I'd be lying if I said I sought out Mark Taylor Michaels. In truth, I just sort of tripped over him ... or at least his work.
The 29-year-old Michaels is a struggling Gulfport, Fla., artist. Over the past year, he's raised some eyebrows in the Tampa/St. Pete area by erecting temporary, unsanctioned exhibits in public areas, and sometimes in not-so-public ones. His exploits have included placing 36 Styrofoam heads along a street next to Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard bridge, as well as leaving a 55-gallon barrel filled with a mixture of water and concrete -- and marked with the numerical code for a flammable liquid -- outside the offices of the St. Petersburg Times. (The suspicious-looking objet d'art had to be removed by firefighters.)
Two weeks ago, I arrived at the headquarters of Orlando Weekly to discover that Michaels had graced us with his latest creation. It was a series of black-and-yellow cardboard boxes whose sides were decorated with stylized images of the Mona Lisa and Charles Manson, among other fun-filled icons. One of the boxes had somehow made its way inside the building and occupied a space on the floor right next to my desk.
In his self-produced PR materials, Michaels refers to this incident as his most recent "installation." Others might term it a desperate cry for attention, or even a plain nuisance. But it worked. On Sunday morning, I responded to a faxed invitation to watch Michaels repeat the stunt at 633 N. Orange Ave. Was I giving in to cheap hype? Yes indeed.
Something about that address sounded familiar, but it wasn't until I disembarked from my bus that I realized why: It's the home of the Orlando Sentinel. No one can say that Michaels isn't an equal-time instigator.
Putting up affront
Instead of subjecting the daily to the same up-close promotion he had visited upon us, Michaels decided to reassemble his magnum opus on a sidewalk across the street. The area directly in front of the Sentinel building was "just too dark," he adjudged.
As he unloaded his "Blitzkrieg Boxes" from a pickup truck, he was aided by his partner, the affable, 24-year-old Tim Vogel. The men quickly stacked the boxes into 11 columns that were between three and four units high, weighting them down with rocks "appropriated" from an adjacent vacant lot.
Michaels was in good spirits. On Friday, a St. Petersburg judge had decided to charge him only $200 for plastering 76 self-portraits on the city's empty buildings, Dumpsters and "a few places that were actually functioning businesses." The original assessment had been for $7,884.
As "Blitzkrieg Boxes" went up, Michaels explained that the former 20-piece exhibit now numbered 40 components. The new cartons were decorated with Magic Marker writings that recorded the artist's professional and personal progress in diary form. One of the entries recounted in detail a conversation I had with Michaels on Thursday, when I had phoned him to ask if the threatened rain would interfere with his Sunday plans.
"I started to ask Steve about parking garages or other indoor alternatives," it read, "then I realized ... it's not his job to pull off this event." If I was destined to be charged as an accomplice in Michaels' latest run-in with the law, I wanted that box as my Exhibit A.
If the profile fits ...
Michaels acknowledges that courting the press is a key element in his master plan to challenge Central Florida's lack of support for "cutting-edge" works. But his quest for visibility has been met with accusations that he's a mediocre visualist, a shameless publicity hound and (gasp!) a disgruntled ex-telemarketer. He denies none of this.
If he was seeking similar controversy this time out, Michaels miscalculated a bit. In its post-rave era, downtown Orlando is always a tomb on Sunday mornings, so less than 10 pedestrians passed by during the two hours his installation remained standing. Most were older gentlemen who paid the construction little heed as they redirected their walking routes into the gutter. A bearded Sammy Hagar look-alike pronounced the display "neat" while snapping a picture of it, but Michaels couldn't return the favor: Vogel had left on a snack run, taking with him the video camera he was using to record the day's events.
Though they also had received faxed warnings, no members of the Sentinel staff emerged from their Sunday toil to watch the proceedings. A lone police car cruised by without slowing down.
Michaels wasn't disheartened by the low turnout. He was still getting to know the Orlando area, he said, and firming up his reputation as a man who would show up where and when he promised.
As he spoke, a stiff wind knocked some of the boxes into the street and sent about two-thirds of the remaining columns tumbling down like dominoes.
"I think the sidewalk's tilted," he whined in mock petulance. "I'm going to sue the city of Orlando."