The red paper lanterns above Chinatown’s Chung King Court bobbed in the nighttime wind and bathed Automata Arts in a warm glow during Southland Ensemble’s season opener celebrating Fluxus on November 10. As the audience gathered in twos and threes around the courtyard, the performers suddenly took off, holding tapered candles aloft that invariably died in the wind. Unperturbed, the players repeated the action several times over before careening into the gallery, concluding Larry Miller’s 200 Yard Candle Dash. A passerby stopped me as the audience, delighted and equally unperturbed, filed into the space. “What’s going on here?” she queried. “A music show,” I replied, before hastily clarifying ‘an art show’ when my first answer illuminated nothing based on what had just transpired. Of course, this perfectly encapsulates the Fluxus movement: that intermedia experience for both artist and audience valuing process over product.
The rest of the evening passed in an equally enjoyable fashion with selections from the Fluxus canon involving aspects of light. Some used it as a means to an end, as in Yoko Ono’s 1955 Lighting Piece: light a match and watch it until it goes out. Others used the cover of darkness to begin the process, as Tomas Schmit’s Sanitas No. 2 (of which there are 200) instructs the players to drop items on the floor and search for them. Audience members gamely made way for the artists as they searched with flashlights on the dimly lit floor for coins, corks, and other paraphernalia. Edison’s Lighthouse by Ken Friedman invites the creation of a gleaming passage of mirrors whose lights were slowly rearranged to mesmerizing effect.
On the sonic side of the Fluxus spectrum, Takehisa Kosugi’s Organic Music from 1964 calls upon the performers to utilize breath with or without incidental instruments. Southland Ensemble decided to encircle the audience while breathing in and out of harmonicas for a deeply meditative state. Candle Piece for Radios by George Brecht produced a medley of sonic events from white noise, radio ads, and praise for Jesus Christ.
The pièce de résistance was Robert Bozzi’s Choice 1, whereupon the performer brought out and unwrapped a bakery box containing a round, white frosted cake; affixed his safety goggles; and proceeded to light the cake’s candles with a blowtorch. He then blew out the candles and planted the cake in his face to close out the program.
The intrepid Southland Ensemble performed these and other tasks with a seriousness that avoided pretension yet gleefully embraced the more playful aspects of the evening. It was a refreshing take on a genre that can be anti-art and anti-audience, daring spectators to make sense out of seemingly nothing. With their welcoming spirit and engaging program, Southland Ensemble embarked on a communal journey to question the nature of performance; examine the mundane; and shine a light on a period of creativity that continues to remain fresh and relevant decades later.