The Tree of Strife

When the Art Guys, Houston’s zany performance art duo, staged a faux wedding to a live oak in 2009, they thought they were raising questions about man and nature. But before long, The Art Guys Marry a Plant had become a flashpoint for the fight over gay marriage, inspiring vitriolic outbursts, pitting friend against friend, and causing at least one dramatic emotional breakdown. Was this the provocative artists’ greatest public failure? Or was it the most successful work of art they’d ever created?
TREE OF LIFE
Photo by Everett Taasevigen

At the beginning of what was to be an unsparing summer in more ways than one, two middle-aged men prepared for their June wedding. The year was 2009. Months earlier, they had sent out invitations, and they’d scheduled a wedding announcement in the newspaper. Now they put on tuxedos and walked down the aisle in front of friends and family inside the sculpture garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with works by Alexander Calder and Henri Matisse looking on.

What a casual observer might think was out of the ordinary—that these two men were marrying each other—was, in fact, not what was out of the ordinary. That became obvious when the grooms started pulling a squeaky-wheeled wagon behind them, upon which bobbed a potted live oak sapling. They parked themselves before a florid-faced minister, recited vows to honor and protect the tree, and then married it, putting a ring on one of its taller branches. Afterward, the crowd decamped across the street to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where everyone ate wedding cake—except, of course, the tree.

If you happened to be familiar with Houston’s art scene, this event might not have seemed so strange. The faux wedding, in fact, was just another presentation by the Art Guys, two popular performance artists who have been pulling off such acts in the city for almost thirty years. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing are what some might call social sculptors; they aim, as one recent catalog put it, to make “visible the usually unconsidered patterns of behavior, thought, and life in general.” This vision is infused with irony and humor: art pieces conceived by the two have famously required them to wear suits with corporate logos at public appearances for an entire year, walk ten miles around downtown Houston with buckets of water on their feet, and cover a dumpster with gold paint. They have performed as exotic dancers at a ladies’ strip joint, worked 24 hours at a Stop-N-Go, and erected fourteen-foot statues of themselves in front of a used-car lot. The Art Guys, in other words, are known as court jesters, Shakespearean fools, or, as the New York Times explained in 1995, “part Dada, part David Letterman … a cross between John Cage and the Smothers Brothers.”

So The Art Guys Marry a Plant—as this wedding performance was titled—was just their latest zany effort. What the

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