Mad Cowboy


Left: View of the parade, June 12, 2005. Right: Paul McCarthy. (All photos: A. Burger)

A quick flashback: Munich 1931. Adolf Hitler orders the construction of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst—a museum-slash-propaganda tool where Der Führer made public speeches, promoted his reactionary artistic agenda, and demonized Entartete Kunst (the Nazi term for avant-garde art practices). Fast-forward to 2005: In an uncanny reversal of history, today’s preeminent degenerate artist—Paul McCarthy—has been welcomed into the same fascist edifice.

Entitled “LaLa Land Parody Paradise,” the show was unanimously heralded around the booths of Art Basel as McCarthy’s most exhilaratingly ambitious—and haunting—exhibition to date. Heeding the effusive recommendations, I happily decamped from the fair (mindful that I had to return a day later to catch Basler Kunstverein President Peter Handschin’s annual picnic in a picturesque hamlet just outside the city) and embarked on a scenic five-hour drive past the Bodensee and the wooded hills of Bavaria to Munich.

Before I’d even set foot in the galleries, I was bowled over by the way McCarthy channeled the sinister historical charge of the building into his Bacchanalian enterprise. His first subversive gesture was to adorn the top of the HdK’s façade with a giant bouquet of red and orange inflatable flowers that looked like they’d been stolen from a Pasadena Rose Bowl float, thus neatly defusing the architectural fascism. (He also transformed an innocuous-looking architectural model of the HdK into a geranium planter in the museum’s lobby.) This signaled one of the main leitmotifs of the show: McCarthy took on the specters of Germany’s past while simultaneously importing (and lampooning) the most grotesque aspects of Americana.

Left: Exterior view of the Haus der Kunst. Right: Installation view of The Underwater World.

Achtung!” proclaimed the museum guard who took my ticket stub and handed me a lengthy legal disclaimer about the show’s offensive content and potentially hazardous constructions before waving me through to the monumentally scaled galleries. The show’s centerpiece was the unveiling of the sum of several years of toil: McCarthy’s much awaited “Western” and “Pirate” projects. In the former “Hall of Honor,” McCarthy installed his Fuck Fort—a vast plywood construction, part Alamo, part Auschwitz. Various props, beer bottles, vintage-looking cavalry costumes, and other detritus were scattered throughout the barricade along with several monitors documenting the live performances that took place inside the sculpture/set and in the environs of the Haus der Kunst during the show’s opening weekend. Hauser and Wirth had jetted in a planeload of McCarthy fans from Venice to attend the Saturday night opening and Sunday morning “Western Parade.” Some three hundred participants, including performers dressed in Wild West costumes, a procession of horse-drawn covered wagons, and a lederhosen-clad Bavarian oompah band, had turned out, giving new meaning to “Deutsche Amerikanishe Freundshaft.”

As Hans Ulrich Obrist later reported, the show was so powerful that none of the opening night revelers wanted to leave the museum galleries to attend dinner on the outdoor terrace. Gregor Muir, Hauser and Wirth’s London director, described the parade as “a truly joyful occasion, though tainted with an inspired sense of unease.” Kicking myself for not attending, I had to experience the whole thing vicariously through various video highlights, including: Cavalry troops parading like members of the SS in front of the Haus der Kunst, guzzling Bavarian beer, pissing, and jerking off on each other as part of an über-macho Aryan orgy—thereby advancing McCarthy’s conflation of National Socialist bravado and an imagined American West.

Left: Mechanical Pig, 2005. Right: Captain Morgan, 2005.

More than an hour into my visit, having barely digested this first body of work, I forged ahead to the Pirate Ship. I discovered numerous new sculptures (my absolute fave being a super-creepy, anatomically correct mechanical pig in the throes of REM sleep), drawings, performance stills, and some previously unexhibited appropriation works from the mid-1970s (which uncannily foreshadow Richard Prince’s oeuvre) related to the Cowboy/Pirate theme. Like the Western fort, the pirate ship evoked a Disney-style theme park ride gone terribly awry. No accident, as I read on the exhibition wall labels—the Pirate Project grew out of a discussion between McCarthy and his son Damon (who coauthored this spectacular new ensemble about Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride). A life-size pirate frigate, an adjoining ‘70s-era houseboat (where Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, whose drunken Liz-as-Martha also crops up on the exhibition poster, was looped on a monitor in the cabin), and a technologically sophisticated labyrinth of moving chambers served as a set for the exhibition’s cathartic crescendo: An insane performance video projection titled The Underwater World. McCarthy’s visceral mise-en-scene of buccaneerism, invasion, torture, and depravity could not be any more politically relevant. To borrow from John Welchman’s thorough and enlightening catalogue essay, McCarthy’s “manic simulacrum” of “Pirattitude” offers a layered allegory of American excess in the heart of a deeply fractured, historically scarred European Union.

After several hours immersed in McCarthy’s LaLa Land, I left the Haus der Kunst in a state of awe. While driving back from Munich, numerous practical questions percolated in my head: How did curator Stephanie Rosenthal convince her institution to take on such an expensive, sprawling, and “risky” show? How did the McCarthy Family manage to transport and install the contents of the Pasadena and Azuza studios in just one month? And why—as is repeatedly the case—does one of America’s greatest artists have to travel to Europe to find a fittingly expansive platform?