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Meet the "thinking man's conceptual artist"

Conceptual artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats will take you on a trip to outer space – so to speak.
Photo by Jen Dessinger
Conceptual artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats will take you on a trip to outer space – so to speak.

Space exploration – it’s something we’ve made a national priority since NASA’s inception, over 50 years ago.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.

But last week, NASA launched its last space shuttle mission – officially retiring the almost 30-year-old spacecraft.

ANNOUNCER: And liftoff, the final liftoff of Atlantis on the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.

Luckily, we have a local agency ready to pick up where the shuttle left off:

JONATHON KEATS: State university space agency beats NASA to asteroid. The Local Air and Space Administration, LASA, has successfully landed two astronauts on the rocky soil of a Kuiper belt asteroid and sustained them in good health for three full weeks – less than five months after the Obama administration made travel to asteroids a national priority…

That’s LASA Secretary General Jonathon Keats. He’s also a writer, a philosopher, and an artist – a conceptual artist, who plays with people’s sense of time, money, and yes, space. Those “astronauts” he mentioned were actually succulents and potatoes that he planted in “asteroidal dust.” Sounds like a joke, right? So how in the world does that translate into art? KALW's Martina Castro went to the LASA Exotourism Bureau in downtown San Francisco to find out.

MARTINA CASTRO: There’s something very cool for sale here, space travel ... Wait wait, not that kind of space travel ... It’s a little more abstract.

JONATHON KEATS: What we have set up are various means of travel outside our own world – to the moon, to other planets and ultimately to the stars.

That’s LASA Secretary General Jonathon Keats. And by “various means of travel,” he means your feet never actually leave Planet Earth. All you do is ingest this special water.

KEATS: We have bottles of lunar, martian, and stellar mineral water.

Which are all made with what Keats calls a proprietary blend of minerals from those various locations in space.

KEATS: So the idea, of course, in the case of the stellar mineral water, you’re not only getting far away, you are also getting out of the way temporally speaking because this predates our solar system. So you are in essence exploring what has been, what made us, as much as you are exploring something that is apart from us in terms of distance.

Sounds pretty heady, right? Well, it is. The LASA Exotourism Bureau is actually an art display at the Modernism Gallery. Jonathon Keats is the creator of this installation.

KEATS: I am also, when not attending to those duties, an artist and writer, though I prefer to call myself an experimental philosopher because no one knows what that means.

Whatever it means, he clearly takes his work very seriously even though the absurdity of it all is pretty obvious.

KEATS: The space craft is a chair, it was actually rescued from my parents’ basement, and it was modified slightly by setting it on four slices of meteorite, of iron meteorite, so that it is slightly, very, very slight, less than a quarter of an inch off the surface of the planet, on the surface of an asteroid. So if you sit in that chair you in fact can get off our own planet. ANDREW CLARK: He plays the part continuously – and remember, I’ve known him for knocking on 16 years now. He plays the part and never falls out of character.

Andrew Clark is one of Keats’ patrons and friends.

CLARK: He really does see himself as that gentleman philosopher of Victorian England, a man that dresses entirely in tweed, you couldn't make it up, who is living a Jules Verne existence of exploration.

So right now you might be wondering: what’s the point of this caricature and this exhibit? Well, it depends on whom you ask, like visitor Emily Jane Cohen.

EMILY JANE COHEN: Jonathon incarnates that in a way, this era where science and other kinds of humanistic fields like literature and philosophy and things like taht were not as separate from each other as they are now.

Observer Jordan Essoe likes its abstraction.

JORDAN ESSOE: It’s kind of a different way to enjoy the fantasy of wanting to be somewhere else.

And Samuel Coniglio?

SAMUEL CONIGLIO: I’m vice president of the Space Tourism Society, which is a nonprofit organization doing research on products, services designed on space tourism, trying to promote the idea space travel for the rest of us and us actually being able to take vacations to space one day.

So he’s psyched.

In the gallery, Jonathon Keats’ spacewalks are documented in framed artwork on the walls. He’s apparently left the planet several times.

KEATS: Yes, and this one was my first step. Yes in fact it was, it was a simple step and the duration was three seconds.

And by the time we get to the bar of mineral space waters, I can’t help but play along.

KEATS: So I will get you a glass of stellar … that was stellar … and do you want martian or lunar? CASTRO: Let’s go lunar. KEATS: Lunar. So that’s stellar. Why don’t you hold on to that otherwisewe might have you going to the wrong destination. CASTRO: That would be unfortunate (laughs)...

So there doesn’t seem to be a definitive purpose to Keats’ work – but it definitely makes me laugh. And Keats says that’s intentional.

KEATS: I think that laughter's a way into the work, which is something I want everyone to feel comfortable with, and its also a release, a release of tension, which allows a childlike curiosity which is what I feel toward the world. GEOFFREY LAPLACE: Yeah! I mean, I don't want to overdo that, but it’s like so ... this actually makes sense, and your clearness of seeing this, right? It all fits! This is really impressive!

That’s Geoffrey Laplace. Perhaps the visitor with the most childlike enthusiasm here. When he stops in front of the “spacecraft” I can’t help but egg him on.

LAPLACE: I’m afraid to let my mind go on this. CASTRO: You should sit on it. It’s a space ship. LAPLACE: That’s what I thought! I looked at this and thought, “Oh my god, it’s a spaceship … and ... whoa! He's done this exhibit complete! To the space ship, and the lunar shoes, of course! CASTRO: These are pieces of meteor… LAPLACE: No! CASTRO: Yes! LAPLACE: To be … right! To be in the spaceship! This is what I'm saying! This is one of the best art exhibits, ever! MARTIN MULLER: Jonathon's work is original to the extreme.

Martin Muller owns the Modernism Gallery. He says Keats’ work is part of a long tradition in the art world of playing with what we perceive to be normal or ridiculous.

MULLER: That is reminding us about the lack of cohesiveness and the lack of logic we experience too often in our daily lives.

Keats plays with our concepts of time, consumerism, and identity. He made his debut over a decade ago when he sat in a chair and thought for 24 consecutive hours while staring at a nude female model. He sold his thoughts as art, at a price determined by dividing the customer’s annual income down to the minute. He’s patented his brain. He’s even tried to genetically engineer God. Keats is vigorous when it comes to his process and...

KEATS: Really, the essence of the work is trying to get people to explore with me these other realms and to partake in this thought experiment.

Experiencing Jonathon Keats work is opening yourself to experiment. You may not agree with, or even understand, everything you witness, but you could see the world slightly differently when you leave the gallery. I chose to drink the stellar mineral water, and let me tell you, it was out of this world.

In San Francisco, I’m Martina Castro for Crosscurrents.

Do you know of a local artist who is experimenting with new ways of defining art? Let us know on our Facebook page. This story originally aired July 13, 2011.