In a state of flux

Allan Kaprow, Poster for Fluids: a Happening by Allan Kaprow, 1967

While Francis Alÿs choose to melt ice the hard way, he’s not the only – or the first – artist to make art from ice melting away. In 1967, Allan Kaprow staged a Fluxus ‘happening’ in which enclosures were built from large blocks of ice around the Los Angeles area; they were then left to melt away. Kaprow advertised the event in advance to find volunteers to help build the enclosures, a major undertaking given their size.

The event was documented photographically – by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) – but essentially this was an event to be experienced in real life rather; it existed for those who were involved in the building process and in a different way for those who came across the ice enclosures before they melted away.

One of Dennis Hopper’s pictures of an ice-enclosure being built as part of Fluids, 1967

It’s the scale of the project that I find extraordinary here I think. This picture shows one of the enclosures being built. But over a three day period, thirty such enclosures were constructed. That’s a lot of ice and a lot of hard work (to the extent that maybe Fluids was just as strenuous as Alÿs’s Paradox of Praxis I now I think about it more). Structures on this scale – even in California – would take a good while to melt completely. And of course a brick wall doesn’t melt evenly, it’s liable to collapse as bricks shrink back unevenly depending on how much heat they get from the sun.

Fluxus, of which Kaprow was a part, was influenced by the ideas explored several decades earlier by Dada. Kaprow believed in the use of everyday materials for making art and developed the idea of the happening: experiential art events, with the art emerging from the combination of the activity of the artist(s) and the response and involvement of the audience. Fluids has been restaged, including at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (the Musuem of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) in 2008, but each occurrence is unique and each person’s experience different.

Fluids restaged at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in 2008

Of course restaging such a work now offers the possibility for better and more easily distributed documentation, meaning that the work can be understood in a different way. Video documentation gives a new understanding of the scale of the undertaking, but here one enclosure was constructed, and at an art museum space, so the possibility of people randomly encountering the structure in a remote part of the city is lost. In such a context, the ‘happening’ is a very different – and much more mainstream – beast. I think I’d like to have seen it, but I’d like to have come across the work knowing nothing about it, and with no idea what was going on, much more.

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