Thursday, July 22, 2010

Does Trevor Johnson believe this is art, or is he just messing with us?

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Seattle coffee shops display and sell local art. Right now, the works of one Trevor Johnson adorn the walls of Zeitgeist Coffee, located near Seattle’s Pioneer Square and International District. Mr. Johnson apparently works in Styrofoam. His art consists of chunks of it glued together and painted various solid colors, as seen in this image taken with my not-so-great cell phone camera:

The pieces are labeled “Flotsam Red”, “Flotsam Blue”, etc. Price tag on each: $150.

Okay. I have respect for experimental art, writing, photography, music, and cinematography. I think it’s great when people go out on a limb and try something that’s never been tried before. But somehow, I’m not feeling much respect or awe for “Flotsam Green” and “Flotsam White”. Maybe if they were priced at, say, $15 each, and maybe if there were some sort of meaningful explanation posted, saying, “These are beastly chunks of Styrofoam I found floating in the Puget Sound, and I have made art from them to bring awareness to the human effect on the environment. All proceeds go to Puget Sound cleanup efforts!” then maybe I would feel different. But I don’t think this is an environmental statement. The unpainted parts of the Styrofoam look very white and clean. They don’t look to have ever floated alongside kelp and jellyfish in the Puget Sound. On an artistic level, I don’t think it took a lot of skill to glue this Styrofoam together and give it thick coats of acrylic paint. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Mr. Johnson is making fun of Seattle. Maybe he is saying, “Let’s see if some latte-drinking dumbass will actually pay $150 for a bunch of painted Styrofoam chunks. Or maybe there’s some deeper meaning that is just too profound for my mind to grasp. Maybe Mr. Johnson is a genius and I just can’t see it.


  1. This reminds me of an experience I had in college. In my junior year "Literature of the Holocaust" class, the professor assigned us the book "Fragments" by Binjamin Wilkomirski. The story's all about how he grew up in a series of concentration camps, totally on his own, at the age of five to seven years old. It's a very brutal book, very graphic, lots of violence.

    At the end of the assignment the professor told us that Binjamin Wilkomirski had actually come under intense fire after the story was published because some background research had been conducted and it appeared that he'd actually made the whole thing up.

    A collective gasp of outrage went up from my from my frozen little midwinter undergraduate class. You could practically see the cloud the steam from all those little gasps made.

    But then my professor asked a question I'll NEVER forget. She said, "Does it even matter if it's real or not?"

    When one trembling (still outraged, apparently) young man asked her what she meant, she said:

    "You still felt it didn't you? You felt it as if it were real."

    She was right. The lesson I took from that is that art is what you feel about it. It doesn't matter what anyone says or how any institution or organization rates it. Or even if the whole thing is a total lie. It's how YOU feel. Because that's the only thing that's really real. Your reality as felt by you.

  2. Minima is right on. Art is as you interpret it, and I think "Flotsam Blue" is a scam.

  3. Ugh, I fucking hate styrofoam...
    - 小Lo

  4. Back in art school we had a project for a 3-D design class in which we were supposed to decorate a cardboard box. I had just learned that shippers were playing around with using popcorn to replace packing peanuts in shipping containers, so I planned to fill a cardboard box with popcorn. But I flaked out and had to buy a box of microwave popcorn packets at the last minute and use the microwave in the cafeteria to pop it. When time came to present the box, I explained where the idea came from, and the first question my professor asked was "where did you get the popcorn?"

    Art professors frequently ask students "what is art?" Looking, back, I don't think the question was supposed to have an answer; I think instead it was intended to get the students to think about that very question. Of course, I joined the Art department fresh out of Computer Science and Engineering, so I felt it was my obligation to find an answer. "Art is the study of intent and consequence."

    By that definition, what the artist meant by the piece is as important as the piece itself, and how you feel about the piece both before and after you know the artist's intent is equally as important. For Minima's story, does it matter if it's real or not because you still felt it? Yes, it does, and how you feel after having been asked if you felt it also matters.

    For "Flotsam Blue", I agree with Anonymous in that I hate styrofoam, and I agree with Augustin in that I think the artist is full of crap. But I hold a tiny hope that someday I might hear the artist's explanation for the piece, and then maybe I'll think something new. But if I had painted a piece of styrofoam and mounted it on a glass plate to hang as art, I would have been full of crap.