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Fun with Art

Jonathon Keats makes art that makes you think. How much is that worth?


Jonathon Keats makes art that makes you think. How much is that worth?

The conceptual art career of Jonathon Keats started sometime before his sixth birthday. A bored Keats, marooned in the suburbs outside San Francisco, where his family had moved, began hawking stones. "I didn't know what else to do," he says. "So I set up a table outside, and I took some rocks off the ground, and I put the rocks on the table, and I just started to sell them." Had he later gone into business, the anecdote might have hinted at an early entrepreneurial savvy, but this enterprise was different. The 6-year-old Keats wasn't arguing that his rocks were more valuable than the many free rocks nearby. He was just arguing that they were for sale.The artist's adult projects have remained faithful to the spirit of his first venture. In 2000, Keats, then 29 and a newly published novelist, launched his art career as "a new way" of approaching philosophy, which had interested him since his college days. In an unusual performance piece at San Francisco's Refusalon gallery, he simply sat in a chair for 24 hours and thought. Since art shows must have art to sell, he offered the thoughts themselves (cards time-stamped with a few minutes' worth of ideas). And since art shows must feel like art shows, he was accompanied by a nude model and bad wine.Since then, his pieces have touched on everything from theology to the metric system to beekeeping, along with the occasional attempt to pin down God. He has lobbied the city of Berkeley to make "A = A" a local ordinance; devised a new system of measurement in which units are customized according to each person's heartbeat; and exploited the few sketchy details we have on God (He's older than everything else; He looks like a human being) to try placing Him in the taxonomic order. Most recently, Keats created a decidedly avant-garde entry to the burgeoning ring-tone market-a remix of John Cage's infamous silent composition, "4'33""-and he attempted what might be called apiarian choreography, arranging flower beds in such a way that pollinating honeybees will put on a ballet.\n\n\n
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Not knowing what movies plants would like, I ended up with pornography, which seemed the most obvious.
What these eccentric endeavors-lodged somewhere between hard and soft science, the postmodern and the baroque-have in common, according to their planner, is a twist on Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's notion of the found object. "That was a profound moment in the history of art," Keats says, "but it was slightly off from what could have been of much more interest, potentially." More intriguing to Keats was the idea of a found process-the motions we go through in everyday life, which, when freed from their usual context, often appear absurd. What does a law look like if you take away the reason for it? What meaning is there in the act of buying something if it doesn't matter what you get?Keats's art is essentially that of an earnest philosopher-its driving method an intentional naiveté, a put-on innocence about the way the world works. Playing a bit dumb opens up questions most people assume are already answered, questions that often illuminate something new. There is, for example, the film he made for plants. Ignoring the assumption that plants don't watch movies, Keats could focus instead on matters of taste. "Not knowing what they'd like, I ended up with pornography, which seemed like the most obvious thing," he says. The result was Cinema Botanica, a black-and-white piece "featuring explicit acts of cross-pollination." His latest concept, to be set up next year at Montana State University, also gives agency to nature. Suggesting that a stream has "a song that it sings," he will give Bozeman's Mandeville Creek a new melody by rearranging the rocks beneath the water.At a certain point, Keats's whole persona begins to appear as one big Keats project: a slightly preposterous "what if?" on how to lead an artist's life. It's a notion he encourages. On a shelf in one corner of his study, Keats keeps a large block of carbon beneath a bell jar. This solemn gray chunk, exactly equivalent to the artist's carbon weight, is the control in his biggest installation piece: "the project of being alive."
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