from the group in 1963, complaining that it lacked a "real theory", but continued to make art in the Fluxus spirit. His most famous performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), was quintessential Fluxus. One of his edition of plain wooden boxes - originally cheap, tongue- in-cheek art-for-all - fetched an astronomic pounds 120,000 at Christie's London 10 years ago.

Fluxart rarely appears at auction. It tends to change hands privately. But dealers in the US, sensing its seminal influence, have begun stockpiling vintage Fluxart. Purists invest only in art created during Maciunas's lifetime and published in the massive Fluxus Codex, which catalogues the Gilbert and Lila Silverman collection.

The dealer Emily Harvey has tapped a market for Seventies and Eighties Fluxus-inspired art. For example, works by Henry Flynt, regarded by Conz as the real founder of conceptual art, sell quickly at up to $4,000. One of his computer-prints on paper says: "A conceptual artist is a successful artist who can't make beautiful things." As for Sixties Fluxus, Harvey now sells for $2,500 the Japanese artist A-Yo's finger boxes (containing tactile surprises), which retailed for $6 in 1964. "It's still bargain time," she says.

Conz paid $100 in 1975 for a Maciunas Yearbox I that had retailed for $10 in 1962. Now they sell for $5,000. As for Ono's Painting to Hammer a Nail In, which brought her and Lennon together: it sold for about $9,000 at Christie's New York in 1993, Ono's highest price at auction - but sold privately, her work has fetched up to $30,000.

To perpetuate its afterlife, Fluxus will need an audience that combines material and spiritual affluence - not just sufficient affluence to buy Fluxart, but the sort of affluence that allows grown-ups to play around like children, putting on absurd performances, reciting untranslatable sound poetry.

It is the preoccupation with sound as the basic constituent of multi- media art - what Chopin reveres as "thousands of years of orality" - that marks post-Fluxus as genuinely avant-garde, especially in the coyote's sense of avant-garde, that is, something primitive, fundamental. Such things are better understood in the East, where pundits still offer recitations in Sanskrit, the ancient phonemic language held to have retained an indivisible connection between sound and form. When they chant the Vedic texts - in which alternate vowels and consonants are perceived as a direct representation of the expansions and contractions of the universe - they always do it for fun. Such men are looked upon as saints. 2

Captions: Right: the art dealer and publisher Francesco Conz, who continues to collect and champion Fluxus art. Below: pieces from his 30-year accumulation of art relics

Right: Conz with some of his fetish cars (Peugeot by Eugen Gomringer, Decio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto De Campos; Volvo filled with instruments by Ben Patterson; Fiat 500 with bronze passengers, Francois Bory).

Far right from top: performance in Conz's local trattoria, Verona, last year; Bernard Aubertin's performance, 'The burning and painting red of the Peugeot car', Verona, 1989; and his 'The burning and painting of the armonium', Verona, 1987; and Charlotte Moorman's car (the bomb was played by Moorman as a cello in the artist protest against the Vietnam war)

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