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March 17 - April 14, 2007 at Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles Projects, Culver City

by Diane Calder

My Lonely Tree," 2006, lightjet print
mounted on aluminum, 56 x 75".

"Sick-Amour," 2005-07, 12 channel DVD
installation, video still, dimension variable.

Even collectors adept at making room for new acquisitions might think twice before agreeing to take in one of Joel Tauber’s seedlings.  The sprouts start small, but Platanus racemosa have been known to soar to heights of 90 feet.  And welcoming them into the family would be no short-term commitment. In their native riparian habitat, given sufficient sun, water and nutrients, California sycamores can thrive for upwards of 150 years.

How the bespectacled Tauber--more closely resembling Clark Kent than heavyweight performance artists such as Chris Burden or Martin Kersels--became such an avid advocate of the California sycamore that he repeatedly scammed the cops and risked prosecution in defense of his favorite tree, is a long story.  How he campaigns, via art and advocacy, to locate nurturing homes for its progeny continues the tale.  Luckily, Tauber captured a good deal of this on video.  You can see and hear him conscientiously make the argument that sycamores combat greenhouse gasses to efficiently clean and cool the air; Tauber does everything in his power to defend his tree’s standing.

Joel Tauber has a history of throwing himself wholeheartedly into quixotic quests for the unattainable.  In projects that investigate the intersections between electronic media and various other modes of art making, the Art Center MFA grad and USC video instructor pushes himself to extremes.  Tauber ducked beneath the surface of the sea for his three-channel video, "The Underwater Project: Turning Myself Into Music."  He played a bagpipe while soaring aloft tethered to helium balloons for a work that brought him considerable attention at the 2004 California Biennial, “Searching For The Impossible: The Flying Project."

In his newest undertaking, "Sick-Amour" (Tree Project), Tauber documents his dedication to the preservation of one lone California sycamore.  The artist mounts his twelve-channel video production, and the wires that carry the juice to empower it, in a manner that mirrors and memorializes the form and function of the maligned Platanus racemosa that has stolen his heart.  That tree resembled an abandoned poster child when Tauber originally caught sight of it.  Thirsty, rudely pruned and infested with insects, the forlorn sycamore struggled for survival surrounded by asphalt in parking lot K of Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.

Since initially being drawn to the tree on a perfect June day in 2005, Tauber has ardently dedicated himself to loving, honoring, protecting and producing works of art about his lonely sycamore in ways that might strike your average tree hugger as obsessive.  He has hauled in gallons of water, chiseled away asphalt from around its trunk and fabricated tree guards to protect his treasure from hits by moving vehicles.  When Tauber’s efforts on behalf of his tree went unappreciated by Rose Bowl officials, he persevered and negotiated a plan to clear a 400 square foot area of pavement from its base to accommodate a “museum” containing commemorative and guardian stones.  “I’m using the tree as a symbol for the way we are environmentally,” Tauber confesses.  “The world is becoming a big parking lot.  I’m trying to get at the issues about how we can treat the living things, these green things in urban jungles without being too didactic.”

The outright kookiness that Tauber projects into his discussions of Romanticism, Utilitarianism and Environmental Ethics updates Will Rogers’ knack for using homespun humor to draw attention to critical issues.  Like successful entertainers everywhere, Tauber has an uncanny sense of timing.  He captures still images at opportune moments, effectively incorporates still photography into moving imagery and appreciates time’s fluid nature, stretching it out or speeding its passage appropriately to underscore his intentions.  Tauber habitually reaches back in time to pull out historic figures, joining the legacy of others gripped by a cause.  The ancient Persian ruler Xerxes, who purportedly so loved a particular sycamore that he adorned the tree with golden ornaments and himself with an amulet bearing it’s image, inspired Tauber to create his own tree jewelry.

There is no lack of acknowledgement of the voices of contemporary artists in Tauber’s work.  We are reminded of Alfredo Jaar’s interest in workers and the conditions under which they labor, Ed Ruscha’s early photos of parking lots; Christo’s encounters with governmental agencies; and Kim Abeles’ dedicated efforts in support of the environment.  With these references and more, Tauber demonstrates his understanding of a declaration by Hegel cited in "Sick-Amour" and noting that the way in which we perceive the natural world is shaped by our culture and language.  Tauber comes at this with such zeal that it is clear he believes the reverse also to be true.