On Product Art

Luna’s Café and Gallery, Sacramento, CA


Over the years, a number of writers have suggested that wine-making is an art. If this is so, then it seems logical that wine as works of art should enable those of us who drink and enjoy it to experience the complexity and nuanced fullness of life just as a Bach violin partita, an Austen novel, a Miles Davis solo or a Nó performance allow us access to the social and spiritual consciousness of their respective cultures. It is in this sense that we are approaching wine in this exhibition. Not so much from the point of view of the wine maker, the “artist,” if you will, but the audience, the viewer, the reader, the participant. For this reason, the terms usually found in published evaluations of wine, such as “nose,” “body” or “legs,” are less useful here. Instead, I am representing my understanding and appreciation of the specific wines I have tasted in terms of a series of photographs, handmade paper collages and poems.


Also, instead of speaking directly in the first person, I have elected to speak through the mouth a fictional narrator. Hence, my actual interaction with the wines I discuss forms a meta-shell. It is implicit in the experiences of my poetic character. It is latent in the photographs and the design and blending of the elegant David Kimball papers.


My narrator is also a woman, a French-American named Madeline Gibion. Madeline is an elementary school teacher, and the poems that flow from her mouth describe her world at various stages in her life. So the question arises as to why I have elected to present my unique and very personal vision of wine and the wine experience from her point of view.


Though I don’t much believe in explanations of art, let me just say this. As a Japanese-American male, I had three distinct goals in mind when creating The Mount Eden Poems:


First, I wanted to see if I could apply some of the basic concepts of traditional Japanese aesthetics from chadó, the Japanese tea ceremony and from kendó, Japanese fencing, to the interpretation of wine.


Second, I wanted to help promote interpersonal/intercultural understanding by using the principle of “one mind,” whereby the artist attempts to “become one” with a mind/culture very different from his or her own and then represent this “oneness” in art. (Not coincidentally, this concept is central to Japanese design and product development as well as marketing.) Hence, my principle character is a female kindergarten teacher from a French Catholic background. So not only does it become my task to try to represent the world through her eyes, it becomes her task as an elementary school teacher to see and experience the world through various “cultural eyes” of her students and other aspects of the Northern California mental landscape she inhabits.


Third, I wanted to demonstrate the principles of “product art” in which the symbols, labels and objects of our consumer society are examined from a non-commercial artistic perspective. Of course, there is a narrow and often blurred line between art used in advertising or marketing (the classic example is the promotion of “the diamond” by the de Beers corporation). At a basic level, this project is my attempt to further define that boundary.


From a broader perspective, I believe that American marketing strategies are going to be radically reconceptualized in the next decade. It is my hope that The Mount Eden Poems points to a future in which we will see an “advertising” that is an artistic integration of sociocultural themes and issues that have a marginal relationship to specific products or services. In principle, these works should form a single spiritual and artistic whole in which the viewer is invited to do much more than run out and buy a new car or an upgraded toaster.


I see a day in which every major corporation and organization, including government agencies, will have artists, dancers, musicians and poets whose task it will be to explore the “world” in much the same way that I have done here with the Mount Eden wines. And what will be most remarkable is that some of these same artists will hold key decision-making positions. Hence, the term “corporate culture” will take on new and exciting meanings.


In closing, I should make it clear that I have selected the products represented in my work for their intrinsic cultural and artistic value. It is safe to say that I would have written about the wines of Mount Eden Vineyards even if Jeffrey and Eleanor Patterson, the wine makers at Mount Eden, had not turned out to be so supportive of my creative efforts. On the other hand, this project would never have been possible without their friendship and encouragement. It was they who told me to write from my heart and say whatever it was that I had to say. And I hope you will agree with me that the resulting exploration has been worth the effort.


Ronald Phillip Tanaka
August 1990
Sacramento, California

1997 Pinot Noir Cuvée des Vieilles Vignes