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Life over death 

In his latest performance-art piece, Ben Fain skewers those who hold the key

Ben Fain thinks big.

And when Ben Fain thinks big, he thinks pyrotechnics.

He thinks cherry pickers and scissor lifts. He thinks 20-foot-long parade floats.

He thinks fire marshals. Because you just never know, right?

Ben Fain -- 26, conceptual artist, Miami native, wit -- thinks like a guy staging the Fourth of July parade to end all Fourth of July parades.

Only it's November. And what Fain is thinking big about is a one-night-only performance-art extravaganza Gemini's Brine in the Masquerade parking lot on Sunday, Nov. 5. And like one of those Magritte head-scratcher combinations of green apple and well-dressed man, Fain will appear in Gemini's Brine as a fish dressed in doctor's garb.

The doctor's whites symbolize Fain's witty, but not irrelevant, statement about abuse of power and idol worship.

The parade-cum-performance-cum art event, "basically follows a myth that he," meaning his fish-doctor, "has created to validate his own power."

"So what he does is, he leads a procession of characters that are all based on people in society who all have the power over life and death: nurses and doctors and policemen."

Fain's ex-girlfriends will be dressed as giant syringes. His dad (an executive at Royal Caribbean) and his mom (an events planner in Miami) will be on hand to offer their invaluable assistance in matters of show-biz razzle-dazzle.

But before the razzle-dazzle comes the pain: the free-fall and personal hell of navigating the city of Atlanta's labyrinthine permit system. The fretful bedtimes pocked with fear and worry about pulling off an event nearly two years in the making, with a projected budget of $30,000.

So far, Fain has maxed out two credit cards. He has unloaded some valuable artwork, and the next victim on the pyre of Fain's art dream will be his Ford Explorer.

Two and a half weeks before lift-off, there already have been some unanticipated cost overruns -- such as the bleachers, on which onlookers will plant their curious behinds, which will have to be driven in from Wisconsin for Gemini's Brine.

"It's football season," explains Ben, "They're hard to find."

Oh, and then there's "the pyrotechnic guy" he's flying in from Orlando.

"Renting the lot was expensive," Fain adds to what sounds like a rapidly growing list. Though, he swears, "It is a gorgeous parking lot."

In his studio in the Mattress Factory Lofts on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Ben looks about as stressed as a Seattle woodsman on his way to grab a latte. His Eddie Bauer-esque jacket, hiking boots and plaid shirt lend a macho heft to his delicate features and sweetly low-key demeanor. But his boyishly disheveled hair is evidence of Fain's flustered one-day fly-by from Chicago, where he has just entered the master's of fine arts program in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute.

Like the jumble-sale interior of Salvador Dali's cranium, the studio is dominated by a number of Gemini's Brine nonsequiturs: a giant tooth that Fain hefts above his head like Atlas, some unpainted waves for one of the four floats and a tornado of cotton still attached to its stalks to represent the South in the parade, which Fain picked up from a Macon evangelical.

Inspirations for Gemini's Brine fly off of Fain's tongue: Greek sacrifice rituals, traditional American parades, artist Matthew Barney's own mythology-loaded art-film spectacles, Mexico City gonzo graffiti artists and Dr. Seuss, who Fain brings up more than once as a key influence.

"I really relate to people who are trying to push things to the extreme," he says.

It's an art-historical sundae sprinkled with the wiseacre jimmies that makes Ben Fain Ben Fain.

For Fain, it's just business as usual. His characteristic sensibility of equal parts conceptual rigor and outright lunacy undoubtedly was bred in Fain's schoolboy years as a self-described delinquent shipped off to the Fessenden School for Boys boarding school (alma mater of Howard Hughes and John Kerry).

After the tumult of high school, Fain eventually found an outlet for his mischievous impulses by studying art at the University of Hartford. Since moving to Atlanta, Fain has become a well-regarded local artist who has exhibited his works at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Saltworks Gallery and in the many shows curated along with his humor-infused, four-member arts collective, Dos Pestañeos.

Fain sees the performance, like much of his art, as an adrenaline spike to the heart of the vox populi. In his way of thinking, art can be a way to break through humdrum's gel cap. Some artists cling to galleries and solemnity to affirm their own legitimacy, but Fain is not that kind of artist. He will risk absurdity if the situation demands it. In 2003, he hired an airplane to trail a banner over Miami's South Beach that offered "Lose 10 lbs. in one day! Just cut off your head." In 2001, he painted 98 parking spaces with handicap symbols.

"I can't stand the solipsism of the artist," he says. "It just drives me insane."

Gemini's Brine may be the ultimate expression of Ben Fain's populist tendencies.

"I am begging people to get out of the maintenance of everyday routine and dissolve their world and imagine what could be."

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