THERE WAS everyone at the Lincoln Memorial, gaping at the stone president. Except one guy who was facing the other way. He was taking its picture in a mirror.
Iain Baxter loves mirrors. "They're the only way we can see ourselves," he says. Last week he was in town taking mirror images of national monuments. He's doing all the big American cities, and the pictures will be part of a show, along with those taken on his Polaroid-sponsored tour of 31 states in 40 days last year.
Baxter carries his Polaroid everywhere: "It thinks as fast as I do and gives me instant feedback." But just because he takes photographs, don't try to call him a photographer. He is out to dissolve the barriers between all art forms. Sometimes he paints, sometimes he sculpts, sometimes he wraps a room and everything in it including himself in plastic bags. Fifteen years ago he opened the Eye Scream restaurant in Vancouver, a living sculpture that served things like Castle Salad and Steak on Wheels (consisting of filet mignon with little mushroom wheels). The place went bust. Was it art? Oh yes.
"I'm an idea artist," he says. "I work very intuitively. I pick up on everyday life--art is the celebration of the ordinary, after all--and I try to be alive to the moment. I like all kinds of art, all the different ways of doing art."
A very Zen notion, which figures for a guy who once had a grant to study esthetic theory in Japan.
"I look at the world as information," says the man who founded the N.E. Thing Co., who counts McLuhan as a major influence and has degrees in zoology and education from Idaho (he was going to be a forester) and an MFA from Washington State. He was born 46 years ago in England, moved to Canada as a child.
When Baxter says he likes all art forms and styles, and when he says he doesn't think art necessarily has to convey emotion or move anybody, and especially when he collects some art critics, has them press their hands together for 10 seconds and release the hands, and then announces this as his latest work, "Press Release," well, there are people who accuse him of frivolity.
He doesn't mind.
"My art can be serious. It can be angry. It can have social meaning (like his tower built of chemical-filled artificially flavored cookies that spewed painted vomit from the top). But it doesn't have to reveal deep feelings, or be beautiful, or even fascinating. Art is simply everywhere. It can be anything."
Like that brick wall outside the window, its neat lines intersecting the reflected lines of the lights inside. N.E. Thing: Get it?
Or the plan to film every inch of the 5,000-mile Trans-Canada Highway. Or the living fruit trees whose shadows were painted in black spray paint on the snow.
Critics speak of Baxter's "endless preoccupation with objects and the way he continually rearranges them . . . He often exceeds all bounds (reality-illusion, language-image, time-distance) and he frequently also demonstrates the ambiguity of what we call reality."
Understandably, people are forever asking Baxter what he thinks art is, then. So he has handed out 4,000 self-addressed postcards over the last 10 years asking, "What is art?" He has 2,000 answers, ranging from "a way of defying death" to "infinity on trial" to "the name of my janitor." He wants to put them in a book illustrated with photos of the word "art" taken where he finds it.
Isthat art, too? You had to ask?