‘With Fluxusobjekt the bewitching realm of the child is conjoined with that of the animal, both living outside a rather tired, stained cardboard box. The real character and the scale of the latter, with connotations of world-weariness, exist side-by side with the dreamy, unreal-in-scale playthings. The juxtaposition of toys with hard rectilinear objects... is a model for much to come in Beuys’ career…implications of malleable and organic, or the free and the creative, versus the rectilinear and unbending, or the rigid and traditional.’
(Mark Rosenthal, Joseph Beuys, Actions, Vitrines, Environments, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2004, p. 33).
Fluxusobjekt (Fluxus Object) is a landmark work made by Joseph Beuys in 1962. Previously in the Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten Collection, the work was exhibited at their foundational exhibition, Joseph Beuys - Fluxus - Aus der Sammlung van der Grinten in Kranenburg, 1963. The work is in part a monument that celebrates the artist’s three-year long involvement with the Fluxus group between 1962 and 1965 and was used as such at the retrospective of Beuys’ work held at the Menil Foundation, Houston and at the Tate Modern in 2005. It is also a work that marks the genesis of Beuys’ expansive concept of ‘social sculpture’ and his utopian idea that an open, fluid, interactive and social use of art and creativity could play a universal role in the healing and transforming of social structures throughout the world. Comprising of a cardboard box, a broom, a rubber ring and a child’s toy, Fluxusobjekt is also perhaps the very first of Beuys’ works to make use of fat as a key expressive and transformative material in his oeuvre.
In accordance with the open nature of Fluxus - the loosely organised group of artists led by George Maciunas which, following in the footsteps of Dada and the experiments of John Cage, embraced an anti-rational, spontaneous, open and interactive form of art that interwove action, dance, play and performance into the creation of its art - Beuys’ Fluxusobjekt encourages a similar open-ended form of thinking. Anticipating his own soon-to be realised ideals of ‘social sculpture’ Beuys’ Fluxusobjekt is a work that formally encourages the viewer to literally, think and create ‘outside the box’. A traditional container in the form of a large, unmarked cardboard box has here been transformed into an open arena of expansive possibility through the whimsical addition of a broom laid across its top and an inflated rubber ring that hangs freely, if also purposelessly, from it. Outside the box an incongruous but highly evocative metal toy of a circus cowboy riding a cart pulled by a zebra invests the apparent ordinariness of this box with a transformative sense of playful, childlike possibility. The concept of child’s play, often invoked by Fluxus artists, was a highly important and liberating form of discovery and self-education which Beuys, following the theories of Friedrich von Schiller and Rudolf Steiner, believed lay at the centre of man’s innate impulse towards freedom. Such ‘play’, also, he believed, was innate to all creativity and was a fundamentally organic entity that should have a place at the centre of any progressive, liberal society.
Play, as it is invoked in this work, is clearly, therefore, also a way of widening and expanding the limiting, rational, grid of restrictive, rigid, repressive and non-fluid structures. As if to reiterate this inherent conflict between rigid non-fluid structures and fluid, expansive entities, Beuys has, perhaps, for the first time in his career -although this accolade is usually applied to his Fat Chair of 1963 - placed a slab of fat emblazoned with a red cross at the centre of the cardboard box. This element, clearly indicated, with its red cross, as a healing entity, imbues the work as a whole with an extra dimension intended to intuitively encourage the viewer of the work to appreciate the transformative mutability of all seemingly fixed structures.
Fat, is a key expressive element in Beuys art because it embodies within itself the two opposing states of being that are central to his thinking on sculpture and to the polarised nature of the world. Everything that exists, Beuys believed, exists in a varying state of either order or chaos. Art too, especially in the form of sculpture, operates between these polarities of order and chaos. A chaotic state is loose, disorganised, formless, but also fluid and more open to possibility. An ordered state asserts its form, is truer to its ideal but is also more fixed, rigid and resistant to the necessities of change. ‘Ideally,’ Beuys’ ‘Theory of Sculpture’ asserted, ‘a balance should be achieved, (even) though the overriding tendency today is towards the intellectual pole. Balance, reintegration and flexible flow between the areas of thinking, feeling and will - all of which are essential - are the objective of the Theory. The moulding processes of art are taken as a metaphor for the moulding of society: hence SOCIAL SCULPTURE.’ (Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, New York, 1979, p.72.) Fat, as Caroline Tisdall has pointed out, was the material that Beuys discovered to be ideal for demonstrating this theory since it can exist ‘as a physical example in both extremes, as a chaotic, formless and flowing liquid when warm, and as a defined and ordered solid when cold: a paradox that is compounded when it is placed in that most ordered of forms, a right-angled corner or wedge.’ (Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, New York, 1979, p.72).
Fat has been used in Fluxusobjekt in both these states - both fluid and chaotic. Firstly, permeating the cardboard structure of the box itself and manifesting itself solely as a stain throughout the bottom of the box, and secondly, in its solid form, as a kind of symbol of transformative power in the form of a solid block placed at the bottom of the box and emblazoned with a red cross. ‘My initial intention in using fat’ Beuys said ‘was to stimulate discussion. The flexibility of the material appealed to me particularly in its reactions to temperature changes. This flexibility is psychologically effective - people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings. The discussion I wanted was about the potential of sculpture and culture, what they mean, what language is about, what human production and creativity are about. So I took an extreme position in sculpture, and a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art.’ (Joseph Beuys, quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys New York, 1979, p.72).