Visual Arts

UPDATED: The Art Guys' Controversial Plant Attacked By Suspected Vandals

Update: We just got word from the Menil that oak tree, despite its dramatic injury, will indeed live. "The aborist says that the tree, though severely injured [and] cut down to an eight-inch stump, will survive," said Menil spokesman Vance Muse. On the down side, eight years worth of growth has been destroyed.

It has come to this.

Houston art fans are in mourning after the titular plant in The Art Guys Marry a Plant was found nearly ripped in half on the grounds of the Menil Collection this weekend in an act of suspected vandalism.

On Friday night, vandals reportedly attacked the tree -- an 8-year-old oak -- leaving it limply hanging to one side. There was no other damage to the grounds on what was a calm night, and the Houston Police Department has ruled the incident, which was first reported by CultureMap, as vandalism.

This was no random act of attempted arborcide. The oak has been at the center of a debate involving the value and meaning of the work for the past two years. In 2009, The Art Guys -- Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth -- married the plant at the Contemporary Arts Museum, prompting criticism before the act of "behavior art" even happened, most prominently from the Houston Chronicle, which called it irresponsible for "reinforcing the homophobic 'slippery slope' argument." The tree was planted on the Menil in March, but didn't draw attention again until a dedication last month, featuring a ceremonial watering and readings by Lawrence Weschler and James Surls.

The final act of The Art Guys' piece rehashed some hurt feelings and prompted former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt, a gay man, to stage his own response to the piece by marrying a woman, Reese Darby, the night before the dedication.

But after news of the reported vandalism, both fans and foes of the piece expressed their disappointment at the supposed attack, which is thought to be connected with the criticism.

"This should have never gotten to this point," said Surls, who expressed his dismay on Facebook on Sunday, writing, "Yesterday the little Oak Tree was broken in half in an attempt to 'kill it.' So sad, so very sad."

Darby also expressed her outrage over the act on Facebook.

"I am shocked and disappointed," she wrote on Sunday. "With hopes, there is some way to save the tree which has come to represent a myriad of equal rights and artistic statements and ideas. Vandalism in this form, however, is never appropriate."

Britt, who now goes by Devon Britt-Darby in the wake of his marriage and strange departure from the Chronicle, was not surprised by the vandalism, especially after expressing his own concerns about the security of the tree, which was planted on the open grounds of the Menil with no protection. And though he still finds the piece "crappy," he also was disappointed by this recent development.

"This is a shameful, cowardly act that only makes a bad situation worse," wrote Britt-Darby on his blog, Reliable Narratives. "The same values that prompted me to criticize the piece and the Menil's accession of it make me angry at this senseless, destructive act."

The fate of the tree is still in question. The Menil has brought in an arborist to inspect the tree and see if it could be salvaged in its delicate state.

Requests for comment from The Art Guys were not returned by Sunday evening, and the Menil was preparing to respond to the act on Monday following updates from the HPD's investigation, so look out for more on this developing story shortly.

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Meredith Deliso
Contact: Meredith Deliso