Fluxus on Thames


26 September 2016

A gargantuan winged figure sits in despondency, propping up her head with her hand. Scattered around lie geometrical tools and magic squares, the accoutrements of the architect and an hourglass rapidly draining. Amongst the useful devices sits something more enigmatic: a truncated polyhedron.

This is the scene laid out in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I (1514). Drawing on the Ancient Greek belief that the world is rationally ordered, Renaissance humanists and artists were drawn to the polyhedron as an expression of symmetry. The goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer, a younger contemporary of Dürer, drew a series of dizzyingly complex but geometrically sound polyhedra; the astronomer Johannes Kepler went so far as to depict the universe as a series of nested polyhedrons. The irregular form of Dürer’s polyhedron is no mere pictorial choice: for the frustrated melancholic, it signifies a world ungraspable, a refutation of the simplicity of order. It’s also an incitement for further contemplation.

If you go down to the Thames this month, there is a chance you’ll be able to meditate upon a similar shape. Fluxland is a former freight boat that has been transformed by the artist Cyril de Commarque into a mirrored polyhedron. Assembled in a Dutch shipyard over the course of the year, it is currently in the midst of a three-week residency in London, after which it will be sold.

Fluxland is a continuation and expansion of the De Commarque’s interest in polyhedral forms, previously expressed in the sculpture Les Larmes de Peter Pan. In that piece, red threads intersect a metallic polyhedron that represents a world that is, in De Commarque’s words, “divided by borders and frontiers, covered in blood.”

This time, De Commarque’s cargo is somewhat less pessimistic. “I’ve spent years of my work describing destruction, chaos and incapacity,” he recalls, “and I wanted to create a piece which I could use to bring the idea that we are allowed to dream for a better future.” The vessel’s mirrored surface is a glimmering break with Les Larmes’s black-and-red, and one that allows Fluxland to reflect the city as it travels, effectively becoming part of it.

As well as structurally representing a polyhedron, Fluxland shares the shape’s multifaceted nature. When the boat arrives at dock, a sound art collage plays, mingling the speeches of dictators and populists with those of peacetime; inside, there is a second soundtrack of birdsong, created to evoke a sense of freedom. The surprisingly voluminous interior contains paintings and sculptures, including bronze maps of Israel and the United Kingdom. “They are about the idolisation of the nature, about borders, most of which have been created out of blood,” explains De Commarque.

In addition to serving as a sort of floating gallery and an installation itself, Fluxland aspires to be a place of conversation – an aquatic agora. A series of four talks bring speakers such as the writers Pankaj Mishra and Adam Thirwell onto the boat for discussion with visitors, followed by a shared supper of organic, sustainable food. In this open aspect, Fluxland strives to be a work that posits new ways to deal with the world’s troubles.

Although each of the conversations deals with a different topic, the overriding theme of all four is progress, and specifically the way its onward march leaves people and objects behind. The boat that houses Fluxland was, until last September, an active freighter carrying 230 tonnes of grain every week. “It was part of the trade, part of the economy," says De Commarque. "Due to the acceleration of progress, it no longer fits its function.”

For the artist, this sense of an over-stimulated process is joined to the idea that people are over-consuming. “What gives me the ability,” asks De Commarque, “to decide that the bills for my water, energy and food will be paid not by me, my daughter or my granddaughter, but maybe two or three more generations down the line?” De Commarque identifies the ideology of neo-liberalism, with its belief that the economy will regulate itself, as the source of such unconcern with the real problems confronting the world “I think,” he predicts, “that there is a disaster coming up.”

Fluxland draws its name from Fluxus, a not-quite movement of artists in the 1960s that focused on producing new cross-disciplinary forms while often positing a radical political stance. In 1982 for instance, Joseph Beuys – arguably the most important figure associated with the group – turned the act of planting 7,000 oak trees into an activist artwork, signaling the importance of environmental action. In its unconventional, many-sided form and its attempt to engage towards a social end, Fluxland sets itself as a revival of this post-war notion that art can interact with a world far wider than the gallery. In that, it’s something of a wake-up call.