Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tom Marioni: So the critic goes to the artist's studio...

By Barry Johnson

Last night I went to an artist's lecture and a vaudeville routine broke out:

Two cannibals finish eating a clown. One of them turns to the other: "Did that taste funny to you?"

That's San Francisco artist Tom Marioni, who was born in Cincinnati in 1937, moved to San Francisco in 1959, and became what he calls a First Generation conceptual artist in 1969. His career, as depicted in the videos and still photographs he showed at Portland State, has lurched from joke to joke, from chance discovery to chance discovery. Maybe the unifying thread has been beer.


Marioni's most famous work of conceptual art: The act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art. It consists, unsurprisingly, of people drinking beer -- at a series of events, ever since he came up with the concept in 1970 for the Oakland Museum. A recent example occurred at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in September, with Ed Ruscha as one of the barkeeps. Marioni has also done beer-bottle chamber music: In one, he collected different beer bottles from China to Czechoslovakia and created a sound video by blowing into each empty bottle, which is more interesting than you may think -- the resonant airy thonk of the bottles, the graphics of the labels, the "movement" around the globe. We learned that in the UK, all the bottles sound alike.

A man goes to the doctor. "I have five penises," he says. "How do your pants fit?" the doctor asks. "Like a glove."

Marioni was in town because he fits so well with PSU's master's program in art and social practice, which explores the traditional  boundaries between artists and artworks and their audiences. Maybe "spindles, folds and mutilates" those boundaries is better than explores. Marioni's career suggests that we can all be in a work of art almost anytime we wake up to the possibility. His job is to wake us up.

For me, that sounds a little like Kierkegaard. Here's Jurgen Habermas (in The Future of Human Nature), explaining the pertinent bit of Kierkegaard to us: "The [ethically resolute conduct of life] demands that I gather myself and etach myself from the dependencies of an overwhelming environment, jolting myself to the awareness of my individuality and freedom. Once I am emancipated from a self-induced objectification, I also gain distance from myself as an individual. I pull myself out from the anonymous, scattered life that is breathlessly disintegrating into fragments and give my life continuity and transparency."

Marioni jolts us gently into awareness, something like this. I would argue that an important effect art generally is precisely this jolt. But then Marioni reminds us that we aren't alone. At the best of times, I am awake with other people who are also awake. In Marioni's case, I am awake with others AND pleasantly consuming a beverage. Thus, I am not anonymous, opaque and discontinuous. I do require salty snacks, however.

In our culture of Hyper-Individuality, materialistic and existential, it's easy to overlook the importance of the social in the formation of individual integrity and the relationship between that integrity and democratic government. But we digress.

One more: 

The zen student goes to a hotdog stand and gives the vendor five dollars. "Make me one with everything." He gets his dog and waits for some money back. "What about my change," he asks. The vendor looks at him: "Change comes from within."

We didn't know what to ask Marioni after he'd told his jokes and gone through the videos of his work. Maybe the only question we could ask was: Are we in an artwork right now? My question was unanswerable: How did the tall, skinny guy with the piles of curly hair, the guy in the videos, throwing a tape measure in the air ("Thirty-second Sculpture") and using percussion brushes to make prints, how did that guy turn into Tom Marioni, the older fellow at the podium? Was he Tom Marioni all along? Three-quarters Tom Marioni and one-quarter something that fell away?

What I liked best maybe was Marioni's sense of place, his love of San Francisco, his pride in its artists. I liked the way he distinguished between conceptual art on the East Coast (concerned with language and systems) and the West Coast branch (more body oriented and influenced by Asia). And his assertions: "I've been making circles since the 1980s." Or: "This was was the first sound art piece that didn't come out of music -- sound as a sculptural material... sound as a result of an action."

I lied: 

A critic comes to the artist's studio and the artist asks him for an opinion of his art. "It's worthless," the critic said. "I know, but I'd like to hear it anyway."