One of many surreal experiences over the last few months was being interviewed, photographed and fact-checked for Mimi Swartz’s Texas Monthly story about The Art Guys-Menil Collection-tree saga, not least because the magazine didn’t phone in its coverage, unlike the rest of local media. Swartz flew out to meet me while I was in Washington, D.C.; the magazine flew a photographer and her assistant from Austin to San Francisco to shoot my portrait (the photo ran in the print edition, not online); and I had a couple of conversations with a fact checker who went through every quote and reference to me.
That commitment of resources to an art story was exotic to me, never having experienced anything like it at the Houston Chronicle, where reporters checked our own facts — and, increasingly, fact-checked the copy desk to make sure it didn’t edit errors into stories — and it was easier to get travel approved for a story with a society angle than an art one. I was pessimistic that the story would ever run, telling Swartz in an early email that she’d never get her editor to sign off.
Photo: Timothy Gonzalez for the Darbys
“Even legally marrying a random woman, doing a guerrilla art action at the Menil, basically forcing the Chronicle to fire me, resuming my career as an escort, etc., etc., etc., can’t elicit any interest, because no matter how many bells and whistles you add, it’s still a Houston art story,” I told Swartz. “And nobody wants to read about a Houston art story, least of all the people reporting on it.”
But Swartz pulled it off, compressing an enormous amount of history into what remains a long story. It’s basically fair to all parties and documents the political sheninanigans leading to the Menil’s quiet acquisition last year of the tree The Art Guys — Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing — pretended to marry in 2009:
They approached the Menil, the MFAH, and even Rice University, offering the tree as a donation, but every institution turned them down. “We pretty much gave up and left it potted in the studio,” Massing said. But then, as fate would have it, the Menil hired Kamps to be its curator of modern and contemporary art, and he began to discuss the tree with the museum’s director, Josef Helfenstein. The tree had one very powerful ally, Michael Zilkha. A major player in global energy, Zilkha was both a Menil trustee and an unabashed fan of the Art Guys. And so it came to be that in March 2011 the sapling quietly made the move from Acres Homes to the Menil grounds. It was accepted into the permanent collection in July, as a donation from the Art Guys in honor of Zilkha and his wife, Nina.
The sneaky silence with which the tree entered the collection contrasted starkly contrasted with the way The Art Guys incessantly hyped their “wedding” to it in 2009, but it was consistent with how the Menil reacted to controversy over the acccession — by seemingly wishing the issue away. But Swartz reports the Menil has given some thought to opening the dialogue:
Last month, the Menil was considering plans to host a public conversation on the tree fight—just as, coincidentally, an appeals court struck down California’s gay marriage ban. “What I really find disappointing is that the interpretation of the work has been narrowed down so much,” (Menil director Josef) Helfenstein explained. He sympathizes with those who suffered because of The Art Guys Marry a Plant, “but the attempt to force us into this corner is not right. Who’s to say what a work really means?”
What “corner” does Helfenstein feel forced into? As far as I’m aware, no one has called for any heads to roll or for anyone to lose their jobs. No one has even called for the Menil to deaccession the tree, though some have suggested moving it. And of course the Menil should host a public conversation. Aren’t museums supposed to facilitate discussion of artworks, particularly those they think are important enough to collect? Throughout this whole affair, starting with the secretive way it went about acquiring the piece, the single biggest disappointment has been the Menil’s unceasing desire to sweep discussion of the The Art Guys Marry a Plant — a piece whose very meaning was originally billed as intended to be shaped by debate — under the rug.
That’s too bad, because even considering my quibbles with Swartz’s account — I note a few below — her story raises a number of fascinating issues about how artworks enter institutions and have their meanings shaped by that process. I bring up the following disparities partly to correct the record and partly to note how complicated trying to piece a story together can be.
First came a sour review by the Houston Chronicle’s art critic, who wrote that the Art Guys and their tree were making light of “the country’s hottest civil rights issue.” The Art Guys responded that he had it all wrong: they’d always been in favor of gay marriage.
But the sour review in question noted that fact:
Welcome to The Art Guys Marry a Plant, the latest performance — or as they prefer to call it, the latest “behavior” work — by the Houston conceptual duo. And it has nothing to do with the country’s hottest civil rights issue, they say, although they both support the right of same-sex couples to marry.
“I don’t even care about that,” says Galbreth of the gay-marriage issue. “It doesn’t even warrant discussion. I’m happy that the issue is out there because it helps promotes us, in a crude sense, when the people mistakenly think that it’s a political gesture, which to my mind, it’s not.”
From the beginning, I have clarified that The Art Guys support marriage equality and maintain the tree piece has nothing to do with gay marriage. And from the beginning they, and later the Menil, have presented this as new information I must have failed to take into account. Swartz lets them — and later Lawrence Weschler and the Menil — get away with it:
… according to Galbreth, the critic had either misunderstood or purposefully misconstrued their statements about gay marriage. “I don’t even care about that,” he’d quoted Galbreth as saying. “It doesn’t even warrant discussion.” What Galbreth had meant was that the issue of gay marriage was already resolved for him—he was for it. But that was certainly not how the story made him sound.
Really? Isn’t it exactly how the story made him sound?
The article also gets some history wrong that I took pains to clarify with the fact checker:
It was around this time (when Britt learned of the Menil’s acquisition of the tree and its planned dedication ceremony) that Britt decided to weigh in again. His criticism of The Art Guys Marry a Plant, he felt, had not been enough, and throughout the fall, he brooded. Finally, inspiration hit. He would stage a performance piece of his own—one that would be called The Art Gay Marries a Woman.
As I told both Swartz and the fact checker, I had first conceived of a more ambitious variation on the Darbys’ marriage piece back in 2009 after originally panning The Art Guys’ performance. Envisioning a gay man marrying and divorcing as many women as possible as the basis for an ongoing artwork, I discussed the idea — which wasn’t so much about critiquing The Art Guys’ piece as coming up with my own marriage-related project — with several people, including someone who suggested possible funding routes. I ultimately decided the logistics — and probably the politics — were too much, especially while I was working at the paper.
When the Menil acquired the piece, I didn’t “brood” “throughout the fall,” but instead immediately set about asking single female colleagues to marry me, a process that took time as my various would-be brides consulted attorneys, significant others, bosses and family members. (I outline the process here, in an article I wrote when it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to find a bride. This story trumpets my finding my bride — or rather, her finding me — at the last minute.) Getting word of the Menil acquisition, in other words, prompted me to revive and revise a project I had previously mothballed, not to dream up the piece after months of “brooding.”
I’m dying to know who the “people who knew him well” are in this sentence about my wedding night: “People who knew him well thought Britt seemed a little lost that night, wandering alone under the harsh lights of the bar after most of his friends had left.”
In my post-wedding guerrilla action on the Menil campus, I did not sprinkle my shaved “body hair” on the tree’s roots, but the shaved hair from my head.
Swartz conflates two conversations held at least six weeks apart — one in mid-December, one in early February — in this paragraph:
“I hate all this nastiness,” he told me, referring to the tree saga. He is still annoyed that no heavy hitters from the Menil came to his wedding—“[Kamps] should have been there,” he told me—and he thought the Art Guys were “confusing stubbornness with integrity.” He said too that it had been an honor when the Chronicle fired him after he proposed his journey. He knew that his videos looked crazy—he’d been a little unnerved himself when he’d reviewed them—but he felt the road trip had set him on a path that integrated art with all aspects of his life. “I’m apprehensive about what’s next, but I feel great about the wedding piece,” he told me. “Hopefully it will land me in the next place that’s an ideal fit.”
I hoped so too. But Britt’s hotel room faced an air shaft and smelled of dirty laundry, which was scattered about the room. He was storing his belongings in plastic boxes, including favorite pieces of art and a few keepsakes. I worried that his next performance might be titled “Do I Exist If I Am Not Observed?”
Fair enough, except I said the line that prompted Swartz to “hope so too” six weeks after she visited my hotel room facing the air shaft (oh, the humanity!). It was funny going back and forth with Swartz and the fact checker trying to figure out why she had written “Do I Exist If I Am Not Observed?” in her notes. The fact checker asked if I had a refrigerator magnet emblazoned with the question, which they obviously felt was important to use. I guess the solution they came up with is as good as any.