Nam June Paik

Flux Fleet


Not on display

Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Metal irons, enamel oil paint
Displayed: 225 × 1575 × 178 mm
Presented by the Hakuta Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2016


Flux Fleet 1974 is an early sculptural object by Paik produced in New York following the artist’s relocation there in 1964. It incorporates six antique irons – five small and one large – arranged on the floor in a line. The five small irons have been inscribed on one side by the artist with naval designations in enamel oil paint: ‘Fluxus Fleet’, ‘Destroyer’, ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Battleship’ in white paint and ‘Submarine’ in black.

Following an education in Tokyo, where the artist fled from South Korea with his family in 1949 on account of the imminent Korean War, Paik arrived in Germany in 1956 as an aspiring composer. Having completed his musical studies at Munich University and the Academy of Music in Freiburg, he immersed himself in the New Music scene around Cologne, establishing a number of influential and enduring friendships that he would acknowledge and celebrate with works in later years. They included avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham, and future Fluxus pioneer Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), with whom Paik would be connected throughout his career. Most important, however, was the meeting with experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992), which occurred at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt in 1958. A student of Arnold Schönberg, on whom Paik had written his thesis at the University of Tokyo, Cage revolutionised Paik’s views on music and performance, and was responsible for the incorporation of chance and silence into his musical and performance experiments: qualities that would later prove to be fundamental to his work. As Paik himself acknowledged: ‘Cage means ‘bird cage’ in English, but he didn’t lock me up: he liberated me.’ (Quoted in Statens Museum for Kunst 1996, p.20.)

‘Fluxus’ – or Neo-Dada as it was initially known – was a collaborative, anti-authorial and international anti-art movement, envisaged as an attempt to counter the artificialities of traditional artistic canons. Originating with a number of artists and composers centred around John Cage in New York, it developed under the leadership of the Lithuanian-born American artist George Maciunas (1931–1978), who moved to Germany as a graphic designer in the US Air Force in 1961. Regarded as the founding manifesto of the movement, Maciunas’ Neo-Dada in the United States of 1962 set the tone for the group’s artistic practice.

Largely based on the ideology and ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Fluxus challenged the parameters laid down by traditional visual arts, pioneering a distinctly anti-art aesthetic and a focus on revolutionary anti-commercialism. With a name that evoked ideas of change and flow, it deliberately included banal everyday materials in a confrontational act, employing improvisation and paradox to innovative effect. Fluxus actions sought to destabilise the authority of performance – with a deep-seated and profound sense of irony – and imbue the art work with multiple and contradictory meanings. The viewer was changed from passive receiver to active participant as music and art were transformed into simple and perplexing actions, with new and revolutionary uses created for traditional instruments and media.

By the time Paik encountered Maciunas in Germany in 1961, he was actively involved in the kinds of performances that had been pioneered by the American across the Atlantic, contributing to exhibitions and musical renditions in and around the region. Invited to join the Fluxus movement by Maciunas himself – who had heard of and been impressed by his provocative and experimental performances – Paik became an integral member of the group and a close friend of its leader. Acting as an enthusiastic and energetic right-hand man, he helped to organise a variety of events, exhibitions and festivals, collaborating with his contemporaries and performing his own compositions.

Conceived in spirit of Fluxus, Fluxus Fleet is deliberately ironic, appropriating and elevating second-hand materials and everyday objects to the status of art works with minimal intervention and an element of tongue-in-cheek. Whilst the earlier Can Car 1963 (Tate T14689) – in which Paik repurposed old coffee tins to create an improvised vehicle – involved a certain amount of fabrication on the part of the artist, the objects in Flux Fleet are simply re-appropriated and re-designated with paint and the artist’s paint brush. In an act that is characteristic of the anti-authorial aesthetic of the movement, the individuality and skill of the artist is removed from the equation. Everyday materials are refashioned and repurposed for their life as art works in an act that is simultaneously humorous and paradoxical. Irons – symbols of household maintenance and domestic banality – are elevated into an armada of mock battleships, sailing along the floor, one behind the other, in military procession. Despite the simplicity of the act, however, this rebranding functions as an integral characteristic of the work, giving the objects new context and meaning.

Further reading
Nam June Paik Video Sculptures: Electronic Undercurrents, exhibition catalogue, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, September–November 1996.
The Worlds of Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February–April 2000.
Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, December 2010–March 2011.

Hannah Dewar
May 2013

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Display caption

Flux Fleet reflects the influence of Marcel Duchamp on Paik. Duchamp was a key figure in dada, an early 20th century avant-garde movement that radically opposed social conventions and rational thought. The use of found objects, or ‘ready-mades’ to use the term introduced by Duchamp, was a characteristic of Fluxus’ neo-dada spirit. Both dada and Fluxus artists turned everyday items into artworks by exhibiting them in an unexpected context, unmodified or with minimal changes. Here a line of old-fashioned irons, usually associated with domestic chores, become an armada of mock battleships in military procession.

Gallery label, October 2019

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