Archiving Fluxus: A Visit to the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection at the Museum of Modern Art

posted on 21 Feb 2015 16:03 by Hanna Hoelling
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By Andrew Gardner

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Students from Hanna Hölling’s course, In Focus: Revisions—Art, Materiality, and Continuity in Fluxus (1960s-70s), paid a visit to the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at the Museum of Modern Art’s art storage facility in Queens on February 10, 2015. The Silverman Fluxus Collection is one of the most extensive archives of Fluxus-related artworks in the world, consisting of a range of objects collected by the Silvermans after the death of Fluxus founder George Maciunas in 1978. For years, the Silvermans, along with artist and collection curator Jon Hendricks, collected ephemera relating to this international art movement that actively worked against the established hierarchies of the art world. Artists including Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Ken Friedman, Jackson Mac Low and George Brecht contributed works to the movement, highlighting the range of technique and material that encompasses the history of Fluxus. Influences for the movement were myriad; many Fluxus collaborators looked to Marcel Duchamp, an artist whose work famously championed the readymade object as art, as well as to composer John Cage and artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose equal fascination with the idea of nothingness or non-art, revealed the ways in which art as it was known in the early 1960s could be born anew.

Donated in 2008, objects from the Silverman collection, many of which were stored by Hendricks in green filing boxes that recalled the green boxes used by Duchamp, are still in the process of being cataloged by assistant curator Kim Conaty and collections specialist Katherine Alcauskas. The process is difficult, in part, because of the range of material, which includes three-dimensional objects, works on paper and photographs. For a team working inside the department of drawings and prints, this presents an enormous challenge and requires incredible cross-departmental support in order to address conservation and cataloging issues. As works are uncovered, many of which exist in multiples, they must be grouped with other like objects (and, unlike other collections within the museum, multiplicity is key to the Fluxus world and must be preserved to maintain the integrity of the collection as a whole).

Once the process of sorting through has been completed, the next challenge is deciding how such objects should be conserved and how works made by multiple collaborators are to be cataloged. Since the archive was donated in a single piece, Conaty and Alcauskas suggest that it is unlikely that it would be split apart, with photographs, for instance, being sent to the Department of Photography, or three-dimensional works going to the Department of Painting and Sculpture. How, for example, to address photographs of performance works? Are they photographs or destined for the Department of Media and Performance Art? In a sense, the process of addressing the collection as a whole is not only about conserving the individual characteristics of the works themselves, but about conserving the collection as just that: a collection amassed by two formidable collectors who themselves have helped to write the history of the Fluxus movement. Preserving the archive is about preserving the history of documenting it.

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In addition to viewing the archival materials across the entire Silverman collection, our class was also on-site to examine objects relating to Zen for Film, a work by Korean-born Nam June Paik. Essentially a 16mm clear film leader projected onto a blank wall, the work itself presents a conservation and intellectual challenge. Zen for Film is the central object in Prof. Hölling’s gallery exhibition and accompanying publication, both of which address the process of re-mounting a work of art that has become reinterpreted by curatorial and conservation process. The experience of seeing Paik’s original presentation in 1962 can never be recreated, but museum practice suggests otherwise. How do we address an ephemeral experience? And how close to the “original” thing is necessary, if at all? And how can such an object be, and is, “collected”?

In the Silverman collection, a 16mm film reel with a very delicate clear film leader wrapped up inside represents the early projection of the work. But when the object is loaned to other institutions, it is displayed as a relic, not used in the projection at all. Instead, the loan stipulates that the work must be recreated using a new clear film leader and projector. As with other Fluxus works, Zen for Film exists in multiple iterations in multiple different forms. How are we to interpret the ephemerality of such an experience when the concept becomes the work, not the materiality itself? And how are such works to be conserved and recontextualized in a museum space? These are the questions examined in the process of mounting the exhibition and were made clearer by the close examination of this work or objects relating to this work in the Silverman collection.

A special thanks to Kim Conaty and Katherine Alcauskas for their revealing tour of the Silverman collection and for shedding light on the institutional challenges of cataloging and conserving works from such a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection.

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