In 1972, the cover of the first issue of FILE Megazine was graced by a photograph of Mr. Peanut: a life-sized peanut donning white gloves, a top hat, a cane and spats, seen standing on a Vancouver, Canada beach. Founded by Toronto-based artist collective General Idea, FILE Megazine was a parasite within mainstream magazine culture, appropriating famous publications such as LIFE Magazine (whose visual identity and name it spun off). FILE was among the first publications to publish material from the international mail art network and became one of the most influential artists’ magazines in North America.
Vincent Trasov’s exhibition at Kunstverein consists mainly of glass showcases containing material from the ‘life’ of his alter ego, Mr. Peanut. The first issue of FILE was placed next to Trasov’s letters to artist colleague AA Bronson (co-founder of General Idea) and the Canada Council explaining his identity change. While working on a stop motion film of Mr. Peanut, the anthropomorphic mascot of a US snacks company, he explains, he made a life-sized papier-mâché costume. General Idea members Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal all used artist aliases, but Trasov was the first to adopt an existing brand mascot and physically appear in disguise.
In 1974, Trasov placed Mr. Peanut on the public stage when he ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Vancouver. Mr. Peanut didn’t give long speeches or campaign promises – he simply tap danced when asked questions by the press. Shown at Kunstverein, the film Off the Air Coverage from the Peanut Campaign (1974) is a compilation of snippets in which Mr. Peanut is seen promoting his campaign, dancing through Vancouver and participating in talk shows. The footage also demonstrates his unpopularity among politicians, whom he goaded with slogans like ‘Mr. Peanut… Not just another nut in politics’. But Trasov responded (through his campaign manager John Mitchell) that he didn’t consider the campaign a joke at all. But even if it wasn’t a joke, it was clearly a work of performance art. By running for mayor through the dandy mascot Mr. Peanut, Trasov linked the nihilism of politics of this time (it was same year Nixon resigned as president after Watergate) with a suitably absurdist aesthetic.
Although the candidate Mr. Peanut only received 2,685 votes, it didn’t stop Trasov from producing future works around his character. The most recent works in the exhibition are newer drawings of Mr. Peanut engaging with monuments and artworks: he replaces one plinth at the Parthenon in Athens (Caryatia at Selinante, 2008) and instead of heads, peanuts were placed on the necks of Michelangelo’s sculpture (Laocoon, 2013).
Strolling through the archive, many more artists come to mind that took politics into their own hands. Joseph Beuys, for instance, brought the Office for Direct Democracy by Referendum to Documenta 5 in Kassel, the same year the first issue of FILE was published. Beuys aimed for a political system in which the needs of people would overrule the interests of party politics. Yet while Beuys tried to affect politics through art, Trasov used politics for art. Ultimately, the exhibition steps out of its double role as an artist’s archive and makes us question artists’ intentions when they engage directly with politics – and question to what this might lead. As Mr. Peanut’s campaign poster confirms: ‘life was politics in the last decade, life will be art in the next decade’. In the end, reality proved him right: the incumbent Mayor Arthur ‘Art’ Phillips was easily reelected. Art prevailed after all.
Vincent Trasov, ‘Mr. Peanut’ was on view at Kunstverein, Amsterdam, from 13 October until 1 December 2018.
Main image: Vincent Trasov, ‘Mr. Peanut’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Kunstverein, Amsterdam; photograph: Chun-Han Chiang
First published in Issue 201