Club Soda

Twentynine Palms, California

Left: The Box’s Mara McCarthy and Hilary Graves. Right: Artist Mike Bouchet. (All photos: Catherine Taft)

MOST PEOPLE IN THE ART WORLD—if they’re anything like me—like to think they know what Pop art is. But last Sunday, artist Mike Bouchet proved me wrong with his own brand of Pop: a swimming pool in the desert filled with his unique recipe for bubbleless diet cola. Hosted by Mara McCarthy’s Chinatown gallery the Box, the Flat Cola Pool BBQ marked the culmination of Bouchet’s My Cola LITE project, begun in 2004, in which the artist bottled his cola, shipped the bottles to China, and distributed them for free. In the spirit of free enterprise (if not “freedom” altogether), Bouchet planned his event for the Fourth of July: a perfect meditation on Americana, consumption, surplus, and pleasure.

I set off for Yucca Valley the day before the event, arriving just in time to watch Bouchet pour his first five-gallon bucket of syrup into the water. The pool sat on an empty lot once owned by the singer Donovan. (Paul McCarthy is the current owner, having secured the property for a prospective project.) Despite its pedigree, the site had an eerily apocalyptic feel, the log cabin that once stood on the grounds having burned down years ago—after a houseguest left the stove on—so that only the pool and a few cinder block walls remained. “Now I know what the gulf looks like,” Bouchet said as he watched his thick, black syrup slide into the water. The first batch dispersed, turning the water a heavy, rusty brown and scenting the air with hints of cinnamon and clove. The cola was flat because it would have taken a dangerous amount of CO2 (something like sixty tons of the gas) to carbonate. We all watched with fascination. There were 145 gallons of syrup to go.

Left: Mike Bouchet’s look-alike, Randy Tobin, and actress Emily Ingersoll. Right: Mike Bouchet.

The next morning I awoke to an oppressive dry heat. Bouchet, still on Frankfurt time, was already up and eager to shop for party provisions. I accompanied the artists and McCarthy to Walmart (they had already hit up Big 5 Sporting Goods, Home Depot, and Food 4 Less), where Bouchet began perusing the Do It Yourself and Automotive departments for interesting containers in which to bottle “editions” of his cola. “A kiddie pool would look really good in someone’s living room,” Bouchet remarked. After gathering necessities—a pair of oversize star-spangled sunglasses, a neon-splattered string bikini, zip ties, duct tape, ice, and TP—we headed back to the pool to “install” the artist’s carefully edited holiday spread. Soon, the artist’s look-alike (Randy) and his actress (Emily) arrived. The couple had been hired to “activate” the pool, but in no time Bouchet had changed into trunks and was diving in himself. We clamored over to hear what it was like. “It’s cool,” he said. “And very refreshing.”

The pool was irresistible, and after McCarthy, I jumped in myself. The black lagoon swallowed me whole; the undercola void was slippery and thick, but not at all sticky (thank God it was “diet”). More partygoers arrived—most from Los Angeles, including dealers Erica Redling and Martha Otero; collectors John Morace and Tom Kennedy; artists Pentti Monkkonen, Naotaka Hiro, and Marco Rios, among others—each of whom timidly regarded the pool. Not wanting to scare the newbies, we didn’t mention the slight burning sensation (phosphoric acid). With burgers on the grill and beer over ice, guests slowly got into the spirit and worked up the courage to take a dip. Soon, whole groups were splashing in the soft drink, racing, snorkeling, bobbing, and cooling off. One dubious guest asked if they really had to get in. “You have to swim in it,” Bouchet replied, “It’s part of keeping it real.” Yes, it was the real thing.

Left: Dealer Erica Redling. Right: Artist Paul McCarthy.