In the world of Mark Gonzales nothing—even performance art—is calculated. Leaving the door open to chance is how he’s weaved in and out of the traps and tropes of skateboarding for over 30 years, creating his own language and simultaneously defining its artistry. Thursday night, July 12 as part of adidas Skateboarding’s Das Days programming in New York City, Gonzales was billed as performing a “recreation of his 1998 performance at Städtisches Museum Abteiberg” at Milk Studios. An extension of the brand’s global Showcase initiative, Showcase X and Gonzales’ two performances worked in tandem group art show he curated at Milk, featuring Erik Foss, Earsnot IRAK, Dave FTL, Porous Walker, Cole Mohr, Chris Shonting, Remy Lagrange, Taylor McKimens, and Jennay Say Qua.
Originally orchestrated and concepted with Johannes Wohnseifer for the avant-garde museum, Gonzales traversed the space and obstacles erected for it on a longboard, wearing a white fencing suit emblazoned with the word “Aloha” in a pair of of adidas fencing sneakers. Though the nod to Hawaii was absent from his fitted jacket on this particular night, the reference seems to be a nod to skateboarding’s roots, a connection he made in a Rolling Stone interview in 2016.
“Well, yeah, I love skateboarding so I wanted to study where it came from,” he told the magazine. “Skateboarding is derived from the Hawaiians – from surfing. That’s why early skateboarding was called sidewalk surfing. Only Hawaiian royalty could surf though – it was exclusive.”
When asked specifically why he chose “Aloha,” he replied emphatically,” It’s the Aloha spirit.”
Thursday’s performance, however, was not a recreation. Never nostalgic let alone stationary for a moment, Gonzales’ movement evoked a different poetry than his 1998 version documented in the Cheryl Dunn short film "Back Worlds for Words". In 1998, Bill Clinton was the President of the United States and New York City was in the middle of a facelift via Rudolph Giuliani. On that December 13 in Germany, Gonzales rolled with the fluidity of a figure skater, using his body as sign language to accompany the spoken word poems read over the film. There was a snarky beauty and absurdity to this Los Angeleno, professional skateboarder and artist forcing those who lack his context to fixate on his motion—unexpected anonymity that Gonzales could never assume now.
“I was interested in showing the body when doing the movements, but didn't want it to seem too much like ballet,” he says. “I wanted it to still seem aggressive, like a fencer.”
With every phone in the house out, along with branded disposable cameras, individually numbered, Abbey Lincoln’s version of “For All We Know” gushed over the soundsystem before Gonzales emerged, immediately knocking on a door erected in the gallery. The pensive lounge feel quickly subsided as Gonzales pushed around, before the audio switched to the Jason Schwartzman solo-project Coconut Records’ “West Coast,” who used the 1998 footage for the song’s video in 2007, segueing into Lorde’s “Royals,” a favorite artist of Gonzales and possibly another allusion to skating’s ties to Hawaii.
Though he swept and glided up the wall of the studio with the grace he’s always exuded, Gonzales’ performance was punctuated with much more unrest, even when he was taking victory laps. For brief instances he’d slip into his unorthodox style of executing tricks, followed by expressively circling the crowd. He loudly tic-tacked across the floor at times, visibly snarling, wincing, then alternating to slight smiles and piercing focus. Shadowboxing, air-drumming, and coasting through the taped off course, Gonzales’ version of the performance wasn’t joyless at all—everyone in attendance was captivated by the 20 year anniversary coinciding with his two decades with adidas Skateboarding—but his movement and expressions seemed to mimic or at least subtle comment on the consciousness of 2018 and the tensions in the ether (Gonzales himself is Mexican-American and has voiced his unhappiness with Trump in past interviews). Staged frustration or not, the evening’s first performance even ended with one of the box-obstacles bearing the names of the artists in Helvetica Bold careening across the floor, before flying apart.
“I wanted to skate more, but it was a performance and I wasn’t given room to fall or mess up,” he says. I wanted to give myself the chance to fall and mess up. I like falling. I guess I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay and fall.”
While we never truly know Gonzales’ intent, that’s his allure. Gallery exhibitions, skateboard graphics, shoe collaborations, and tricks are mini-art projects that give his audience the leeway to interpret or simply admire. In a room packed with local skateboarders, artists, peers, pros, and fans, Gonzales created another moment—one that felt as much like a 1980s skate demo as much as an ethereal meditation on motion and wherever else your mind lands in between. Enjoying a visceral experience agnostic of its intention is a needed mental break, especially in a metropolis amidst a heatwave. Even with most eyes viewing through a smartphone screen, there was a synchronicity and convergence that only “The Gonz” could instigate.
“I think it’s cool that it’s open to anyone,” Gonzales says when I asked him about the biggest change in skateboarding over the past 20 years. “It’s not just a white thing anymore, but I don’t think that just because you’re minority you can just jump into the market based on your ethnicity. The biggest change is that everyone is involved and participating.”
Having everyone pushed against the walls of a gallery, anticipating what one of skateboarding’s most influential figures is about to unveil in real time is the purpose. Getting us all there is Mark Gonzales’ gift to skateboarding, but is it art?
“I compared it to the blues in my own personal world because I had nothing,” he says. “Skateboarding is art, I guess it is. I think a lot of today's art has to do with who your friends are, what gallery people you know… I think, for the most part, people are making artwork because they want to be famous and make money, which isn’t a bad thing but it just makes it seem like artists are trying to shock people.”
Next up, watch Palace's latest skate film, ‘Betamaximum Palace.’