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Please explain what just happened.

I was once again discussing with my wife the fact that more and more I lean towards believing in the existence of aliens. Especially in religion. I think that I’ve been watching that Ancient Aliens show too much. She’s not a believer and the look on her face tells me that she probably thinks I’m joking.

 

What is your earliest memory?

I would sit on a little rocking chair that my paternal grandfather made for me.  My mom and I would sit by the door to wait for my father to come home from work. My parents separated when I was about five so this must have been earlier than that.

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA tries hard to bring art and people together. They are unpretentious, have relatively low ticket prices (with discounts if you take public transportation), and programs that invite the public’s participation. For example: the Engagement Party series – a public program funded by the John Irvine Foundation that promotes new work from emerging Southern California-based artists. The latest artist to take up residency in the series is Ryan Heffington. Heffington is a performance artist, choreographer, designer, and “self-described dance guru who makes highly theatrical works exploring dance’s aesthetic and socio-cultural possibilities.” Seems like a perfect match for the Geffen’s social aspirations.

I’m not always fond of conceptual art–the self-reference is, for me, often tiresome, and after the first chuckle upon discovery, most pieces quickly succumb to a system of diminishing returns. But artist Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” gets pretty much everything right (except maybe the name).

“A Tool” is an object which continually tries to sell itself on ebay. In one simple, elegant movement, then, it challenges notions of ownership, possession, value, trade, self-interest and, of course, capitalism. By purchasing it, one agrees to abide by the rules established not only by the author, but by ebay. Meaning you can’t bid again on it once it’s in your possession. In other words, you can’t keep it. But you can turn a profit. And because the artist gets 15% of each transaction, so can he. The temporary custodian of the piece has an interest, therefor, in bringing the work to people’s attention, and quickly. It is a brilliant, and quite active, statement about art-as-commodity.

It’s one of those rare pieces of art that makes you suspect the artist is laughing at your expense, but is so excellent in its execution that you happily submit to the (s)laughter.

It was located in the basement of an old craftsman that had virtually no ventilation, directly across from the elementary school on Pine Street. When you walked down the stairs and into the dank space the air was hazy with dust particles that shone in the sunbeams that had bullied their way in through the highly set windows. The fractured yet cheery sunlight being the only reminder of outdoor life to the subdued musty feeling that hung in the underground quarters.

The house itself was a rundown rental: The small front yard was an odd mixture of overgrown weeds and patches of dry bare earth. Plaid couches, rescued from various dumpsters around town, littered the crooked porch of the sinking haven. Discarded empty bottles of whatever cheap alcohol someone managed to shoulder tap and smashed beer cans lay strewn about the base of the discolored sofas like barnacles. Really, the exterior appeared much like the interior, sans the heavily used and abused musical equipment and beer matted shag carpeting. The windows sat askew in their rotting wood frames like the crooked smile of a child who had just lost its first tooth. The filthy glass was covered in punk rock ooze, creating a darkened hue, that you couldn’t see in, or out of.

The film that coated the windows rendered them darker and more distorted than a carnival funhouse. Today, window tinting on cars that dark is illegal in most states. You have to find some shady-pines window tinting company, pay in cash and pay extra for it (not that I would know about doing something like that). And, though professional tinting may deflect heat better than this particular brand of shadowy slime,  I can guarantee you it isn’t made of the same self righteous matter; Mohawk grease, Knox Gelatin, raw emotion, teen angst and god only knows what other pillaged sentiment or stolen idealism.

It was the brainchild of a guy named Dave who lived in the house, along with his band-mates. He was a little older than the rest of us, he had a fire engine red mohawk and black, black eyebrows that were tweezed into long upward points at his temples. A true artist, he was the one whose ideas we all played along with. In whose eccentric projects we all partook. He was a bass player in the coolest punk band in town. I heard he once took a dare that he couldn’t swim the full length of a swimming pool with the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels stuck up his ass. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the story, or if he made it the whole way, maybe no one ever mentioned that part. Whether he did or not, there is not a doubt in my mind that he tried his best. He was just that type of person, who, for obvious reasons, was insanely fun to hang out with.

Once your eyes adjusted to the light, or lack thereof, you could see through the dusty air to a bank of shelves along the far wall. Lining these shelves were a number of tightly sealed jars. All the jars had handwritten labels, some made of masking tape, some were just written in Sharpie directly on the glass. Upon closer inspection you realized that each of the jars contained urine. Dave’s urine. Hence the name, The Piss Museum.

Labeled, dated and sealed mason jars full of his piss. Each label told its own little story.

January 2-Tripping on acid.

February 18-Ate a side ribs.

June 23-Had gonorrhea.

June 30-Finished antibiotics.

July 25-After I had sex with my girlfriend.

July 28-Drank a case of Meister Brau.

September 9-Ate 2 pounds of bacon.

October 1-On painkillers from breaking my wrist.

October 6-Drank a gallon of apple juice.

October 9-awake for 32 hours.

Dave documented his day-to-day life, as well as more significant events by saving his own urine in jars and labeling the events that preceded each collection. There were hundreds of jars. These he kept in a separate special location on display inside his house. If you weren’t totally repulsed by the idea of The Piss Museum to begin with, and picked up the jars to examine them, all the urine was completely different. When the light from the windows hit the jars’ unusual contents you were awed at the extreme variations in color and substance. It was as though you were looking through a portal into another universe.

It’s not often that one comes across such great conceptual art that, somehow, in its own vulgarity can speak to you. There have, however, been many artists who have done works involving bodily fluids, each making their own individual statements. One that comes to mind, and makes me laugh to no end, is Piero Manzoni, that had an exhibit titled “Artist’s Shit” in 1961. It’s a series of, you guessed it, the artists shit, canned. Which he sold on par with the price of gold.

It’s anyone’s guess if the cans contain his (or anyone else’s) excrement. Does it really matter? He also had other works involving his own body matter. Balloons filled with his breath and egg shells that he marked with his thumbprints before eating them. Kiki Smith had a project like this as well. A row of large jugs that you couldn’t see through marked “tears,” “spit,” “diarrhea”  etc… Though her jugs remained empty.

In the case of The Piss Museum, we knew it was the artist’s urine filling those jars. I don’t recall any other works by Dave involving bodily fluids or excretions but this doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. He was a devout “meatitarian” for a period, where he promoted vegetable rights and carrot love, and on occasion he would drink a substantial portion of bacon grease for an audience. He also kept a collection of photographs of all of his girlfriends when they were seven years old, which I see as another example of his unusual artistry .

The last time I saw Dave was about ten years ago. He, our mutual friend Ali, who was also an ex-girlfriend of his (that he did indeed have a picture of when she was seven), and I, met for breakfast downtown at a restaurant that hires employees based on their natal charts.  Dave had just gone back to meat after a long stint of veganism. He remained as striking, witty and true to form as my sentimental teenaged memories of him. He had retired his mohawk and was now sporting long dreadlocks and he drove a Gran Torino that had been restored to look like the one in the TV show, Starsky and Hutch, except that his was green.

I wish I could recall more of the conversations the three of us had that day as we laughed hysterically and overstayed our welcome in that semi-dilapidated oddly placed booth in the center of the restaurant. He had become a DJ and quite the wine connoisseur. He gave me some great recommendations for red wines, all of which I later bought and thoroughly enjoyed.

Later that night Ali and I went to house party where Dave was spinning. The party was packed, we drank cheap keg beer and chuckled as we watched the row of groupies stand in front of his turn tables and ogle him. After the party got busted, Ali, Dave and I stood outside, tipsy and giggling pretending to be newscasters, speaking into our thumbs and trying to get interviews from the disgruntled underaged kids as they scattered from the police.

I don’t know what ever happened to The Piss Museum, if it was left for some unsuspecting landlord to find during a property walk through or thrown into boxes and left curbside for the garbage truck. Maybe it’s packed in a storage unit, napping, and will at some point, awaken in all its glory and once-again, be relit by sunbeams.

What I do know, is that there are times in your life when you look back and acknowledge the little things, the random seconds, the individuals that shaped your person and made you who you are. The moments when we find great beauty and serenity in the centered sounds of nature or are lulled into a meditative trance by the bombastic lights of Tokyo. It’s when you recall these characters and snippets that have fallen into your world like raindrops. When you acknowledge the people that have unknowingly given you the strength to create by example, that you realize; you can find an astounding amount of clarity while staring into a jar full of cloudy piss.

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