– Spring 2008

‘Are You Happy?’: Notes On Öyvind Fahlström’s Mao-Hope March

David Bussel

Politics is the art of suppressing the political - Jacques Rancière1

A group of seven men and women carrying placards, six emblazoned with the face of the entertainer Bob Hope and one with Mao Tse-Tung's, march through the streets of New York City on a late summer's day in 1966. This conspicuous assembly proceeds from Fifth Avenue by Central Park down Sixth Avenue to the amusement, confusion or antipathy of passers-by. People on the street are invited by a well-known local radio presenter to respond to the march, and then asked the question 'Are you happy?', to which they give varying, often astonishing replies.

Staged and shot on 1 September 1966, Mao-Hope March is a 4.5-minute, black-and-white, 16mm film with sound, made by the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström (1928-1976). It was originally produced as a filmic element for the multi-media performance Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (1966), part of 9 Evenings, a groundbreaking series of theatre events that took place in October 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The event was organised by fellow Swede Billy Klüver, an engineer from American telecommunications company Bell Labs, who founded E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), an agency that initiated collaborations between artists, performers and engineers, and featured John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and David Tudor, as well as Robert Rauschenberg, who took part in Fahlström's piece along with artist-filmmaker Robert Breer and poet John Giorno. Kisses was itself a nine-part non-narrative spectacle whose premise was an interrogation of technology through the prism of global politics (a lifelong preoccupation of the artist), the economy and the environment. The work employed a variety of media (film and

  1. Jacques Rancière, 'The End of Politics or the Realist Utopia', On the Shores of Politics (trans. Liz Heron), London and New York: Verso, 1995, p.11.

  2. Quoted in Catherine Morris (ed.), 9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theatre, and Engineering (exh. cat.), Cambridge: MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2006, p.11.

  3. Transcription of Mao-Hope March by Sharon Avery-Fahlström from http://www.fahlstrom.com/films_mao_hope_eng.asp?id=9&subid=1l (last accessed on 1 November 2007).

  4. After his death, Fahlström has been dedicated retrospectives at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1979, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris in 1980 and MACBA, Barcelona, in 2000.

  5. Quoted in Pontus Hulten (ed.), Fahlström, Milan: Multhipla Edizioni: Milan, 1976, p.59.

  6. Printed in Öyvind Fahlström. Another Space for Painting (exh. cat.), Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000, p.284.

  7. For a history of protest art in America see Mary Lee Muller (ed.), Imagery of Dissent. Protest Art from the 1930s and the 1960s (exh. cat.), Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, 1989; and for an overview of American post-War protest movements see T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

  8. Contemporaries of Fahlström have also exploited the public format of the protest march or demonstration, such as Jacques Charlier and Endre Tót, who used the context of the city to stage an intervention on the very conventions of protest itself; more recent investigations into American 'protest' art and culture of the 1960s would include work by Carol Bove, Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Sharon Hayes and Josephine Meckseper. For illustrations of work by Charlier and Tót, as well as Fahlström himself, see Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble (ed.), Protest & Survive (exh. cat.), London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2000, pp.4-5 and 44. 9 Ernest Mandel cited in, Fredric Jameson, 'Periodising The 60s', The Ideologies of Theory. Essays 1971-1986, Volume 2, Syntax of History, London: Routledge, 1988, pp.178-208.

  9. Ibid., p.207.