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Making Money 

The conceptual art of J.S.G. Boggs.

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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Page 2 of 8

 

"I discovered Boggs at the Hippodrome discotheque in London and immediately I knew." Knew what? "Genius." How? "I smelled. I can smell genius. He was just like an Indian when he is going to catch a wild animal." What was he doing? "He was looking for a girl to dance with."

"MAGIC IS THE ONLY HONEST PROFESSION," RICKY JAY was saying up on the stage of the Masonic Lodge, "because you tell people you're going to deceive them and then you do." Jay was seated in an imposingly large "throne" chair to one side of the stage. In the middle, in a throne of his own, sat Boggs, with Weschler sitting edgily in the throne to his left. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, and awfully small looks the person who sits in a Mason's throne; though none of the men was short, their heads reached only halfway up the backs of the chairs.

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The evening had begun with an introductory speech by the Jurassic's director, David Wilson. Himself the subject of one of Weschler's books (the critically acclaimed Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder), Wilson introduced Weschler as "a staff writer for The New York Times" (instead of The New Yorker), referred to his new book as Boggs: A Comedy of Errors (instead of Values), and referred to the rest of Weschler's oeuvre -- including the book about his own museum -- as "some other books whose titles temporarily escape me." The audience laughed -- as, somewhat ruefully, I thought, did Weschler -- because Wilson is supposed to be dreamy and weird. But could he be this dreamy? Or was he subtly distancing himself from the proceedings?

Weschler got the ball rolling by reading from the preface to his book, in which, having first discussed the general arbitrariness of money, he places the "perpetually confounding money artist, J.S.G. Boggs," in the context of his writings about other artists, such as Boggs' "soul mate," Tomislav Gotovac, a performance artist who used to â walk naked through the streets of Zagreb in what was then Yugoslavia, the art -- as Weschler put it -- "consisting both of that patently loaded gesture all by itself (this solitary individual, naked before the power of a totalitarian mass state) and of all the complications the gesture invariably provoked." Weschler then told the tale of how, hauled up before a court of law, Gotovac had endeavored to explain himself to his judges: "You don't seem to understand, your honors; you see, I'm an artist and my métier consists in stripping naked and parading through city streets." To which the head judge replied: "No, no, it's you, Mr. Gotovac, who doesn't seem to understand; for, you see, we are judges and our métier consists in throwing you in jail."

But Boggs, Weschler continued after the laughter had subsided, also "puts me in mind of several others of my subjects," including "that deadpan-wry provocateur, David Wilson . . . The title character of my 1995 book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," as well as Robert Irwin, the "protagonist of my very first book," who, like Wilson and Boggs, "one day got hooked on his own curiosity and decided to live it." Entertaining as what Weschler had to say was, there was something slightly disconcerting about listening to him discuss the "subjects" and "title characters" and "protagonists" of his various books while at least two of those subjects were living and breathing in the very same room. Journalism, as a wag once remarked, is fiction about real people. Could this, I wondered, account for the passive-aggressive peculiarities of David Wilson's introduction -- Caliban rebelling, however slyly, against Prospero?

If the evening seemed slightly off from the start, it was probably because everyone was there for a slightly different reason. Weschler, already six days into an 18-day, seven-city book tour, was there to promote his book; Boggs was there to discuss some of the issues raised in Weschler's book about him, and -- as became apparent -- to promote his own Web site and urge people to write to the Supreme Court on his behalf; and Jay was there to provide some context. Dressed in a dark suit, glowering at the audience through hooded eyes, the great magician told old carny stories -- Boggs had been a carny as a child himself -- and made one of Boggs' $20 bills disappear. Every time he opened his mouth, the audience snapped to attention.

Boggs' own contributions were considerably less impressive. Over lunch, he had been very pleasant to be with: direct, attentive, personable, polite, smart. But seated between Weschler and "Professor Jay," he appeared intellectually out of his depth. "If you go to a theater and someone onstage lights up a cigarette, has he broken the law?" he asked at one point, apropos of seemingly nothing. To which, when Boggs turned to him, Jay replied: "How the hell should I know?"

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