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Men of the World 

Reading Art Is Such a Chore

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Mark Alice Durant and Mathew Wilson say their job is to enact "unannounced public gestures." Designed to "intervene within the daily machinations of social and economic life," these incidents are timed for rush hours and heavy foot traffic. They say they want "to explore issues surrounding male identity; more specifically, white working-class identity in urban America."

Mark and Mathew call themselves "Men of the World." They have even fashioned a corporate logo of sorts--a man in a hat with a gear in his gut. Mark lives in LA; Mathew, who's English, lives in Chicago. Last week they got together and went about their business. Their project, sponsored by N.A.M.E. gallery, began with the duo going up onto the roof of the gallery's building, near Chicago and Milwaukee, and raising four Men of the World flags.

They dispatch their rites in a dutiful manner, always dressed in black trousers, white long-sleeved shirts, black neckties, and black shoes. They carry briefcases. They look like bureaucrats under the influence of liturgy. Circumspect and silent, they punctuate their routines with formal handshakes.

There's nothing mimelike about their activity, though Penn and Teller come to mind. Mark is the taller of the two, and he has black hair that is longer than Mathew's blond hair.

On Tuesday they attached tags with string to the legs of the Art Institute's lions, then proceeded south through Grant Park. As two homeless people dozed below a monumental statue of Athena, Men of the World tied a tag to it reading: "This is an index of participation in the collective sleep." The Price of Monuments continued when they put a tag on Abraham Lincoln that asked: "How do you think a man like me got to be a man like me?"

A bicyclist who watched them tagging one of the equestrian Indians at Congress said they looked like Mormons, and they did.

Except for that cyclist and a man who took his daughter and her friend for a picnic atop the General John Logan statue across from the Hilton, few people noticed the performance.

A larger audience witnessed fragments of Men Exchanging Fluids, which Men of the World performed later in the day on North Michigan. A mixture of workers and tourists flowed past this strange and slow-moving event. A puzzled few paused and stared.

Mark stood under the bas-relief on the northwest corner of the Michigan Avenue bridge. Mathew stood on the small traffic island in front of the Wrigley Building. Each of them was surrounded by a circle of plastic cups of water. They took turns picking up one cup at a time, carrying it over to the other, and tipping it to his lips. They went back and forth until all the cups were emptied.

One bystander asked if that was vodka they were pouring down their throats.

On Wednesday they unloaded 365 white shirts tied in neat bundles into Daley Plaza. They methodically stacked and unstacked and restacked the shirts, until they created a giant X on the pavement. Their motions recalled paper shuffling, but there was a tenderness in their handling. The anonymous laundry evoked white-collar corpses. One pedestrian asked if this was "an AIDS thing."

The next day the pair handed out red balloons to anyone who would fill in the blank on a brown paper bag stamped "I perform my job ____ with honor and dignity." Later they took stock of who had participated in their "homage to the work ethic." The entries included "McDonald's hostess," "scientist," "data entry," and "unemployed."

Mark said that nearly every white businessman who walked by wanted nothing to do with them and considered them "scum." He said "they didn't want to compromise their erectness." Last year, Mark organized a panel for a Society for Photographic Education conference in Washington, D.C. It was entitled "It's a Dick Thing: Men Looking, Looking at Men Looking."

Men of the World finished their work at a desk set up at N.A.M.E. on Friday. Under two side-by-side clipboards, each bearing a photograph of one of the Mayor Daleys, hung a line of ten more clipboards, each holding multiple copies of a letter addressed to "Richard Daley," signed in pencil "Sincerely," and rubber-stamped: "Men of the World." The letters were headed "Ten Commandments for Richard Daley." Each letter carried a commandment. Number two was "Thou shalt gaze upon thy Father unblinkingly" and number seven was "Thou shalt not inflate mythologies and float them over our heads."

Mark and Mathew addressed envelopes to Mayor Daley at City Hall, stuffed each one with a commandment, and carried them to a nearby mailbox. They performed a similar piece last June titled "29 Love Letters to Daryl Gates."

Did Gates get it? Will Daley?

Reading art the right way is such a chore. For a wall installation at N.A.M.E., Men of the World had typed phrases on little scraps of white paper. Pinned to the wall, these linguistic specimens looked like dainty flags. A couple took a look at the piece's title, 500 Euphemisms. He had to explain to her what the word "euphemism" meant. But he was slower to get the artists' point, and the piece's subject, as she read out phrases like "nightstick," "mister-mister," "highspeed drill," "the president," "my smoking gun," and "my big mapplethorpe."

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

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