Like many people, I imagine, I didn’t know that there was much more to the artist Ben Vautier (born 1935 and better known as just “Ben”) than those clever handwritten sayings in white on black seen on walls in Paris and elsewhere. “Tout Est Art” (through Jan. 15), a highly entertaining exhibition at the newly reopened Musée Maillol, however, showed me that there are greater depths to this French-Swiss artist, a member of the radical 1960s Fluxus movement, than I had realized. He’s an artist who has turned his whole life into art.
The influence of Dada and Marcel Duchamp is clear. Looking at his early work, we see that he was a pioneer in many ways. He was doing performance art as early as 1959 with his “street actions”: waiting at a bus stop, for example, or swimming fully clothed from one end of Nice Harbor to the other. The good-natured Ben was never afraid to look foolish in public, but there was none of the violence or blood seen in the work of later performance artists like Chris Burden or Marina Abramović.
For the series called “Gestures,” Ben assigned himself tasks, performed them in the street and then carefully documented each one with a title, photos, a description and the date. His marriage is one of those gestures, along with such actions as placing a piece of paper on the street and watching it until it disappeared or digging a hole, then putting the dirt in plastic bags and trying to sell them.
One work consists of the series of framed contracts with people who sold their bodies to Ben as “Living Sculptures” (1959-61). Jean-Claude Orsatti of Nice, for example, received five “new francs” from Ben, in return for which he was granted freedom of movement but required to show up at the artist’s exhibitions wearing a sandwich board bearing the inscription: “Mobile living sculpture created June 8, 1961, by Monsieur Benjamin Vautier.”
Ben’s conceptual works often elicit smiles, such as a black box on which he has written by hand “Attention: this box contains God in the form of a work of art” (1966), or a black slab on which he has written “All the holes in the world are my work” (1958). Holes are a favorite theme and pop up (or, rather, open up) in many works.
Tongue-in-cheek Ben also likes to take credit for all kinds of things in his works, from colors to god, weather, “psychotactile objects,” puddles, “the idea of an idea,” and “the paintings of others.”
His moods also come through loud and clear: “Ben doubts,” “I am a liar,” etc.
The first part of the show covers the artist’s past work, but the museum has given him carte blanche for the second part, a mad frenzy of objects, paintings and mirrors that includes a re-created bedroom filled with sex-themed works (e.g., a flaccid penis sculpture projecting from a canvas on which “Don’t touch” is written), a confessional with a sign reading “Confess your abuses of power here (sex, money, glory),” and much, much more. The visitor hardly knows where to look there is so much to see and laugh at.
For Ben, “Everything is art,” “Ben is art,” “Art is useless,” “Art kills,” “Art buys art,” “Art eats art,” “Art is alone,” and so on.
Two things are sure: Ben will always have le dernier mot, and it will always be le bon mot.