-John Stuart Mill.
"Being eccentric is one thing, being an ass to others is another..."
Ahh, Central Florida-- land of open sky, enormous sinkholes, rattlesnakes, armadillos, and ground zero of mobile home living. Right now controversy is a'brewing over a man who at first look seems to have meant well, but group mentality has taken hold and the call to "Clean that shit up" has now arisen.
(photo at left by Kathleen Flinn of The St. Petersburg Times)
This blogger herself grew up in a tiny enclave in Pasco County known as Dade City. Us yungins' would entertain ourselves for eons based on a slight rearrangement of the town's lettering. You see, in them thar' neck of the woods there isn't much to do. So it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that when ANYTHING happens outside of the ordinary, it is considered to be extraordinary.
Take one Frank Bates, an admitted "eccentric" living in Dover, near Plant City in Hillsborough County (an aluminum living town if there ever was one). You see, Frank has the general aura of a performance artist/RV salesman and general shit-stirrer. A few years ago, after taking a helicopter trip around the country-- (yes, a cross-country helicopter trip)-- Frank got inspired after visiting Texas' famed Cadillac Ranch's ode to Stonehenge and decided to do his own homage on the property next to his dealership, utilizing the grande dame of the road, the Airstream trailer. (This guy might have Hunter S. Thompson beat in terms of randomness.)
So off Bates went, submerging a group of junkers in the sandy ranchland directly facing I-4 (Central Florida's major thoroughfare connecting tourist meccas Tampa and Orlando.) But now his creation is getting its first taste of censorship amidst cries for the public good. Hillsborough County has fined him repeatedly for the "eyesore" that the neighbors are up in arms over. Of course, apparently Mr. Bates decided to sink the shinier side of the Airstreams facing the neighbors, blinding them. These neighbors are apparently in other trailers of the non-Airstream variety. Apparently the ruckus has caused many discussions amongst the neighbors of varieties like, "What in tarnation is that nut up to now?"
The funny thing is, if Bates were in this fair city of ours, he just might get a space in the Whitney Biennial, or at least Andrea Rosen Gallery.
(Andrea Zittel's 1995 "Travel Trailer Units"; personalized trailer design,
for the astro-turf lover in you)
Last week Bates had his day in court. He was given until April 15th to cease and desist-- (I.E., dispose of his trailers) with the County Code Enforcement Board unanimously deciding his creation is not "art," per se, but garbage. I can't help but chuckle, knowing how much the contemporary art world has been discovering a newfound love of trailers and trailer trash-- Andrea Zittel, Amy Vogel, Cheryl Molnar all come to mind, as well as Kai Althoff and Nick Z.'s wild installation last summer at Barbara Gladstone. The only thing missing there was smashed up cans of PBR.
(at right-MOMA's ode to trailer trash, 2007)
What strikes me the most odd about this whole story is that there's so many other factors at play other than just government declaring what is and what isn't art. Number one, why are we so fascinated as a culture by those in less-than-fortunate circumstances? The literal act of "sinking a trailer into the dirt" is doing something against its very purpose. To their owners, an Airstream represents a freedom from being tied-down. The open road lies ahead; the sky is the limit. The next door "mobile homes" are quite different. They are fixed to their concrete foundations, with no way to escape. Their owners find themselves trapped in a temporary existence, but on permanent plane.
(Above, Amy Vogel's recent take on the bucolic, but dark undertones of living amidst the temporary)
And for those of us in the urban centers, all of this almost sounds laughable. We immediately dismiss trailer trash, thinking of Jerry Springer rather than a hardworking family unit based on closeness, or love of nature and the land. And when art does focus on this sub-genre of society it's not necessarily "embracing" and sharing in the laughter, but I feel it's much more the act of the school bully. We're here in the top galleries of the world, pointing like Nelson from the Simpsons, shouting, "HA-HA!"
In fact, cruelty is something regularly overlooked in contemporary art. The upper eschelon's fascination with the underclass knows no bounds, nor boundaries. Perhaps Mr. Bates himself has overlooked the effect this has had on his neighbors as well. Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, as well as freedom to create one's art. But in Bates' case, he's more of a Richard Prince, doing an appropriation of a much-better made, and much more accepted display in Cadillac Ranch, to say nothing of Stonehenge, lest we forget the O.G..
Still, I do find the censorship issue in this case to be unsettling, but at the same time this is almost insulting to these residents, and in their own backyards-- literally. It is one thing to have public art in public spaces, but when hurt feelings gets involved, where does the property line end?
(at left, Cheryl Molnar's "Airstream" Trailer)