Vostell, Fluxus and the art of protest (2023)

What does protest look like?

Consider the reactions these past few weeks to the statements, Cabinet picks and executive orders of President Donald Trump. There have been legal moves made in federal court. There have been direct action campaigns at places such as the Dakota Access pipeline site. Millions have marched in the streets and gathered at airport terminals, holding homemade signs and chanting.

Museums are playing their part too. James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has issued a statement about the president’s travel ban, noting that it “stands in conflict with the Art Institute’s values and undermines the important principles of inclusiveness and diversity at the heart of our civic mission.” He joins colleagues at MCA Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MOCA Cleveland, Dallas Museum of Art and Getty Institute, all of whom have spoken out directly against the ban and the harmful effect it will have on cultural exchange.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, has reconfigured its permanent-collection galleries to highlight contemporary art from Iran, Iraq and Sudan, with wall labels boldly explaining the connection to the travel ban.

(Video) Wolf Vostell


Two museums on the University of Chicago campus have done it through politically minded historical artworks and artifacts. This pair of shows offers a timely study in the ways that certain avant-garde artists in the late 1960s and early ’70s made art that looked like art while taking protest to heart. “Vostell Concrete, 1969-1973” and “Fantastic Architecture: Vostell, Fluxus, and the Built Environment” don’t announce themselves as being about protest art per se, but nearly every piece of art included in them stands in opposition to one prevailing norm or another, be it the Vietnam War or the dominance of the automobile in new city design. If ever there was a time to recognize meaningful protest in all of its forms, from the highly aesthetic to the brutally pragmatic, that time is now.

The first show, at the Smart Museum of Art, conducts an intensive study into the German artist Wolf Vostell’s novel use of concrete as a material and motif in sculptures, environments, prints, film and artist books. Why concrete? It’s a surprisingly old material, having been extensively employed by the ancient Romans to build such grand structures as the Pantheon. It isn’t the composite’s history that inspired Vostell, however, but its present. After being more or less lost during the Middle Ages, concrete was repopularized in the Industrial Era and is now used more than any other man-made material in the world, for everything from fence posts and house foundations to highways and monumental dams. That was as true in Vostell’s time as it is today, and it’s one of the reasons that this work continues to feel forceful and relevant.

What Vostell did with concrete is intensely weird. He used it to fully encase a Bofinger chair, the first mass-producible one-piece plastic seat; an Opel Kapitan, a German-made executive car; an entire shop counter from a butcher in the city of Bochum; his own artist book, rendering it unreadable and 20 pounds heavy; part of a train car; and parts of the human body. In two-dimensional prints with concrete and cement collage, he imagined a 1.5-kilometer-long concrete cloud flying over Chicago and the Swiss Alps; smothered the Alabama state trooper car parked in front of civil rights protesters suffering police action; bound a B-52 dropping a payload of bombs over Laos; and erased the entire upper-class neighborhood of Basel.

The politics inherent here are more obvious in some artworks than others. Concrete airplanes can’t fly and therefore can’t be used to drop bombs on innocent villagers. Racist state troopers can’t attack demonstrators if they can’t drive to the march in “concretified” autos. But a fancy car and modern chair encased in concrete, in real life — that makes the symbolic actionable. Two emblems of consumer culture are removed from the cycle of production and consumption, both literally and, because they remain on display as sculptures, figuratively.

(Video) Concrete Happenings

In a film in a second, related group exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium, Vostell dryly explains his treatment of the Opel Kapitan as being “one possibility of dealing with the car.” The show as a whole surveys an international array of projects that took playful, critical aim at postwar urban planning. Included are Vostell’s satirical proposals for running ribbons of highway through and around the Cologne Cathedral and mounting a monumental television set atop Hradcany Castle in Prague. A text piece by Rosemary Mayer suggests making a game of the postal system by issuing change-of-address cards for several blocks in Manhattan: mail for the south side of the street would go to the north side and vice versa, thereby making life a little more surreal and social for its occupants. Shigeko Kubota’s video diary records a tour of SoHo given by Fluxus artists George Maciunas, Nam June Paik and friends, incomprehensibly presented in each artist’s native tongue, and completely at odds with the distinguished focus of a standard guided tour.

Documentation of monumental sculptures by Christo and Jeanne-Claude show how they filled a narrow street in Paris with a wall of oil barrels, creating a barricade reminiscent of the city’s many revolutionary ones. The medieval tower and baroque fountain in Spoleto, Italy, which they temporarily wrapped in white fabric and rope, begs for comparison with Vostell’s concretifications in terms of scale and permanence. (Not incidentally, Christo recently announced the cancellation of his project to drape a canopy of silvery fabric over 42 miles of a river in Colorado because the terrain is owned by a federal government he wants nothing to do with.)

Also included are systems works by Douglas Huebler, one of which presents uncanny comparisons between shop mannequins and pedestrians, and a series of posters advertising the 10th, 11th and 13th annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, when the event repurposed Grand Central Station, Shea Stadium and the World Trade Center, respectively. Nine offset cards reveal photographs of Allan Kaprow and his buddies sitting on wooden chairs in different locations throughout Berkeley, Calif.: atop a column, on a busy street corner, in a parking lot, up a tree, on railroad tracks. What they were doing was enacting a Happening, the environmental art form pioneered by Kaprow and meant to blur the boundary between art and life, thereby protesting the artlessness of most life.

Call it what you want. Call it art, call it protest — just do it, now. That means not just the individuals who make and love art but also the institutions that exhibit it.

“Vostell Concrete, 1969-1973” runs through June 11 at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., 773-702-0200, www.smartmuseum.uchicago.edu; “Fantastic Architecture: Vostell, Fluxus, and the Built Environment” runs through March 17 at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., 773-795-2329, www.neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu.

(Video) MCA Talk: Wolf Vostell's Concrete Traffic

Lori Waxman is a freelance critic.


Twitter @chitribent


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