° 1935

Lives in Nice (FR), born in Naples (IT).

Benjamin Vautier (b. Napels, 1935), better known as Ben, is a French Fluxus artist born in Italy to an Irish mother and a Swiss father. After World War II broke out in 1939, the family responded by moving to Switzerland, Turkey and Egypt, one after the other, finally settling in Nice in 1949. There, Ben graduated from the Collège Stanislas de Paris [Stanislas Secondary School]. In 1958, he started up his own book and paperware shop – Magasin – with his mother’s financial assistance. Not long after, he dumped that idea to open a record shop and exhibition space. It became a stronghold of the then-French avant-garde (César, Arman, et al). A new world blossomed before the fledgling artist. Ben was increasingly in the thrall of work by Yves Klein (nouveau réalisme) and Marcel Duchamp (Dadaism) and founded his own magazine in 1959: Ben Dieu. Language and word art have been allies ever since. Ben uses both as media for his text paintings, assemblages, and installations.

He always painted the surface of his work entirely in black, later writing cursive text on it in white. From the start, Ben has proven himself a maverick innovator, radically questioning art with slogan-like reflections: ‘N’importe qui peut avoir une idée’, ‘La verité sonne faux’, ‘Je pis donc je suis’, ‘Art is only a question of Signature, Date’, ‘J’aurais voulu être ce cactus dans le cul de l’art’, or his controversial motto: ‘L’art est inutile. Rentrez chez vous’ [Art is pointless. Go home.]. In 1962, he joined the Fluxus movement. Through his art, he attempts to encompass the whole world by connecting every conceivable thought, statement, and opinion to an eclectic, near-complete range of objects and ideas. Ultimately, all of life becomes art and art life.

Understanding that all things are possible with art enables him to argue that all things are art while also making it possible to assert that nothing is art and that, consequently, art does not exist. A rich, carefully-considered oeuvre imbued with mockery, irony and biting rhetoric is suspended between these two extremes. The wooden panel in the M HKA collection is a prime example of this. It bears the inscription: ‘I, Ben, do sign for the following as art: the cobblestones, the snow, the cars, the seagulls, the wind and you – the one standing here reading these words.’

The countless black and white handwritten works he signs with Ben are now among the most recognisable products of the Fluxus movement. His obsessive study of handwriting and signatures is reminiscent of Manzoni or Broodthaers’ work. Ben’s fascination with words' meaning and content helped produce intellectual and controversial works. Little by little, he segued into all kinds of practice; he didn’t stop at word paintings but produced films, wrote poems, and created installations and performances. Since the late 1990s, the internet has increasingly captivated his interest, but he continues to ask questions about the role of the artist and the meaning of art. Granted, he’d already summarised the answer as early as 1987 in his relativistic acrylic on canvas piece: ‘c’est le courage qui compte’.


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