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PRINT November 2000

SCHOOLED FOR SCANDAL: PAUL McCARTHY

Purveyor of scandal-for-scandal’s sake or scream therapist purging the patient? Most of us don’t know PAUL MCCARTHY well enough to say: the west coast performance legend has managed to elude the retrospective radar in America. All that changes this month, as a three-decade survey of McCarthy’s work, organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, opens in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the occasion, TOM HOLERT examines a uniquely split artistic personality.

SHORTLY BEFORE HIS 1994 book Extension du domaine de la lutte (published in America under the perhaps felicitous title Whatever) earned him a reputation in cultural circles in France as “scandalous,” Michel Houellebecq embarked on a lecture tour of French art schools, addressing the relationship between quality and talent, as well as sexual failure. While in Avignon, he happened to witness a video in which an artist stuck his penis through a hole in a sheet of plywood and, with a piece of twine, moved it around like a marionette. Houellebecq’s reaction: “It made me very uncomfortable. The atmosphere of decay, of tragic failure attached to today’s art ultimately gets stuck in your throat.”

Curiously, the view on an artist’s preoccupation with his own penis did not shock the writer; it depressed him. What he saw made him sad, he wrote in the Paris magazine Les Inrockuptibles, because of its “almost intolerable precision.” Far from sensing an art scandal, Houellebecq commented on these images of sado-masturbatory experiment with an abject memento mori: “I dreamed of trash bags welling up with coffee filters, fruit and vegetable rinds, meat with gravy. I thought of art as the act of skinning, and of pieces of flesh clinging to the skin.”

Like Houellebecq’s unfortunate performer, Paul McCarthy’s list of ingredients includes a “member,” “plywood,” “a hole,” and an “atmosphere [. . .] of tragic failure.” He too occupies himself intensively and repeatedly with his penis. In addition, he has made a show of his anus (e.g., Painter, 1995) and stuck his head into a wall (Plaster Your Head and One Arm into a Wall, 1973). “I perform on myself”—so read the notes to the 1974 performance Meat Cake, in which McCarthy sat on a table, his head deformed by adhesive tape and covered with butter—“[and] include my dick working carefully with it.”

In this grotesquerie, the body of the artist (which seems to mutate into a body without organs, or one with too many) is both prop and stage. Crucial expressive operations are carried out by way of liquids, pieces of clothing, furniture, dolls, masks, odors, and noises. The whimpering, mumbling, wailing, and wheezing turn the performer into a prisoner of a world with too many authors (or perhaps none at all). Any attempt by the various protagonists to escape this polymorphous environment only entangles them even further in its grip. The line between autonomy, authorship, and autism dissolves; ostensibly unleashed, viscous masses (ketchup, mayonnaise, Vaseline, chocolate) and low-culture references (B movies, porno flicks, canceled soap operas, pop psychology, and abandoned amusement parks) are put into circulation. They contaminate each other literally and semiotically. Remnants of the aimless play and desultory fights between masked performer, body parts, and stand-ins for bodily fluids are observed amid the ruins of an abandoned architecture haunted by the ghosts of TV shows past.

Since the late ’60s, Paul McCarthy has redirected the course of his production again and again: from conceptually inspired body-art performances to mechanical-motorized sculptures to ever more lavish multimedia video installations. Regardless of the approach, however, he has dedicated himself to the construction of atmospheres and spaces in which he pursues the constructive devaluation of cultural hierarchies. The claustrophobic character of these architectonic and performative environments can be traced back in McCarthy’s case to the fact that nothing stands outside mediated representations and social constructions. Everything is always already entangled in significations that one doesn’t have to comprehend in order to be aware of the enormous pressure they exert. For McCarthy, even “unmediated” feelings and the rawest of objects cannot escape the influence of association and metaphor. But this unavoidable inscription of meaning is understood not as edifying but as degrading, absurd, and compulsive.

The key word is desublimation. It is absent from few articles written about these works, which have a reputation for being not just difficult but scandalous. Outside the precincts of the art world, McCarthy is seen above all as a notorious breaker of taboos, an artist who sets up diorama-like constructions in which automated mannequins hump stage trees.

But in recent years high-volume art of the drastic and shocking kind has led, if anything, to an inflation of desublimation strategies. Shows like “Sensation” and “Apocalypse,” with their putatively blasphemous and amoral elements, have made it necessary to more fully characterize the status of McCarthy’s visceral jolts—in both historical and contemporary terms. How the retrospective organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which opens this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, addresses this situation in relation to McCarthy’s achievements should prove interesting. The comprehensive exhibition, covering more than three decades’ worth of the artist’s output, will no doubt reveal the overwhelming range of his articulations of dysfunctionality and compulsive repetition. But a permissive culture—as diagnosed by Houellebecq and others—has certainly modified, if not restricted, the potential power and appeal of McCarthy’s practices. In today’s cultural panorama, which stretches from Harmony Korine’s Gummo to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s mannequins, from the Jerry Springer show to Takeshi Kitano and where more and more the fringes come to occupy the center, where does McCarthy fit in?

As critics have repeatedly pointed out, and rightly so, McCarthy cannot be reduced to taboo breaker par excellence or representative of the classical épater le bourgeois. This purported maniac seems much more concerned with the analytic and aesthetic manipulation of a cluster of themes, ranging from sociopsychological structures of authority and intrafamilial hierarchies to the traumatic contamination of early childhood by popular culture and the media. (Even the “cold” Houellebecq, as we have since learned, is more old-school moralist than misanthrope per se.)

McCarthy organizes the economy of scandal in different ways. For some, his insistence on reference itself is intolerable, because it sorely puts to the test the truisms about the antagonism between totalizing mass culture and the material-reflexive refusal of the mere representational functions of art. To minimize referentiality, to ultimately dispel it from art-critical reading, proves so difficult in McCarthy’s case that “failure” is certain from the beginning.

Every single mask or pose that comes into play in McCarthy’s performances and videos (and there are lots) not only contributes to the theatricalization and reification of the performing artist, but also has its origin in a specific place. It is of no minor concern to explore the relations that exist between the Alfred E. Neuman mask McCarthy dons in Bossy Burger, 1991, and the satiric tradition around Mad Magazine, even if the choice of the mask and its combination with a chef’s outfit was not based on an elaborate plan but, as the artist informs us, was a spontaneous decision.

In fact, the more one considers McCarthy from the standpoint of the scandalous, the less relevant this category appears. How long and how often must one dangle one’s penis through holes in plywood boards to provoke an analytic response to exhibitionism? In many respects, McCarthy deals with a kind of diffusion of sociological and psychological insights that have attained the status of platitudes: the narration of suppressed social force that is unlocked in the virtual realities of theme parks and soap operas and the tales about the neurotic unit called “family”; the despairing knowledge of the impossibility of developing an authentic self in a media culture where nothing outranks efficient, embodied authenticity; and finally, the reality of the intimate fascism of the socially disciplinarian, confining environments of family, military, and workplace.

Once one has grown used to the repertoire of signs, the shock is displaced from the visceral to the social and psychological. Three key concepts in McCarthy’s discourse are “culture,” “fear," and “dream.” Where the scandal emerges is in the deliberately antitherapeutic work done with these terms, in the mercilessness of their use.

Consider Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O., 1998. When McCarthy, along with Mike Kelley, presented this colossal performance-installation at the Wiener Secession in 1998, comparisons with the Viennese Actionists suggested themselves immediately. But the piece provoked on another level—through an overkill of aesthetic and analytic material. The two California artists, with the help of a small army of actor-assistants, presented scenes of a fictitious military camp, with tents, a wooden watchtower and review stands, and a large pipe. As is typical of McCarthy and Kelley, the themes and motifs were crossed in complex ways: family, child, and group psychology; relations between primitive totems and modernist sculpture; psychodynamics of chains of command and surveillance techniques in military camps; idiocy, regression, voyeurism, pornography, and (trans)gender trouble; and pop-cultural interpretations of adaptation and transgression as seen in Starship Troopers and MASH.

McCarthy and Kelley dedcated this inventory to the radical filmmaker and Viennese Actionist Kurt Kren, but let us not jump to conclusions. In their Viennese Heidi video installation of 1992, the duo had already written themselves into and out of the history of the European avant-garde. The analogy with Actionism seems just as confining as the reduction of their works to their alleged shock value. Over and over again, McCarthy emphasizes that it would be misleading to interpret his allusions to Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Adolf Loos’s modernism, or the superficial similarities between the blood in Orgien-Mysterien-Theater and the ketchup in McCarthy’s Bossy Burger, 1991, as signs of a direct reference to European archaism or modernism.

At all times the starting point was a phantasmic relationship to Europe, generated through films, theme parks, cartoons, and other forms of American pop culture. The hyperselective Europe of Paul McCarthy (and Mike Kelley as well) is a stage on which the quasi-mythic processes of annexation (and digestion) by the culture industry and mass psychology unfold.

Misunderstandings are of course part of the hidden aesthetic program wherever a European art audence is confronted with a particularly confusing combination of transatlantic projections and identifications. When an artist like McCarthy, who shows worldwide—and particularly in Austria and Switzerland—activates characters like Heidi or Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma, 1994) and animates Alpine architectural clichés (Rear View, 1991–92; Mechanized Chalet, 1993/1999) that migrated from a European pre-pop imagination to American culture (where they more or less took on a life of their own), it is not least through the public that the complex readaptation of these Americanized themes takes place. Exactly whom, then, does McCarthy address with this documentation of global provinciality? He turns to the observer, who is in the (privileged as well as dubious) position of watchmg a California artist stage semantically exhausted images. The cliché, once trustworthy, now becomes alien and turns back along the tangled circuits of the global arts network to its point of departure. McCarthy demonstrates just how confining the imaginary worlds are to which he and his public are subject. But he doesn’t lament the suffocating power of transcontinental popular culture; instead, he treats it as ripe symptom.

This cultural exchange, which takes place not only between “America” and “Europe” but also in the labyrinthine architecture of cultural milieus and discourses, becomes in McCarthy’s work a referential storehouse, in which alleged ur-scenes and ur-transgressions occur, thus obtaining the status of perfectly coded acts—acts that seem to be covered by collective projection and transference.

By the beginning of the ’70s, McCarthy, in respectful contradiction to the serious practices of the modernists, Minimalists, body artists, and Conceptualists that he had come to know so far, had already decided to integrate elements outside the arts proper into his performances. What he calls the “cultural” is perhaps analogous to the way cultural historian Aby Warburg came to understand the survival and persistence in the arts of certain mytho-psychic structures since antiquity: as a kind of transhistorical cultural energetics, unexpectedly and uncontrollably emerging, a latent undercurrent that forces its way into the expressive gestures of a different period’s artifacts—culturally coded and psychologically persistent.

“I think it has to do with the search for a very basic kind of activity,” McCarthy says in an interview with Kristine Stiles about his performances, and such a statement should not be misunderstood as a primitivist credo. Rather, the theoretical background that culminates in “the search for a very basic kind of activity” calls for the recognition of the radical mediation of all psychic motions, social actions, and aesthetic decisions. The inclusion of data studded with cultural—hence social and mass-cultural—references within the space of his artistic practice belongs to a paradoxical search for reality: “We become what we see in the media and it becomes real,” McCarthy emphasized in a 1993 interview. This means his anthropology is guided by an aim to gain unmediated knowledge of the mechanisms of desire in the exaggerated presentation of that crossover between media reality and trauma.

To this end, the artist finds his vocabulary in contemporary discount culture. Alongside Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, and Otto Mühl, one finds Herschell Gordon Lewis, Tobe Hooper, Bonanza, Howdy Doody, and Alfred E. Neuman. But it’s no ersatz avant-garde that McCarthy assembles. He would no more expect to find pure pleasure in the world of theme parks, television Westerns, and cartoons than he would anywhere else. He would, though, be more likely to find himself confronted by the painful insistence with which the pop-cultural productions and psychic processes package themselves.

The traumas that McCarthy tracks (child abuse, patriarchal violence, rape, etc.) are shocks that can only be represented, no longer “experienced.” Especially not in a “wound culture” (Mark Seltzer) where the “trauma”—defined by Freud as an “experience” that triggers “lasting disturbances in one’s energy system”—has become a common symbol for mass-cultural communication about the inconceivable. One may wonder, of course, whether McCarthy’s ceaseless representations of trauma do not participate in a major pop-cultural markdown—that is, whether these drastic stagings of a perspective on the impossible-possible don’t ultimately sell short the psychodynamics of traumatization. Or does McCarthy, in the mode of caricature, “transfer” the debates over posttraumatic symptoms, child abuse, and multiple-personality disorders—routinely flowing into what Elaine Showalter christened “hystories”—as a choreography of pain and compassion in the media? Hardly. The gesture of “transference,” or any form of didactics, seems entirely foreign to this work.

Nevertheless, a tension arises between such nondidactic practice and the theoretical claims to knowledge, between the display of vehement losses of control and the absolute refusal to surrender scenic control-through accessories, architectures, cameras, automata, those “distancing techniques” that Timothy Martin summons to prevent an excessively primitivist reading of McCarthy.

This tension is not resolved but rather pushed to an extreme wherever McCarthy manages to let loose his desire for an ultimate jouissance, the physical reflection of the other’s jouissance: “My actions are visceral; I want [the work] to be visceral,” he says. His formulation is on the edge of performative contradiction, but it is one of those contradictions that have been long established in our culture: The visceral experience has become the ideal of a specific, druglike high that one looks for in extreme sports, bungee jumping, parachuting, roller-coaster riding, and certain techno environments. At the same time, to “want” this visceral experience destroys the ideal of the jouissance that leads into the realm of the real. In a way, McCarthy is acting out the embarrassment of desiring and constructing the thrills of superauthentic experiences. He is showing the utter helplessness and absurdity of the pursuit of a state of ultimate viscerality.

Therefore the medium of ths art seems to be less performance, video, sculpture, or installation than a sort of overexertion and overstepping that constantly points to its own limitations. The same destination awaits its “humor”—“you might if you like think it funny,” McCarthy declared in performance instructions from the ’70s. But what exactly does “funny” mean? How liberating is laughter when viewing the agitation of the collective unconscious? Or perhaps, How oppressive?

And another question remains: Who is laughing? The McCarthy retrospective might provide an opportunity to investigate the relations between the artist’s masquerades and the “masquerades” of the female subject position that obey and simultaneously escape the “law of the father” in a different way. What is the contribution of a work that displays a repeatedly refracted yet unconcealed macho component, even when dealing with “amphibious gender and queerly composite realities” (Ralph Rugoff)? Who is included and who excluded from this theater of androgynous posings with an often brutalistic twist? The relationship between the many buttocks in McCarthy’s installations and the similar items displayed for instance in the work of Robert Gober, in which irony and mourning, retention and powerful punning form a quite different context for an ambiguously staged homosexual sensibility, needs explanation. McCarthy’s “you might if you like think it funny” may not please everyone.

Meanwhile McCarthy seems to have reached a point in his thirty-year career where his typical mix of referentiality, regressiveness, and transgressiveness can hardly be varied any further, qualitatively or categorically; the dawn of a McCarthy classic phase is upon us. In this sense, the most recent large exhibit preceding this year’s retrospective, the opening exhibition in 1999 at the Sammlung Hauser and Wirth in St. Gallen, Switzerland, entitled “Dimensions of the Mind: The Denial and the Desire in the Spectacle,” documented an artistic development reminiscent of the later Chris Burden’s jamboree: bigness, professionalism, and overview.

In The Box, 1999, for instance, McCarthy shipped all of the contents of his Los Angeles studio to St. Gallen and mounted them in a box (rotated ninety degrees) the size of his original studio space. He put together Bossy Burger, 1991, with old stage sets from the television series Family Affair and The Hogan Family. Another high point of the show—as well as a bow to McCarthy’s “Alpine” patrons—was the megalomaniacal Mechanized Chalet, in which a small Swiss mountain cottage, decked out in street-fair kitsch, could be unfolded or stowed away under the ceiling. Equally lavish was Picabia Love Bed/Picabia Dream Bed, 1999: a mobile, circular bed for one or two, set on rails, with speed and direction manipulated by remote control and with the option of recording the bed on video.

The scandalous and the visceral have, it seems, been crossed with another issue: the normality of the “spectacle” (which also figures in the show’s title). Sculptures such as Apple Heads on Swiss Cheese and Michael Jackson Gold, Michael Jackson White, Michael Jackson Black, both 1997-99, reveal McCarthy hamming it up in the style of classicist pop caricature—honoring (or poking fun at?) Jeff Koons and the Chapman brothers, without letting these paraphrases become clearly recognizable as critique or homage. (Of course, Michael Jackson as a grotesque is a pure, if hilarious, tautology.) And Chocolate Blockhead Nosebar Outlet, 2000, McCarthy’s contribution to Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, was a gigantic, inflatable brown figure, like a hybrid of his Pinocchio figures and Picabia Sculpture (The Idol), 1997-99, seducing the audience to eat chocolate from its interior (cf. also Santa Chocolate Shop, 1996-97). However, the formal vocabulary seems by now a bit tired, and its integration into the world exhibition too successful.

Certainly, in his works of recent years, McCarthy comes across as a greater—and more accessible—virtuoso than ever before. The public will no doubt be invited to enter disorienting and stimulating video environments like Saloon Theater, 1995–99. Today’s museum standards of lavish experiential video installations will be easily fulfilled. McCarthy draws continuously closer to the spectacle that his obsessive search has always aimed for. A mimesis with a happy ending?

Translated from German by Mark Georgiev.