Art As We Know It

It was sometime back in early November. I was on the phone with Mark Gonzales inquiring whether he’d be down to do Last Words. During our conversation, Mark mentioned he was going to Germany in December to do some readings and a skateboarding performance at a museum. All of this was in conjunction with a book of short stories and poetry he just had published there. Through the phone lines I listened to the arrangement of music Mark was going to skate to; this performance sounded too good to miss. One thing led to another, and after a short one-day stop in Münster, Germany, I was waiting with much anticipation inside the museum of Munchengladbach.

When Mark had mentioned museums, my mind automatically thought of long dusty archaich corridors filled with relics from the past – nothing could have been further from the truth. The museum was a prestine white-marbled modern building filled with art from the later part of this century. But on this day, wallrides, jump ramps, and blocks filled the main gallery. All of them looked like art pieces in a modern show, not one of them looked out of place as they laid alongside the art of Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Man Ray (to name only a few).

None of this would’ve been possible if it weren’t for Michael Zollner, the publisher of Mark’s book. Michael discovered Mark Gonzales through their mutual friend Raymond Pettibone. After hunting Mark down (no easy task), they began corresponding, which led to a friendship, a book, and now this show and live readings. When I talked to Michael about how all of this had come about, he explained, “We had this idea to bring Mark over. Mark was talking about a new kind of skateboarding style which involved going back to the roots of skateboarding; he’d been reading a lot about how skateboarding’s roots had evolved from early Polynesian surfing. So we thought this could be an interesting thing to do in a museum with art space. We asked the director of the museum in Munchengladbach if we could build ramps and do some kind of performance. He was completely enthused.”

Skateboarding in a museum is not an everyday occurrence, and it’s difficult to see anything like this going down in the States mainly because of insurance problems. When asked if the museum’s director took on a big risk doing the show, Michael said, “If I’d have been the director, I would have not allowed it. He took a huge risk. We never talked about insurance. There were pieces in the gallery, like a Bruce Nellman, probably worth 200,000 dollars. Mark’s performance was announced as a dance performance. If they’d have known it was skateboarding, I don’t think it would have gone ahead.”

Some of the gallery attendants seemed very strict. They cast an evil eye on anyone looking slightly alternative. Backpacks were treated with extreme suspicion and placed in the cloakroom so they wouldn’t knock or interfere with the millions of dollars on display. Most of the skaters seemed at a loss for what to do. All of this changed when Mark showed up and milled around for a while. More and more people started to show up; there was a mix of skateboarders and art people. For protection, black duct tape was stuck on the white-marble floors.

The music started and everybody stood around in anticipation. “Nobody panic,” instructed a voice on the tape. Mark emerged about ten minutes later. He wore a white embroidered fencing suit with shoes to match, he had a black balaclava on his head, he was skating a long board. Over the next ten minutes Mark skated around the museum floor, cruising past the crowd with so much speed it seemed his back foot was lost and would never come back to the board. Mark went down empty corridors, skated the wallrides, did coffins and 360s on the banks that had been made. For a time you couldn’t see him, but you’d always be able to hear his wheels on the cold smooth marble; the warm sound of urethane and bearings echoed off the museum walls. The whole showooked so surreal, no one knew what to think. There were no technical tricks being done. If you’d come to watch the latest street moves, then this was not your day. But if you’d come to see something that would stick in your memory for the rest of your days and to witness a skateboarder who is skateboarding itself, then this was your day. The event was all about grace and soul. It was about skateboarding and its roots in surfing, and it was about doing something different – all of which come easy to Mark Gonzales. Art curator Aaron Rose of the Alleged Gallery in New York summed it up perfectly, “One ten-year-old kid at the performance said it best; he said, 'I came here expecting to see street skating, but it was more like nature.'”

The next day Mark was scheduled to do the first of four readings Michael Zollner organized. It was at a school in the heart of Cologne. A couple-hundred fourteen-and fifteen-year-old students watched as Mark began his talk. This was the first time Mark had spoken in front of so many people; he wasn’t exactly relaxed. “I wish I could put all my nervousness onto you, so you knew how it felt.” Mark stumbled through the first of his readings taken from a book that’s just been released in Germany called Broken Poems. After sometime, Michael took over and read one story in German. Some of the children laughed, others paid attention, and a few couldn’t sit still in their seats.

After the reading Mark answered a few questions. He became more relaxed as time went on. Mark never went to school. He can’t read that well. It’s like all his thoughts are trying to burst out at once, like they can’t form an orderly queue when faced with an audience. Millions of us may know how this feels, few of us would want to stand in front of an audience and try to express it – another reason why there is only one Mark Gonzales. One girl thought Mark was a dreamer and told him so. “I am the American dream,” was his answer.

That night another reading took place in the media square of Cologne. This time Mark’s reading went much better. He was more relaxed, and everyone who was there wanted to be there. He read and messed around, tried ways to relax (including standing with his back to the audience), and spoke well. “If anyone wants to come up here and fight me, I’m down to get busy.” Mark was just being Mark, the audience laughed, but nobody stepped up. Michael Zollner sums up the readings: “The readings were a completely new thing for Mark, so he experimented a lot. He was nervous. It worked out well when he showed he was nervous; it made it much more transparent and the people liked it. Especially the reading in Cologne, I think that went perfectly.”

We spent the following afternoon cruising the streets of Cologne, and shooting stills and moving images of Mark in his fencing suit. This was the first time I’d seen the suit up close. Once again Michael Zollner explains its story: “The idea of the suit is that it represents elegance and style. Fencing has theatrical elegance, nobleness.”

We skated a rail Mark had found earlier in the week, then tried to follow Mark skating the streets (which proved difficult because of the speed at which he skates). We ended up freezing our asses off outside Cologne’s ancient cathedral. Mark skated among the many Christmas tourists, working his way in and out of them like the only white checker left on the board. It looked amazing.

Our last day was spent in Münster for a reading at an indoor park. Mark talked to lots of skaters who weren’t too sure what exactly was going on. He played his Walkman, read poems, and one short story about a boy named Scrabble. Along one wall of the building stood twenty to 30 pictures Mark had drawn on letter-size paper. The three readings took on a familiar pattern. At the end of each one, Mark autographed books and drew inside the covers for his admirers. I got some posters and Michael Zollner gave me a book. I waited my turn in line to get them signed. There were no drawings. But inside the book he wrote, “Oi, Skin, Mark Gonzales.” I read it all the way home.

them signed. There were no drawings. But inside the book he wrote, “Oi, Skin, Mark Gonzales.” I read it all the way home.