Mark Lamster | Essays

Nick Tobier Will Make You Smile

One night when he was a much younger man, Nick Tobier watched a procession of elephants walk out of the Midtown Tunnel and into the cacophanous streets of New York. Following them was an attendant with a shovel for you know what. This was the Ringling Brothers annual elephant parade, a great New York tradition, but Tobier had no idea at the time. It seemed an unexpected revelation, a wondrous moment of random transcendence.

Tobier is now an artist, and his works, which hover between installation and performance, aim to deliver that sense of wonderment and odd pleasure wherever he performs them, quite often in places that don't see a lot of art, or could use a dose of ephemeral beauty. They typically involve service of some sort. In one project he dressed himself up in a tan doorman-type uniform and acted as a butler to the passengers of the 22 Filmore bus as it made its way across San Francisco. In another, he organized a corps of uniformed park workers to perform a syncronized dance routine in a public fountain, Busby Berkeley style. How about an online rent-a-dog service—in French and English? Tobier's pieces are a little bit Monty Python and a little bit Vito Acconci.  

Last week I received a message from Tobier; would I be interested in participating in one of his projects? (I got to know Tobier in the early 1990s, when he was an assistant at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.) Not having any idea what I was getting myself into, I showed up as directed at the Ikea in Red Hook, and met his small team. The piece, "Marvellous Guests," entailed our dressing up head-to-toe in bright yellow rain suits, and then jogging as a team in single file through the streets of Red Hook carrying house plants (purchased at said Ikea). At designated spots that could benefit from a little green beautification, we set down our plants, and walked away. After a few minutes, we retrieved the plants and jogged along to the next spot. 

We got a lot of quizzical looks, but the reaction was overwhelmingly bemused and intrigued. One young boy, about three, pointed at us and yelled "It's an emergency!" But he seemed more excited than worried. One realization: 
People like to talk about plants. A nice lady told me she had the same kind of plant I was carrying and a Russian fellow wondered if he should pick one up for his apartment. Mostly, though, we were asked, "What are you doing?" My initial response was, "An art project," but Tobier suggested something slightly more coy: "Moving plants." In this vein, I decided the best response was to front like we were doing nothing unusual at all: "What do you mean?" When a man asked Tobier, who was at the front of the line, who we were, he looked back at him and then at the rest of us, and replied, "I had no idea there was anyone behind me." Then he jogged on and we all followed. Beautiful. 

To follow is a slideshow with some photos of our adventure and a few other Tobier projects. 


Jobs | April 12