Somebody pick up the phone

When Fluxus were dismantling artistic pomposity in the Sixties, Yoko Ono was there to lend a hand. Now it's the public's turn, at a new exhibition which documents those days.
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The Independent Culture
Imagine. It's the mid-Sixties. Yoko Ono is on stage, enveloped in clouds of fog from a smoke-machine. She has invited the audience to wrap her in bandages while she murmurs: "I am here. Where are you?" In 1964, she exhibits "3 old paintings of Yoko Ono". There are no paintings, just instructions about possible paintings, including the memorable one "No critics, art dealers, or dogs allowed". In 1966, at the Indica gallery in London, she exhibited her Painting to Hammer a Nail. A guy asked her if he could hammer a nail. She told him it would cost him. "Then can I hammer an imaginary nail?" he asked. The guy was John Lennon. Yoko thought at the time: "I met a guy who plays the same game I played." They continued to play. In 1969 they stayed in bed for a week issuing various radical statements such as "Grow your hair". This piece of art was called Bed Peace/ Hair Peace. But was it art? Was she serious?

Well, yes and no. If you want to ask her this, you can talk to her yourself. An exhibition now at the Royal Festival Hall entitled "Yoko Ono and Fluxus" has a phone in it. Once a day, the phone will ring and it'll be Yoko herself calling up to chat for half an hour or more to anyone who picks up the phone. The purpose of the exhibition is twofold: it documents the work of Ono in the Sixties and it attempts to demonstrate the breadth of the movement known as Fluxus, of which she was a part. Fluxus was not so much a movement as a united front dedicated to purging art of its pretentiousness, its commodification, its heroism. Its foundation lay in the late Fifties. Remember: this was the time of Abstract Expressionism, with artists from Pollock to De Kooning presenting themselves or being presented as heroic, individual geniuses, struggling for meaning.

Art history is usually of the "who dunnit first?" genre. So, if you want, Fluxus was founded in 1961 by a group of artists including Kate Millet, Nam June Paik and Ben Vautier. I prefer the version of events given by sometime member Emmet Williams in his book My Life in Fluxus and Vice Versa. In 1962 George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-born agent-provocateur, said: "Let there be Fluxus and then there was Fluxus ever after."

There could have been no Fluxus without the New Music of John Cage, the happenings of Yves Klein, the work of Joseph Beuys or, of course, Duchamp and Dada. Williams, who was later to be denounced for his "anti-collective attitude, excessive individualism, desire for personal glory [and] prima donna complex", is not concerned with the origins of the Fluxus species. He likes Man Ray's take on it all. "What could sound more natural and less pompous, more matter-of-fact and less contrived, than his simple assertion that he made Dada when he was a baby, and his mother roundly spanked him for it?"

Certainly childishness, vaudevillian humour and simple gags were part of the Fluxus ethos, but what are all these Fluxus fossils doing in a gallery-like space? Wasn't the idea to break down such institutions in the first place? I wanted to ask Yoko about this but unfortunately the phone didn't ring while I was there, so I couldn't. If you are so inclined, it is easy enough to fit Fluxus into a traditional art-history narrative which places this strange little movement after Dada and as a precursor to conceptual art, video art and minimalism. But maybe that's too serious. Think punk, situationism, DIY instead.

Ono herself was misunderstood by other Fluxus collaborators. Her Cut Piece, in which she invited an audience to cut her clothes off, was read as an exercise in female victimisation rather than anything else. Yet she was always laughing at herself as well as at the pomposity of the male art world. In 1967 she wrote "Humour is probably something that the male of the species discovered through his own anatomy. But men are so serious."

Certainly Ono was ridiculed at the time for both her art and her music. To read Albert Goldman's book on Lennon is to read an account of overt racism. Ono is described as "simian". There are descriptions of her "pendulous breasts" and her slitty-eyed inscrutability. Musically, however, she has now been rediscovered. I went to see her last summer singing with her son Sean Lennon's band. There she was, this 62-year-old woman, still rocking out, still making those weird bat noises, still singing songs about dying, abused children. My friend remarked at the time, "She is the youngest person in the room." And, in a way, she was. Now we realise that, without Yoko, there could have been no Bjork, no PJ Harvey, no Diamanda Galas.

The art, however, is something different. It appears naive, innocent, whimsical. We are so used to conceptual art that no one will be much shocked at anything they see in the Royal Festival Hall ballroom. Fluxus, with what Beuys called its "very open relationship to life... totally separated itself from the aesthetic categories of the past". It was open to the point of chaos. The idea was that "anything can be art and that anyone can do it". The non-professional status of the artist was as important as reducing any "commodity" or "institutional value". So we can all be artists. It has to be said that, at many Fluxus performances, there were more performers than artists. Where Fluxus was different from today's art scene, however, was in its concerted effort to break down national boundaries and in this it succeeded.

If Fluxus has the life knocked out of it by trying to institutionalise it, then we can see the spirit of Fluxus today in Gavin Turk's blue plaques, in Sarah Lucas's Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab and in Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho. No one bothers to ask any more "Is it art?" Indeed, one definition of art is "Can it be sold?" and, as everything can be sold, so everything can be art. Like the much-vaunted "death of the author", we have not witnessed anything like the death of the artist, they are more culturally revered than ever before. Perhaps, as George Brecht wrote in 1964, "Fluxus encompasses opposites. Consider opposing it, supporting it, ignoring it, changing your mind."

We can change our minds but did it change the world? The aims of the Fluxus manifesto were to "purge the world of bourgeois sickness" as well as to "promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art". Grand aims for a movement whose name was chosen because it meant "a flowing or fluid discharge from the bowels or other part, especially an excessive and morbid discharge..."

It is sad to see these groovy Sixties relics encased in glass, which they were never meant to be. Ben Vautier's box has painted on it "This box contains an idea so important that it could change art". We couldn't open the box even if we had the key because the box is now an exhibit in a glass case.

Perhaps Lennon hit the imaginary nail on the head and Fluxus was always about banging imaginary nails into the coffin of the art establishment. There are, in the Royal Festival Hall show, some real nails with which the real British public have pinned to the wall Tube tickets, nappies and Hula Hoops packets. They have also written, amongst other things, "Yoko, you always were a bore and a Fraud", "What's with the arses?", "QPR - top London club", "The exhibition next door is better than this one", "Yoko Psycho" and "Adam, Fuck Me Now". It brought a smile to my face, so it didn't matter whether it was art or not, because here at last was something alive and funny and irreverent. Here was Fluxus.

'Yoko Ono and the Fluxus Movement': 10am-10.30pm daily, Ballroom, Main Foyer, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1, to 23 Mar