In an era of near-epidemic distraction, with media, advertising and various technological gadgets drawing the attention of the average individual in a dozen different directions at any given moment, the visual arts have become a haven for what may prove a radical, even profound, form of resistance: unmitigated obsession. In art, as in few other disciplines, one is free -- even encouraged -- to cultivate a whim and pursue it with singular purpose, far beyond the bounds of logic, practicality or the typical consumer's attention span.
Few artists in recent memory exploit the potential of obsession as thoroughly, or as winningly, as Joel Tauber. His quixotic "Sick-Amour," an ongoing public project that he's configured into a gallery exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, manages to combine conceptual rigor, humor, social critique and ecological preservation -- all within the scope of one rather peculiar fixation.
The unlikely object of Tauber's obsession is a sycamore tree in the parking lot of the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Likening himself to the Persian emperor Xerxes, who was said to have so loved a particular sycamore that he adorned the tree with jewelry and assigned it a bodyguard, Tauber has launched a one-man campaign -- initially guerrilla-style, now assisted by several nonprofits (principally LAXART), Rose Bowl officials and the city of Pasadena -- to rescue the tree from neglect, memorialize its plight and celebrate its unsung contribution to the community. The goal is to pull up 1,900 square feet of asphalt around the tree, which hadn't even a curb's worth of protection when Tauber found it, replace it with a layer of mulch and turn the space into an outdoor "tree museum."
The exhibition at Vielmetter, besides documenting the public aspect of the project (as well as presumably raising money for it), also enriches it considerably. As compelling as the endeavor is on a conceptual level, it's the presence of Tauber's fervent, somewhat neurotic, irresistibly endearing voice, captured in monologues on each of the installation's 12 video monitors, that gives it its breadth, depth and heart. The installation is fashioned to resemble a tree, with the monitors suspended like fruit on branches made from black plastic tubing. Two long, painted foam and resin "earrings" also dangle from the branches, while nearby Tauber displays jewelry intended for humans: leaf pendants, fruit ball earrings, and a locket containing seeds from the tree, all cast in gold. Large, handsome photographs of the tree are posted around the gallery.
Each monitor features a loop of tree-related footage and a voice-over discussing some aspect of the project. The breadth is impressive.
In one, Tauber surveys the history of environmental philosophy. In another, he discusses the tree's cellular composition, citing the cabala while pondering his inability to penetrate the tree's essential nature. In another, he describes the various pests and fungi that threaten its well-being, the most despised of which, from his perspective, is the lace bug, which colonizes the leaves in vast numbers, extracts nutrients and deposits feces. ("I still can't get over that," he cries. "What audacity!")
More impressive, however, is the ease with which he winds this information into his personal experience with the tree, and the passion that underlies his portrayal of that experience. He relates his joy at the appearance of springtime buds, his horror at returning to the lot one day to find the tree roughly pruned, his scorn for the buses that jostle the branches during a football game and his empathy, inspired by the discovery of numerous used condoms, for the tree's profound isolation.
This sympathy -- informed, he says, by his own unmarried, childless status -- inspired a zealous attempt to help facilitate the tree's reproduction. With the help of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, he succeeded on the second try, producing 71 "tree babies" in February. ("This is one of the greatest days of my life," he relates breathlessly.)
These monologues tip, occasionally, into something like parody, but they never feel the least insincere. Tauber is clearly aware of the absurdity of his quest, but aware also of the strategic advantage that absurdity offers -- in disarming the habitual defenses of his potential viewers, for instance, and jarring them into thinking differently about so familiar an object.
In the den of distraction that is the Rose Bowl parking lot, his obsession functions as a sort of spotlight, illuminating, through the tree, our dysfunctional relationship with nature. And after a while, his conviction comes to seem rather more sane than blanketing the Earth with asphalt.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through April 28. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.vielmetter.com
Menace lurks amid the colorful chaos