The Art of Pianos and Walking Canes

Photography: Raša Todosijević, My Fluxus piano (installation, 2011), exhibition „Thank You, Raša Todosijević—Grateful Serbia“, Bioskop Balkan, author of the photograph Marija Konjikušić

Members of the string quartet shake hands; the flutist disassembles and assembles his instrument; the pianist places a vase of flowers on the piano: those were the instructions for events in the 1960s, contrived and performed by George Brecht – a pupil of John Cage and one of the key Fluxus artists. The use of musical instruments in his work was rather peculiar: he would disregard the already standardized function of the flute, violin, cello or piano to make sounds, and for this purpose chose objects such as a comb or the effects of natural forces such as wind. After having received the opportunity to organize their first music festival (the Fluxus Festival of Newest Music, which took place in the concert hall of the Museum Wiesbaden, in September 1962), Fluxus members continued with this tradition. The culmination of the series of events was a systematic demolition of an off-key piano which, a day earlier, George Maciunas bought for five dollars so Philip Corner could use it in his performance. Together with Maciunas, the act was executed by Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins and Benjamin Patterson. In the aftermath of the event, they became rather infamous among piano music lovers in Germany, but went down in history as some of the most prominent figures of the avant-garde. The list of the festival participants also included the name of Joseph Beuys, who was at the last moment prevented from coming and debuting his work The Earth Piano, which the artist later decided to leave in the form of a concept. He would join them later in Düsseldorf, at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, in 1963.   

Photography: Raša Todosijević, My Fluxus piano (installation, 2011), exhibition „Thank You, Raša Todosijević—Grateful Serbia“, Bioskop Balkan, author of the photograph Milan Kralj

In January 2020, the German collector Daniel Hopp exhibited 24 out of 65 ‘prepared’ pianos he had previously purchased along with the entire collection of Francesco Conz. Before he died in 2010, Conz was a passionate collector of the legacy of Fluxus, but also Lettrism, concrete, visual and sound poetry, Viennese Actionism, Gorgona group, etc. The exhibition with a rather long title: Pause: Broken sounds / Remote Music – Prepared Pianos from the Archivio Conz Collection, in the premises of Kunst-werke, featured Raša Todosijević’s Fuxus Pianos, side by side with the Fluxus classics: the artworks by the abovementioned Philip Corner and George Brecht, Nam June Paik, together with other artists from various segments of neo-avant-gardes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Carolee Schneemann. Raša Todosijević prepared his pianos by embedding them with the walking canes reminiscent of the one Joseph Boys always carried and used in his art works, such as his famous performance with a coyote from 1974 titled I Like America and America Likes Me, staged in the René Block Gallery in New York. Todosijević inserted the canes into the holes bored for that purpose through the piano front board and keyboard, in a manner evocative, and yet not typical, of Cageian approaches to piano preparations. Although Cage’s tradition of piano preparations normally presupposed interventions on strings and hammers, counting on their auditory and not visual effect, the works from the aforementioned collection, including those by Raša Todosijević, demonstrate that it has not remained the exclusive method of doing it. For that matter, Todosijević would remain loyal to his approach: all his works that use pianos (from the upright piano to the semi-concert and concert grand pianos, prepared for various exhibitions and collections, including the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina), used such walking canes. In doing so, he created a hybrid combined of two types of tools, both serving as arm extensions: a musical instrument and prosthetic support for walking. These assemblages allude to former applications of their constitutive elements (pianos and canes), to indicate two types of extensions of bodily functions: one that broadens the scale of the body’s expressive abilities and the other that merely compensates for its defect or dysfunction. In their primary application, these two tools are perceived, in the experience of those who use them on a regular basis, as something that has almost coalesced with their body and become part of their corporal scheme and sense of bodily integrity. Separated from the human body, the tools are set in a mutual relationship that eliminates their primary functions, thus accentuating their immobile physicality. These pianos are impossible to play as much as these canes are impossible to lean on to walk. They are no longer means of manipulation, but mere objects of one’s gaze. Rather than improving bodily functions, which was their original purpose, they now serve to advance the understanding of the relationship between art and the present-at-hand physicality.    

Apart from the direct reference in the work’s title, what connects Raša Todosijević’s fuxus pianos with the legacy of Fluxus is concretism. Both the piano and walking canes are de-symbolized and reduced to their physicality, which has been manipulated in line with Macuinas’s Fluxus manifesto from 1963, where he wrote that the role of the movement was to “purge the world from dead art … abstract art… illusionist art”. In that respect, it is important to note that Raša Todosijević’s interventions did not target the culturally conditioned representations of the piano, as it was often the case in the art of post-surrealism, nor they were aimed at its functional dimension by tuning it in such a way as to change the scale of tones it can produce: instead, he intervened strictly within its physicality. Although this explains his attitude towards the treatment of a fluxus piano as an instrument and object, a question still remains: why the Beuysean walking canes? Even before the creation of the first Todosijević’s fuxus piano, Ješa Denegri had observed the following approaches in the artist’s work: “demystification, breaking taboos, destructive behaviour, a false statement instead of a true one”, arguing that all that was “at odds with, for instance, shamanistic and missionary performances of great Joseph Beuys, who was not spared his (Todosijević) humorous remarks, in which he jocularly called him ‘Josephine Beuys’”. In order to contextualize Denegri’s assertion it is important to note that Todosijević did not know Joseph Beuys and his art indirectly, merely from reproductions and art pieces which are, to this date part of numerous exhibits, but he attended his performances and immediately interacted with him. There are two pivotal moments in this relationship: one is the artists’ participation at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, in 1973, organized by the Richard Demarco Gallery (at Melville college), where Beuys held a 12-hour long lecture, and Todosijević performed his Decision as Art, and the other occurring a year later, at the April Meetings, where they performed on 9th April, one after another, in the same space – the foyer of the Big Hall of SKC,  in Belgrade. Raša Todosijević performed his work Vodo-vija, and then Beuys, in his typical fashion, as his art piece gave a lecture titled Twelve-Hour Lecture: A Homage to Anacharsis Cloots. In the photographs of Beuys’s lecture, behind the blackboards he used to write and draw his diagrams, we can see Todosijević’s textual elements he employed beforehand, in his performance. In both cases, Beuys traditionally performed as a shaman and prophet, conveying his utopian visions, having no interpellating effect on Todosijević, whatsoever. Todosijević invariably applied his principle of “active cynicism”, staging performances focused on the given moment, laden with all its aporias and contradictions, while offering no key to their interpretations, let alone the solution. 

In his work, Todosijević would always position himself as a symptom, whereas Boys proposed various therapy-like mechanisms for solving symptomatic behaviour. In that respect, Gregory Ulmer believed Beuys’s use of the walking cane stemmed from his childhood daydreams where he identified with Genghis Khan and which evolved into his urge to carry “a shepherd staff, imagining he was a nomad shepherd”. In his artistic practice, it constructed a pastoral dimension, which he recognized to be something he referred to as “social plastic” and which accounted for his participation in forming of the German Student Party as well as the German Green Party, sometime later. For him, art was like a healing method with archetypical symbols and he was a shaman who mediated the process. Todosijević never believed art had such a role, and therefore decided to convert the walking cane – the shaman’s attribute and  symbol of power – into a mere aid for those who have difficulties not only to walk, but to stand on their own feet. And only the walking canes stripped of any symbolic dimension, reduced to sheer prosthetics and used in a number of samples, were built in the pianos. 

Stevan Vuković

Photography: Raša Todosijević, My Fluxus piano (installation, 2011), exhibition „Thank You, Raša Todosijević—Grateful Serbia“, Bioskop Balkan, author of the photograph Milan Kralj

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