There’s a plastic frog and a plastic Buddha perched on the dashboard of Michael Berger’s car. Who knows how long they have been staring at each other. At least they enjoy a few more changes of scenery than Nam June Paik’s TV-Buddha (1974), left to contemplate its own image in a television screen for a technologically produced eternity.
In the 1970s, Paik was a frequent visitor to Berger’s Wiesbaden home. He and many other Fluxus protagonists, including co-founder George Maciunas, often passed through the city after the 1962 Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik (Fluxus International Festival of Very New Music), which expanded the movement from New York to Europe while attracting German members like Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell. While Berger supported Fluxus artists as a patron and collector, these days, the former businessman belongs to a shrinking generation of professional oddballs and politically centrist eccentrics who are notafraid to openly cultivate their quirks while backing neoliberal values. The 71-year-old effortlessly turns the biblical into boardroom-speak: ‘“In the beginning was the word” is idiotic. In the beginning was the deed. We don’t need smart alecks, we need doers.’ But he sports a plastic ear on his lapel instead of a tie around his neck and describes himself as a ‘crackpot’.
We drive to Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, where he runs not one but two museums. They are not the usual temples to symbolic capital for which Peter Sloterdijk coined the handsome phrase ‘the Sunday face of greed’. Instead Berger’s Klooseum – or toilet-museum, a colourful house which he sometimes calls the ‘Museum of Modern Arsch’ – is a place dedicated to bodily and cultural metabolism: the correlations between excrement and sacrament, the abject and the beautiful, the profane and the sacred.
The collector’s goal is nothing less than to break taboos about intestinal activity while elevating it to a metaphor for existence. Artists and dictators get the same faecal treatment: there’s Yves Klein shit in blue and Beuys poo in brown, personally crafted by Berger out of plastic, as well as toilet brushes adorned with portraits of Mao, Hitler and Stalin. Hands-on models of a liver, stomach, heart, lungs and kidneys – ‘the big five’, as Berger calls them – are hidden behind five respective closet doors. During my tour, I couldn’t help but think about the use of shit in the history of artistic practice: Jonathan Meese’s dictum ‘Art is Metabolism’, Wim Delvoye’s faeces machine Cloaca (2000), Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit, 1961) and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Fountain (1917), which flushed away the last certainties of the art system. Are conservative culture critics actually right that the avant-garde is, well, shit? Berger wouldn’t agree, although he takes the question quite literally: ‘Every shit is a meditation. It creates space for something new.’
Next stop: Harlekinäum. The house – painted in blue – takes both its name and its vast holdings from Berger’s company Harlekin, which produces cheap gag gifts, including a top-selling visitors’ book designed especially for the bathroom. Like the Klooseum, this museum could be seen as a logical conclusion of Fluxus – a place where middle class art fetishism is negated with relish and where everything flows together: the sublime with the ridiculous; jokes with knowledge and the esoteric with the erotic. Inside one can sit on talking toilets; visit a plastic petting zoo; wander beneath trees hung with coloured phallus-shaped fruit or marvel at mashed-up versions of The Mona Lisa. Together, these articles form a chaotic refuge for the subconscious and a defiant plea for a collector’s self-conception, way beyond the fig-leaf-eccentricities of François Pinault & Co.
Since 1969, Berger and his wife Ute have made their fortune from Harlekin tat. These cheap, mass-produced goods faintly recall the Fluxkits, which turned the art works into sellable multiples. Shifting the production to Asia generated higher profits, which were then pumped back into art patronage. ‘It was always like this’, says Berger, pouring tea into a cup (the tags on the tea bag depict Joseph Beuys while the cup bears the words ‘Fluxus City Wiesbaden’). Entrepreneurs generate surplus; surplus flows into art and culture. Karl Marx was indirectly financed by the profits of Friedrich Engel’s family textile business, Beuys drove a Bentley, and ‘Fluxus’ is only a capital F away from the German word for luxury: ‘luxus’.
Berger starts gesticulating wildly, and the tips of his moustache start vibrating. The discussion about handing out an unconditional minimum income to every German citizen: ‘Fatal!’ But for Berger, what is even worse is to take this idea – completely foreign to Fluxus – on tour with the ‘Bus for direct democracy’ which was inspired by Beuys’s vision of government and has been travelling through Europe since 1987. ‘I supported the bus for 20 years, but when I found out they supported an unconditional minimum income, I stopped. You have to get off a dead horse. After all, Beuys said: “I sustain myself by wasting energy” and “Get your arse moving. Action!”‘
Berger collects not only Fluxus art and toilet brushes but also coffins from Ghana and even plastic shopping bags. A few specimens from the more than 60,000 bags he has assembled over the last 40 years were hung on the wall in the exhibition ‘I love Aldi’ last year at the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafener. Hoarding plastic bags and high art might seem contradictory to the outside observer. Then again, in 1970, the German painter Günter Fruhtrunk – a representative of radical abstraction – designed the present day Aldi-North shopping bag. Avant-garde to go, in a sense. Exactly this kind of example of art spilling over into everyday banality interests Berger. As he puts it: ‘We live with and in art works. Art is life, life is art.’
The collector was noticeably absent from the series of anniversary events organized this year for Fluxus 50. 1962–2012 Fluxus in Wiesbaden – partly because each of the Wiesbadener cultural institutions did its own thing: ‘A curator was missing, there was no unity and vision.’ Another reason: ‘A good opportunity was passed up to put the focus on Fluxus women. There were great women artists, not just Yoko Ono!’ So there is still plenty to do in terms of understanding the movement. Berger will leave this task to a youngergeneration. In a way, he is already a historical figure, despite his ceaseless desire to create, a man of the analogue age. He doesn’t use email or Twitter. He talks and listens. He treasures the direct, physical and haptic, as his collections demonstrate. They are mostly made up of objects, not wall pieces. Except for the plastic bags.
Translated by Dominic Eichler
First published in Issue 7