Armleder and Marclay have themselves a merry, Fluxus Christmas

hat and nose 2
John Armleder (left) and Christian Marclay (right) perform About Nothing: As Usual, a medley of Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired performance art pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia

The airplane hangar-sized space at the Institute of Contemporary Art was the perfect setting for About Nothing: As Usual, a wonderfully silly performance by John Armleder and Christian Marclay Friday night. The result brought to mind Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Marcel Marceau–hapless anti-heroes working their way through a lifetime of ridiculous tasks.

Bubble gun suicide
Armleder commits bubble gun suicide, and gets soap bubbles in his eye

Performance artist Armleder, whose little drawings climb all over the ICA walls, and Marclay–the artist, turntable spinner and composer–cobbled together a performance of somethings old, somethings new, somethings borrowed and blue Christmas lights. Filling out Armleder’s and Marclay’s own pieces, the borrowings included takes on iconic performance pieces from Fluxus artists like George Brecht and La Monte Young, not to mention borrowings from pop and serious Christmas music. These two men have the Fluxus art movement in their blood and their histories; and in this performance, their history looked not that radical and not that different from what the popular culture offers up as entertainment today. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much, populist and pop-culture fan that I am.

Christian Marclay looking at Armleder's work
Marclay browses Armleder’s work before the performance

The huge space dwarfed the two artists. The wide physical separation between the two artists, each at his own table, called up Waiting for Godot. Their physical differences emphasized their separation. Armleder, in a suit (a salute to Chaplin and Lloyd?), his dark hair is pulled back in a long queue, is the shorter of the two. Marclay, dressed casually, is tall and thin as a blade, and looked perfectly comic in a Santa Claus hat. (Although Armleder looks a little forbidding, he was awfully kind to me when I was trying to get a decent picture of him–a task at which I failed).

sparkle toss 2
Dust for Two, by John Armleder, performed by Armleder (left) and Christian Marclay

For all that existential man-against-himself-and-the-world atmosphere, the performance stayed lighter than air, water and fire–all of which played some part in the antics–and the sounds. Both artists tossed sparkles at one another which fluttered down through the air, in Armleder’s “Dust for Two.” They each poured water from a height. Armleder made a pyre of paper, and Marclay lit a cigar. Air, water, fire.

Make Love Not War
Protest, Marclay performing his own piece. The sign says, “Make Love, Not War.” It was a reminder both of how old and how current these artists are.

Marclay, who spun turntables to comic and deliberately annoying effect, also kept the sounds going with actions like sweeping, smashing vinyl lp’s–and silent protest. The silent protest (he drew a sign with marker on cardboard that read “Make Love, Not War”) reminded me of his silkscreens calling for silence that we saw in New York in November at Paula Cooper Gallery.

>Marclay catches the turntable
Turntable Toss, by Christian Marclay, performed by Marclay and John Armleder

My favorite action was Marclay’s Turntable Toss, performed by the pair. The needle skipped from track to track as the turntable flew from one’s arms to the other’s. We heard bits of Merry Little Christmas, Happy Holidays, and more. Then Armleder tossed just as Marclay turned away, perhaps distracted or perhaps on purpose, and the turntable landed on the floor. It’s not clear if this was an accident or deliberate. I suspect the former. As I walked out, other people said they especially liked when Armleder fell flat against a Christmas tree, crashing them both to the ground. Pure slapstick.

Happenstance created a constant undercurrent of tension and danger in this performance, although the series of events was well planned, the arc of action thought through. Sure enough, the program sheet includes a disclaimer–program and sequence subject to change. Very John Cage and very Fluxus.

Having sat through far too many far too serious art performances, I especially appreciated this one, which kept the audience in mind and communicated its ideas with charm and wit. The audience was rapt throughout this Christmas present for art lovers. For more pictures (some good some bad), check out my Flickr set.