Galleries

How a Fluxus Pioneer Tuned Televisions to a World of Noise

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Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view (all images courtesy of galerie Anne de Villepoix unless otherwise noted)

PARIS — Following on the heels of the Jean Dupuy and Robert Filliou gallery exhibitions, a third radical Fluxus-related artist is receiving a museum-quality gallery show in Paris: Wolf Vostell. Vostell was a German who, as an art student in Paris, was co-initiator of the European wing of the Fluxus art movement in the late 1950s and founder of the European Happening scene based in Cologne. Significantly, he was the first artist to integrate television into a work of art and to pursue an alternative, destructive, and dissident form of Pop art. In 1961 he formulated his psycho-aesthetic project: “ART = LIFE, LIFE = ART,” thus challenging the fetish of art objects, and by introducing television (a then-new medium) to art with his work “Transmigration” (1958), a slashed canvas with a flickering TV screen.

Endogene Depression is a re-creation of sorts of Vostell’s show by the same name that he presented at Smollin Gallery in New York City and at the Museo Vostell Malpartida in 1963. This work with television sets occurred at about the same time as that of Nam June Paik, another revolutionary Fluxus artist who also received a small but exciting show of video installation and digital painting in Paris at galerie Mitterrand recently.

Nam June Paik, “Musical Clock” (1989) (Photo courtesy Galerie Mitterrand)
Nam June Paik, “Musical Clock” (1989) (image courtesy Galerie Mitterrand)

The original Endogene Depression show traveled widely in different versions, including to Hannover, Germany in 1975 and to LAICA in Los Angeles in 1980, and this show takes its cues from there.

The title Endogene Depression is particularly telling. Endogenous substances are those that originate from within an organism, tissue, or cell. Endogenous viral elements are DNA sequences derived from viruses that are ancestrally inserted into the genomes of germ cells. These sequences, which may be fragments of viruses, or entire viral genomes (proviruses), can persist in the germline, being passed on from one generation to the next as host alleles. Endogenous processes include senescence, the menstrual cycle, and the self-sustained circadian rhythms of plants and animals.

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Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view

Thus the installation delightfully calls forth broadcast media as a viral entity within a conjugal host. This metaphor is achieved by mixing old cathode ray vacuum tube televisions, that have been encased or dumped in wet concrete, with funky old tables and dressers that evoke a traditional family dwelling.

To describe the effect of this work, Vostell formed the essential concept of décollage, the tearing apart and recontextualizing of existing pop images — rather than the piecing together of multiple image sources. This décollage idea can be traced back to Vostell’s early belief that society is surrounded and shaped by destruction, as he was deforming and manipulating posters in public places in order to reflect the violence of postwar France and Germany and its US-inspired consumerism.

This principle of destructive recontextualization can be seen with his silently stuttering video “Sun in your head (Television Decollage)” (1963), a film re-edited and copied to video in 1967 that was made from television images of airplanes, women, and men interspersed with pictures of texts like: silence, genius at work and ich liebe dich. The images have been blurred, partially erased and almost destroyed, leaving behind devastated distortions of the broadcast images. The film was subsequently shown in separate contexts, for instance in Amsterdam in 1964.

Wolf Vostell, 'Endogène Depression' installation view
Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view

By using moving television images, Vostell demonstrated the medium’s potential as an aesthetic language long before videotape became accessible. His work with décollage throughout the 1950s and early 1960s transformed the television medium into a device of public engagement and set up an early foundation for the décollage style that he stuck with for the rest of his artistic career. While never primarily a video artist, Vostell reverts here (and often) to television and mass media, supplying, in doing so, some important and highly complex stimuli for art discourse. His jumps and wobbles makes us doubt the real stability of media — and turn it toward an art of noise.

Wolf Vostell: Endogene Depression continues at Anne de Villepoix Gallery (43, rue Montmonrency, Paris) through November 1.

Nam June Paik ran at galerie Mitterrand (79, rue du Temple, Paris) June 17–October 18.

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