Saturday, October 28, 2006

Art History 102: The Crapper As Mode of Self-Expression

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Massage an art historian’s shoulders long and firmly enough and sooner or later he’ll share the story of Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel “Of Champ” Duchamp, one of my favorite artists, was a French Dadaist artist in the early 20th century, the one with the greasy-ass hair. He’s also the man responsible for thousands of perverts and home contractors alike being really disappointed when they rush to the museum to see the painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” only to find there’s no naked lady in it and something that only vaguely could be called a staircase.

In 1917, he exhibited a strange piece of sculpture the audacity of which sent the art world gasping for air, then sputtering on a gob of spit while it looked for a glass of water. It was a piece called “Fountain,” an actual urinal, hung upside down and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”

The original urinal was lost. But there are several replicas. One is in the Tate Modern in London. It sits in a clear case after, some years ago, a couple of performance artists had to go No. 1 really, really badly and tried to use it.

The moral of the story: If you call it art, it’s probably art. Sorry, but those are the rules. The only question after that is whether it’s good art or bad art.

I had this in mind the other day when I asked my wife to take a swing by Fall River’s new art exhibition. You know — would-be strip joint mogul Paul Viveros’ setup in the Industrial Park. It’s a large sign for the park spelled out with toilets. He set it up, he says, as an artistic expression of Fall River’s (pun) shitty reputation.

But like any artist, Viveros refuses to categorize his work just one way. It’s also a comment on how “bordering communities need Fall River’s water to ‘flush’ their own waste,” according to the story. Wow, two artistic statements! Fantastic. Oh, wait, one more. “It also makes light of the drudgery of working every day, he said.” OK, that’s enough.

If I could speculate — which I shouldn’t, but try to stop me — I’d guess that Viveros is also ticked that he’s not allowed to open his hooter hut, much to the delight of his neighbors, and his life won’t be complete unless he leaves the Industrial Park at least a little tackier than he found it.

I have opinions about what this does to Fall River’s self-esteem, never mind what people who stay at the hotel think.

But he’s calling the toilet display art. Therefore, it’s probably art. Sigh. Sorry, but those are the rules. I had to judge whether it was good art or bad art.

So, beret tilted at a cocky angle, mustache waxed, I led my wife to my car, our magical chariot that would transport us to artistic heights rarely if ever equaled in the city limits. It’s a Toyota. It can do that.

“This is supposed to be the biggest Industrial-Park-and-strip-club-related freestanding readymade 3-D toilet exhibit to hit the art scene in a long time,” I said. “And it’s in Fall River, right off Route 24! How convenient.”

“Toilet art’s overrated,” she said. My wife is a successful artist who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. That’s the best art school in the country, bub. She knows her stuff.

“I wonder if any famous art critics will be there!” I said. “Like Paris Hilton or whoever the art critic for The New Yorker is!”

Yes, and so we were soon riding to our destination, in the shadow of the landfill down Airport Road, which since there’s no airport anymore should probably be renamed something more appropriate. Avenue of the Arts!

As you drive into the Industrial Park, it’s there on your left. Go a little bit past the UPS and FedEx dropoff boxes. There, on the grassy slope leading to the road from Oliver’s, is Fall River’s own WC field, so to speak. There, 14 new, stark white toilets in two rows, with a letter on each spelling out “INDUSTRIAL PARK.” At probably $350 per toilet from Home Depot, plus the decking they sit on, it’s at least a $4,900 “go to hell” sign.

And that’s about it.

We sat in the car, not saying anything, just watching it. It’s important when confronted with a new piece of art to absorb its profundity for a while before forming any conclusions about its aesthetic qualities.

“At least they’re not yellow,” my wife said.

“Yup,” I said. “Yellow toilets never look clean. But they probably will turn yellow if they’re just sitting out there like that, though.”

She cocked her head. “Is that all they do? At least maybe if one of them had a fuzzy seat cover or something. Or if they were all different kinds of toilets.”

“Or if he snuck a bidet in there. Just one,” I said. “With an exclamation point painted on it.”

“Maybe if it was one gigantic toilet 20 feet high. If you’re going to use a toilet for a political or artistic statement, don’t wimp out.”

“Or if they all shot out water in a pretty pattern — like at the Bellagio in Las Vegas,” I said.

She thought some more. Meanwhile, a TV reporter stood in high heels among the toilets, doing a newscast while a cameraman followed her. The things The Media does for you people.

“Actually, it makes it look like there’s a plumbing company nearby,” my wife said. “In that case, it’d be sort of helpful.”

I stroked my chin. “If I’d done this, I would’ve set up a little endtable with some magazines for browsing and a Lavender Meadow Glade Plugins air freshener.”

She glanced at me. “Where would you plug it in?”

I shrugged. “That’s what makes it artistic. Alternatively, you could run a long extension cord to the bar.”

We sat again in silence. Sometimes this takes a while. “Do you think ... uh ... anyone has ... you know?”

I looked at the reporter. She was standing right near the toilets and appeared to be calm, undisgusted.

“I see where you’re going with this,” I said. “No, I don’t think so, or she’d be vomiting into one of those things right now. But I do suspect this is going to be very popular with the homeless and people going on long drives.”

We left nursing the kind of artistic disappointment that only a Starbucks latte can cure. In the end, I don’t think I’ll visit the exhibit again. If I want art in Fall River, I’ll go to the Narrows Center or the Cherry & Webb Gallery. I’ve had enough of this artsy-fartsy stuff.

Friday, October 13, 2006

P.F.’s B.S.

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Like a strange, unpleasant taste on the back of my tongue, a question has been haunting me persistently for some time now.

What is the P.F. Chang sauce for, anyway?

I don’t mean that rhetorically. I need assistance with this. What the hell is the sauce at P.F. Chang’s for?

Don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about! I’m not crazy! The sauce! The fucking sauce! What’s it for, for God’s sake?

An appetizing little bit of background may be in order.

In my ongoing quest to try to duplicate the social habits of a normal human being, I decided I’d take my wife to a restaurant in Boston. We have a mortgage, so “going to a restaurant” usually means pressing ourselves to the glass and smelling the food through the windows, then going home and eating cereal.

This time, though, I promised her an actual meal.

“Forks and everything?” she asked.

“Actually, I was thinking P.F. Chang’s,” I said. “We’ve never been there before and it’s cheap.”

“Save the sweet talk for after dessert,” she said.

“They have chopsticks — it’s like a fork, except instead of a stick with three sharp thingys at the end it’s a stick with just one long one.”

She politely reminded me that she is, in fact, Chinese. And soon enough we were walking up to the restaurant, which is sort of best described as “upscale-middlebrow,” meaning it’s less a restaurant and more the consumer-end arm of a nationwide food-service corporation, but it’s clean and there aren’t ketchup bottles on the table. It is also decorated with murals and objets d'art and architectural echoes of things and styles that resemble the kind of easily recognizable stuff one might find in a mythic version of China as depicted in movies by non-Chinese people. Meaning, like, a curvy horse.

We sat outside. Before we ordered, the waiter brought us this tray laden with three small bowls of different pastes and three cruets of some kind of fluids. Like an appetizer kind of deal.

“Some sauces for you,” he said, and walked away.

My wife and I stared at the tray for a while. Then at each other. Then at the tray again. Then at each other. Then she looked at me.

“What’s that for?” I said.

She shrugged.

“You’re the Chinese one here,” I said. “Don’t you know?

She peered at the cruets of fluid. “No,” she said.

“Do we put the sauce on something?”

We glanced around coolly at other tables. They all had identical trays of bowls and cruets, but nothing else. No bread or rice or other medium to transfer the sauce from the bowl to your mouth. Nothing.

“Apparently not,” she said.

I lifted the tray delicately. “Is there an instruction manual or something I missed?”

The waiter stood at another table and asked the people sitting there if they wanted him to “make your sauce for you.” They said yes, and he started pouring liquids into bowls and stirring them around like a chemistry professor — I mean, I can only guess that’s what he did, because his back was mostly turned. I tried to peek over his shoulder and my wife kicked me in the shin.

“Mixing. He’s mixing,” I said. “I think we’re supposed to mix.”

She brightened. “Yeah, that must be what we do. They’re mixing, and they look happy.”

“Great!” I said, smiling. Then I felt dark and empty inside, staring at the three bottles and three bowls. “How?”

She shrugged again.

I held up a random bottle. “Which bowl’s this one go into?”

“I honestly have no idea. Just put it in one of them and see what happens.”

The first bowl had a lump of glop. Wasabi? Isn't that Japanese? The second, a brown liquid. Unknown. The third, red paste. Most likely spicy.

“What if I mess it up? I don’t know what's in these bottles. It could cause, like, an adverse chemical reaction.”

“Just try it.”

“What if it tastes like shit, though? I'm not a saucier!”

“It’ll be fine.”

“And if it’s fine, what then? How do I eat it? There’s nothing to eat the sauce with! You can’t just eat sauce — sauce is a topping for some other food! It's garnish! It's not edible by itself! It requires a medium to be consumed with!” I handed her the bottle. “You do it.”

She took the bottle, and I immediately gestured for her to put it back. The waiter was coming by.

“He’ll know we touched them!” I whispered huskily.

“Welcome to P.F. Chang’s,” he said. “Care for something to drink?”

“Two beers,” I said.

“And I'll have a water,” my wife said.

He glanced at the tray of sauces. Then he looked at me.

“Would you like me to mix your sauces?”

That smug bastard. Could it be that easy? Sweat rolled down my temples, collecting into the corners of my awkward, forced smile. I wrung my shaking hands under the table. I felt hours tick away, heard the sound of crying babies and crumbling empires. Passing taxis stopped to hear my answer.

“Nope!” I said. “We’re fine! Everything is fine!”

He nodded and left. My wife poked me with a chopstick.

“God, why did you do that?”

“I panicked! I was ashamed!” A chill wind bit my shoulders. “And what the hell would we have done with them even if he did mix them? What do the sauces fucking do?” I breathed heavily into a paper bag I keep for such emergencies. “It's OK. We're OK. We'll know for next time: bring our own baguettes.”

The tray of unmixed sauces seemed to smirk at me, conspiratorially, from across the table. In collusion.

“Who are you, P.F. Chang, and why are you torturing me?”

We were quiet for a while, sulking. Then my wife said, “Maybe they go on the entrees.”

Rays of sunshine burst through the clouds! Even at night! I felt joyous tears sting my eyes. Yes — of course! The sauces went on our entrees! How could I have been such a fool?

The entrees came not long after that. Both came with their own sauces already on them.

“OK,” she said. “I’m stumped.”

I grabbed the bottles and dumped them randomly into the bowls. Stirred them vigorously, spattering sauce on the table, on the windows, on my shirt. Poured a brownish-yellow-green slurry on my already-sauced lamb. Scrambled it around. Then I ate grimly.

“Well?” she asked.

“Tastes like mixed-up Chinese food,” I muttered.

I still have no goddam clue what the sauces are actually for or how to eat them properly. The Internet was no help, for once. The P.F. Chang’s Web site only makes an offhand reference to the “custom sauces,” but includes no instructions for usage.

I thought about flashing my journalism creds and demanding some answers, but found this: “Unfortunately, due to the volume of requests, we’re unable to grant informational interviews or respond individually.” Crap! “The information we disclose regarding our business, marketing and advertising plans can be found in our annual reports and our quarterly filings.” Nothing sounds more delicious than a quarterly filing, but I checked. Nothing remotely sauce-related.

My wife caught me trying to tear my laptop in half with frustration and patted my head.

“Relax. Maybe you were never meant to know,” she said. “It’s one of the mysteries of the Orient.”

I poured a bowl of Raisin Bran for dinner and sighed. “I guess.”

She showed me a carton of milk. “Here,” she said, pouring it. “It goes on like this.”
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