PRINT January 2004



If politics acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, they become stranger still in the hands of Paul McCarthy, whose latest project, Piccadilly Circus, 2003, stars George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and England’s late Queen Mother (in triplicate). McCarthy filters Bush’s grave new world order through his trademark carnivalesque: Piccadilly’s protagonists wear clown shoes, speak in glossolalia, and cover one another with viscous goo. Exhibited last fall to open Hauser & Wirth’s new London space in a historic former bank, a listed Lutyens building on Piccadilly, the installation filled three floors; it featured a six-channel video projected onto the walls of the main hall, above wrecked teller booths and a slew of sticky props left over from the filming, which took place primarily in the bank itself. In a basement vault was a two-channel video shot in a replica of the actual bank vault, which McCarthy constructed in Los Angeles. In this playland, Bush stomps around in bikini underwear and cowboy boots, expressing frightening jouissance. The LA set—McCarthy’s own Cinecittà—offered broader possibilities. No damage-control restrictions hindered him, and no preservation society hovered, as in London. According to the artist, LA was a place where Bush “felt at home” and “knew what his work was”—comments whose rhetorical convolutions give some indication of the ambiguities at play here, since we all know whose home LA really is. For someone who engages in the messy work of desublimation, McCarthy explained with surprising exactitude each avenue into abstraction he had chosen in developing the props, characters, and sets for Piccadilly. This scrupulousness extended to the film-editing process—a complicated, nonlinear system of synching and unsynching various visual points plotted on x- and y-axes. So if some of the intended meanings in McCarthy’s fun house are a bit murky, one thing is clear: There is meticulousness behind the mayhem.

Rachel Kushner


When I first saw the building where we videotaped Piccadilly Circus, it was empty and abandoned, but the teller windows and other vestiges of its life as a bank had been left intact. I didn’t have any intention of making a piece there—I was just checking out the space with my gallerist. It seemed immediately interesting. In the basement were vaults, with barred doors and thick concrete walls: a kind of jail. Upstairs were executive offices, one of which for some reason had been called the “American room.” I asked the gallery if we could videotape in the bank before they renovated it as an exhibition space, and they agreed. This was in December 2002, and America was about to go to war with Iraq. My son, Damon, whom I have been working with, said, “Why don’t we put Bush upstairs and bin Laden in the basement?” I instinctively responded, “And the Queen Mother goes in the middle.”

In the piece, Bush is a painter. He paints a portrait of bin Laden, who stands on a pedestal. Bush uses him as a muse, which is one way of understanding the political situation: There is a study going on, each one studying the other. At one point, Bush writes GUGGENHEIM on bin Laden’s turban. It’s an expression of his power. When Bush paints with his face, it’s a direct reference back to me and my piece Shit Face Painting from 1974. Originally, I had planned for the queens to descend the bank staircase nude, but they descended clothed. I thought, Okay, Bush will be the nude. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I spontaneously started painting. I thought to myself, The nude paints. I liked the idea of this middle-aged fat man painting. It’s so unpresidential. I mean, Bush is obviously not a painter, nor does he paint with his face, or nude. I’m making the point here that it’s me under the mask. I’m riding a double line: I present Bush as having a pathology, and, as it happens, this pathology has connections to my own pathology, my obsessions and concerns.

At one point, Bush makes a deposit of tarts and cookies at the teller window. He smushes them under the glass. I am interested in liquids and smearing in that they are about painting as a visceral act. I’ve thought of myself as a figurative artist and thought of performance, to a degree, as about making a picture with a figure in it— a series of figures in a frame. In this sense, what I do is a convention.

While we were working on Piccadilly Circus, there were all these images on the Internet of Bush and bin Laden having sex. It came up that this could be a scene in the project, but it didn’t happen. It’s been a question of mine whether to have a piece with a real act in it. I’ve always been more interested in the simulation of the real. A mayonnaise jar as an orifice brings into the equation something that the human body cannot—it’s about consumption, the act of buying, and fetish. But there may be a real act in the next piece—who knows? It’s written into the script for a pirate movie I’m making, involving some people from Hustler magazine.

The set of the bank basement where we filmed in Los Angeles was altered from the original. It’s abstracted, obviously a set, and painted in bright, almost Disneyesque colors. Here, Bush is a builder, but he mostly cuts holes with a reciprocal saw, and it’s not clear what’s being improved by his work. Meanwhile, the queens become like babies, Teletubbies who paint each other pink in a room whose floors, walls, and ceiling are carpeted red, like a womb. They’re sisters and companions. Bush cannot penetrate their bond. He’s separate, always somewhere else, cutting and drilling. He’s frustrated. He sets up a scene where he loses his leg. He cuts a hole in the table—a Hollywood hole, for simulating an amputation. The queens hack off his prosthetic leg. It’s his personal fantasy to undergo a symbolic castration, but the meaning goes beyond that. It’s about maleness and sexual repression leading to forms of fascism.

Piccadilly Circus is about Bush but also about reconfiguring images of leadership and buffoonery. Some of its themes are similar to others I’ve explored over the last thirty years. There’s a kind of obsessive behavior that gets repeated. I’ve been criticized for this, which seems odd to me. In my work, one of the returning themes is futility. But the expression of the futile produces a sort of satisfaction. Futility itself becomes a kind of completion. It’s a belief in art.