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An Icy Art Project

Artist Allan Kaprow's "Fluids" restaged in front of Block Museum of Art

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May 22, 2012 | by Matt Paolelli

Two new structures were built on Northwestern University's Evanston campus Monday afternoon outside of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. But don't bother trying to see them now -- they're already gone.

For nearly three hours, 56 people used more than 350 blocks of ice to erect two rectangular structures measuring 10 feet long, 10 feet wide and 8 feet high. The process was a recreation of artist Allan Kaprow's "Fluids," an interactive artistic event he first executed in 1967. Kaprow intended for his work to be restaged by others, and this is the first time it has been recreated in the Midwest.

Kaprow's "happenings" -- events or situations performed in the name of art -- are a critical component of the coursework in Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's "Alternatives to the Object" class in the department of art theory and practice, which co-organized the event along with the Block Museum. Manglano-Ovalle, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and internationally renowned artist, said students spent the spring quarter studying Kaprow's work and chose “Fluids” as a suitable work to reenact on campus.

“Kaprow never wanted these things to be done exactly the way he did them, and his was a 30-foot-long rectangular piece, so we decided to do two blocks at the Block,” Manglano-Ovalle said. “Kaprow’s ideas have forever altered the way we consider the practice and instruction of art. The reenactment of ‘Fluids’ is a demonstration of his edict, ‘every man an artist.’” 

Students, faculty, Block staff members and passersby all participated in assembling the ice structures by cutting giant blocks of ice into smaller cubes, scoring the sides of the cubes to ensure they would fuse together and stacking the cubes to construct the 8-foot walls. One student even served snow cones made from unusable chunks of ice.

The participation of onlookers -- whether by snapping pictures of the proceedings, eating a snow cone or physically helping with the icy construction -- is a key component of the piece’s artistic value as a Kaprow-style “happening,” Manglano-Ovalle said.

The melting of the finished product is important, too.

“The ice isn’t so much the art here,” said Charles Schultz, a junior in the School of Communication. “The art is the action of constructing the ice and then what the ice does as the sun operates on it, and it melts.”

As evening fell on Evanston, the structures were falling, too. Much of the ice had melted, leaving large puddles and small, misshapen chunks of ice as the only physical remnants of the afternoon’s excitement.

“I think the students are discovering that a seminal piece of art history, even though it melts, actually never dies,” Manglano-Ovalle said. “Much of what they’ve learned in contemporary art practice has as its legacy these pieces of works from the late 1960s and early 1970s.”