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Grand Gestures

Remembering the entertaining enigmas of Men of the World

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If you haven't noticed crowds of people playing dead in Daley Plaza, waving white handkerchiefs at Lake Michigan, or lining downtown el platforms with white flowers in quite some time, there's a simple explanation: Mathew Wilson, the witty and ambitious conceptual performance artist, has left town. He's exited the continent, in fact, resettling in London in February.

Wilson's work was as poetic as it was ridiculous. He began making performances here in 1991 while still a student at the School of the Art Institute, teaming up with his photography instructor Mark Alice Durant to form Men of the World. That year alone they created over a dozen public performances at various sites around downtown, executing their banal, repetitious, and enigmatic tasks to the bemused stares of the occasional passerby. The "script" for The Hour of 100 Flowers, a 1991 piece held in Daley Plaza, captures the playfulness and solemnity that perpetually collided in their performances: during the hysterical blooming of summer: heat, abundant vegetable matter, workers in shirtsleeves, the smell of sex in the office; two men arrive at plaza carrying aluminum buckets filled with flowers. in ritual fashion, men of the world diagonally place one hundred red carnations, one per 3 by 3 foot square of granite tile. attached to each stem is the message: "we are jewels on a chain." upon completion the men turn their backs upon the temporary field of colorful flora, empty buckets by their sides. for exactly one hour two men and a diminishing number of flowers occupy the public space named after a cruel bureaucrat. curious passersby are told "it's the hour of the hundred flowers, take a flower." workers who accept return to their workstations as jewels on a chain. at the end of the hour, men of the world collect remaining flowers, shake hands and leave site.

Although Durant moved to Los Angeles the following year, Men of the World continued to perform on occasion, both here and in other cities. In their last Chicago piece, 1998's Cradle: Three Stations, Six Platforms, Wilson and Durant enlisted 100 devotees to occupy three Loop el stations, where they stood silently for an hour while holding bunches of white flowers. The duo produced no performances in 1999, in large part because Wilson unexpectedly had his hands full as a first-time father. "Having a baby is a choice I never would have made," he says, "but now that she's here it's the greatest thing that's ever happened."

But Men of the World were hardly idle. They spent the year designing their first book, Gestures in the Paradise of the Ordinary, which was published in January. The glossy 36-page paperback documents selected works in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and is every bit as wry and lyrical as the performances. The book can be ordered only through the Men of the World Web site at www.menoftheworld.net.

It may seem odd that Wilson has returned to his native England considering the battle he fought to stay in America when the INS threatened to deport him four years ago. He had to convince the government that his work made him uniquely qualified to teach performance art at the university level and made him a valuable member of society. "While I did survive the immigration situation," he says, "I never fully escaped it, and in the end I was too exhausted to carry on the fight. To put it simply, I was unable to make extra money because of restrictions on my visa, and that was untenable after the baby's arrival."

He's spent his first two months in London interviewing for teaching jobs and returning to his first love, photography. But Chicago continues to call to him. "It's like there's a gravity well under that city that keeps drawing me back to it," he says. "Chicago made me and my work. At the moment I feel rather like I cut off my own oxygen supply, but that was part of the point. I had become very comfortable in Chicago as far as the work itself was concerned. It makes artists repetitive and redundant."

What does he miss most? "Heroically terrible sports teams and that most wonderful American trait--the undying belief that anything is possible. In Europe we realize this to be a fallacy, but it makes life a little less colorful."

--Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Donald McGuire.

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