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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: Salad chopped on the Disney Hall stage closes out 24 hours of Fluxus-ing

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Alison Knowles, at center with a large mixing bowl, performs her “Proposition #2: Make a Salad” at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the orchestra’s Fluxus Festival.
(Ian Byers-Gamber / Los Angeles Philharmonic)
Music Critic

There is nothing remotely uncommon about eating a salad at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I’ve visited the salad bar at the hall’s café countless times.

But eating a salad in Disney Hall had always been a don’t-you-dare matter — until Friday night, when artist Alison Knowles made a humongous one onstage.

More than merely another Los Angeles Philharmonic centennial season classical music transgression, Knowles’ latest performance of her famed Fluxus score, “Proposition #2: Make a Salad,” was just possibly the single most transgressive act any major symphony orchestra had ever undertaken in a traditional concert hall.

With the help of dicing, slicing sous chefs — every percussive thump of the knife and ding of a large metal salad bowl was amplified, making a rhythmically idiosyncratic percussion piece — Knowles first oversaw the prep work on tables set up onstage.

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She then dumped buckets of lettuce, carrots and tomatoes directly onto the precious, delicate Alaskan yellow cedar stage floor, which was protected by a large blue plastic tarp turned into a de facto mixing bowl. Salad dressing was ceremoniously poured from gallon cans. Clouds of salt and pepper powdered the atmosphere in the manner of religious rite. The audience cheered. An unobtrusively improvising electric guitarist on the sidelines muted his strings with quantities of leaves and buds he pulled from a large flower vase.

After removing her shoes and putting on booties, Knowles walked onto the plastic and raked the mountain of lettuce as though it were a pile of autumn leaves. The salad was then served in paper bowls to those in the audience who had hung around for the hour-plus that the performance lasted. It proved fresh and tasty.

That may have been proof enough for Knowles, one of the artists who founded the Fluxus art movement in 1962. Its anarchic spirit was inspired by John Cage, and it embraced what Knowles’ artist and publisher husband, Dick Higgins, dubbed intermedia. But there was a lot more context to this performance, part of the L.A. Phil’s ongoing investigation of Fluxus, than that.

Although I hadn’t planned it that way, munching on Knowles’ salad culminated 24 hours of happenstance Fluxus-ing around town. After more than half a century, Fluxus appears to be one enduring calling card in the ever slippery but imperative relationship between art and music.

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My Fluxus cavalcade began badly, catching “Never Look Away,” a German film somewhat based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter and the least likely and least deserving Oscar nominee this year for foreign film. The picture trivializes Joseph Beuys, caricaturing the best known of the European Fluxus artists just around the time of Fluxus’ beginning. It was 1962 when Knowles premiered “Proposition No. 2” in a London gallery and shortly afterward went to Dusseldorf at Beuys’ invitation. To add musical insult to Fluxus-ian injury, Max Richter’s score to the film turns avant-gardism into Hollywood cliché.

I can’t say I expected much better checking out Frieze Los Angeles, an art fair held — where else? — on a Hollywood studio lot and exulting in the commercial excesses of the art world that Fluxus had warned us about. Surprisingly, however, traces of a subversive neo-Fluxus vibe could be found, such as in Mark A. Rodriguez’s racks of thousands of cassettes of pirated recordings of Grateful Dead concerts — two decades’ worth. That there was no sound, just the suggestion of an obsession with it, felt full-on Fluxian.

Then, walking into the Artbook booth, the first thing that caught my eye was a new collection of Higgins’ writing about intermedia serving as the centerpiece of a prominent display. Also placed so as not to be missed were large catalogs on Cage and Fluxus composer Tony Conrad exhibitions.

Then I was off to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a 6 p.m. premiere of Jennie MaryTai Liu’s “Living Female Respondent or 53 Yakshi,” an uncategorizable dance piece, hence neo-Fluxus. More than that, this was the experimental dancer and choreographer’s response to the museum’s “Merce Cunningham, Clouds and Screens,” an installation full of video imagery and the musical mayhem of artists who had a connection with Fluxus. One of the company’s music directors happened to be Japan’s leading Fluxus musician, violinist Takehisa Kosugi.

“Yakshi,” performed in a gallery of 17th to 19th century Korean art, involved Liu and another dancer, frog-like in green, often mirroring one another in a variety of crouched positions. A third dancer in white overalls tap-danced her way in and out of the gallery. Electronic drones were courtesy of Andrew Gilbert. The half-hour work, which will be repeated at LACMA on Cunningham’s 100th birthday (April 16), took its unrelated movements and attitudes, one after another, from applying the kinds of chance procedures that Cage and Cunningham enjoyed in their work.

Finally, at Disney Hall, the L.A. Phil Fluxus spotlight program began with the premiere of another of the orchestra’s centennial commissions. In Ryoji Ikeda’s “100 Cymbals,” cymbals of different sizes were arrayed onstage in 10 rows of 10. There were 10 percussionists. Visually, this felt like it might be an aesthetic relative of Rodriguez’s ranks of Grateful Dead cassette tapes. It did a little sonically as well.

Think of the hiss on those cassettes, and that was what the piece, which lasted close to 40 minutes, sounded like. Mainly, beaters quietly rolled or brushed on the cymbals created a kind of white noise. The air felt in motion. Near the end, there were a few livelier moments, reminiscent of the whistling sound made by lighting on NASA recordings.

I assume it had to be a coincidence, but the salad making that followed began when guitarist Joshua Selman played tape loops of an artificial intelligence voice speaking about Earth Day. That, the rest of the music (which included Selman amplifying the sounds of a paper shredder) and especially the salad making, were quite boring.

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“Proposition #2” was made before the era of celebrity chefs, before cooking as an entertainment industry and before the current level of food-world commercialization. “Make a Salad” has no further ambitions than that of making a very large salad and, in so doing, giving full attention to a dedicated and nourishing activity.

It’s not meditation. It’s not Zen. It’s not spiritual revelation. It provides no recourse to entertainment. It is refreshingly free of commercial interests. The L.A. Phil made all tickets $15, less than it would cost to fill a plate at Patina’s salad bar downstairs.

Most important, eating the salad left an audience member with a sense of fulfillment, just as every orchestra concert should. If that isn’t transgression these days, I don’t know what is. Fluxus, clearly, lives.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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