PRINT September 2005


Rachel Harrison on Paul McCarthy

I HATE A PARADE. I hate the twined feelings of exclusion and obligation––like I don’t belong or that “belonging” involves accepting the passive role of watcher as the scripted procession rolls by. I don’t care to stand on the sidelines beholding a spectacle in regimented time slots, corny framed narratives, forced good spirits, and propagandizing themes. Parades are crowd control under the guise of celebration: You have to believe in “control” to participate at all. So why did I make a last-minute decision to attend a Sunday-morning parade celebrating Paul McCarthy’s “LaLa Land Parody Paradise” in Munich? Because I couldn’t help but wonder if the king of debased extravaganza, the master of desublimation, could pull off a reclamation ritual at the city’s Haus der Kunst, former repository for the art of the Third Reich and notorious site of Hitler’s speeches.

As it turned out, I wasn’t disappointed. The parade would begin in the museum’s rear, where a crowd comprising art-world specialists, as well as local families drawn to the event by advertisements, was gathered (ass-embled?). Together we followed a caravan of horse-drawn covered plywood wagons to the beat of a Bavarian marching band, guided by Wild West performers in clown-toed cowboy boots and oversize gingham dresses. At a slow, orderly pace this motley entourage meandered along a dirt path through a well-manicured park. Occasionally, the horses paused and a traditional regional dance, the Schuhplatter, took place in a circle while the green-and-white lederhosened band played on. The artist, in an orange plaid shirt with suspenders, stood out like an alien but danced like the leader. Everyone clapped in unison.

What did it mean to follow these wagons, icons of the American fatherland, through a garden in the heart of southern Germany? It was too weird to feel forced, too lighthearted to seem serious, too ridiculous to be true. The parade looped around to the front of the museum, where a makeshift wooden ramp had been placed on the entrance steps. The wagons were detached from the horses, the wheels now evenly coated in fresh horse manure. As the costumed pioneers shoved these crude carts into the mouth of the museum, I realized the artist was forcing the Haus der Kunst to indulge in institutional coprophagy—to eat its own shit. It dawned on me that this fascist architecture might be having a long-overdue symbolic makeover, and its cold, enormous halls (symmetrical, monumental, pompous) were entering a new era: the McCarthy era.

The wagons finally took their places in the main entrance hall alongside the artist’s F-Fort, 2005, a simple but sizable wooden structure with five watchtowers—which, during the exhibition’s official opening the previous evening, had been used as a site for a video shoot. In fact, I walked into the fort that night to find a group of large German men in uniforms based on those of the television show F Troop sitting around a table, laughing and guzzling beer. They began roughhousing and screaming absurdly as video cameras rolled. I think their dicks were hanging out, but I can’t remember exactly since I left quickly; I didn’t want to get in the way of the cameras. As I fled this beer putsch–cum–bachelor party and wandered around, I thought about F Troop and looked for some Indians. Maybe they had all been killed? When I was a young kid in the ’70s the West was painted for me by this absurdly American satiric sitcom. The F Troop cavalrymen were always quite nice to the neighboring Indians, Caucasian actors in red face who sold “fire water” and spoke in broken sentences (“How!”) with feathers in their hair. But this was Germany, not the televisual Wild West. The building that now serves as the Haus der Kunst had been commissioned by Hitler to showcase the art he approved. It opened in 1937 with ceremonial Bavarian infantrymen marching in front of the museum. Here at McCarthy’s opening, all things became conflated: I was inside a sculpture that was a set of a set, in a building that itself was built as a stage. The cameras were rolling, the ersatz army was drunk, and who, if anyone, were they here to protect? Were the soldiers or cameras protecting the present? My mind started racing. American fashion made uniforms chic. Hollywood movies turned war into love stories. The West was won. The war has begun. Mission Accomplished. Would I see any Indians?

“LaLa Land Parody Paradise” (which travels next month to London’s Whitechapel) is a well-selected presentation of McCarthy’s oeuvre to date with a number of key works from the late ’60s and ’70s, including two that read as harbingers of the artist’s direction today: Dead H, 1968/1975, a six-foot-long quasi-minimalist structure built from metal furnace ducts; and the performance video Experimental Dancer, 1975, a meditation on the construction of masculine identity. In the latter, McCarthy, naked save for what he once described as “an adolescent goon boy mask,” dances like a lunatic while tucking his penis between his thighs. The work has been described as abject, and it is. But more to the point is the title’s adjective “experimental,” which allows McCarthy to mock the exercise self-consciously—a play on the experimental artist who, with no place for himself in the “normal” world, must carve out this space with his body. It demonstrates the urgency of human expression in a society in need of critique, and the simultaneous impossibility (and insanity) of such expression.

Whatever the huge scale and resources available to McCarthy now, the artist continues his own personal vision with the same depraved humor and energy he had when he was just starting out, when his only means was his own body, as both site and spectacle. The new work in Munich, comprising McCarthy’s Western and “Caribbean Pirates” projects (2001–2005), takes on with a vengeance all things American. With “LaLa Land”—Disney and Hollywood—as the sociopolitical backdrop to this “parody paradise,” the show is at once exuberantly excessive and ambitiously haunting, necessarily playing off the enormity of the Haus der Kunst’s history. (Among the most powerful works is a “flicker film” video comprising kitsch imagery of Hitler and Disney that, intermingled here, appears staggeringly similar.) In her exhibition-catalogue essay, curator Stephanie Rosenthal relays a conversation that McCarthy had with his son Damon when the two embarked on their collaboration “Caribbean Pirates” (based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland), which is presented in Munich as an elaborate series of massive sets, found-object boats, comical figurative sculptures, messy and virtuosic drawings, and hysterical video projections. “The discussion Damon and I had,” she quotes McCarthy as saying, “was a political and an art discussion—all the time.” Pirates are of course associated with rapacious pillaging motivated by excess and greed—a parallel to our age of global capitalism, “coalitions of the willing,” and the blurred boundaries of power between nations and corporations. Rosenthal writes: “The capture of land by force and the brutality and bestiality that go along with these undertakings, as can be seen in Iraq among other places today, is an essential driving force behind this work.”

Does the parodic nature of McCarthy’s production blunt our ability to recognize these parallels, or does his humor sharpen the blow? Even if it’s masked by absurdity and theatricality, I feel the artist’s rage when I experience his work, particularly his expressionistic tendency to demonstrate process. There is an excessive materiality as well as physicality in all aspects of its form. The sculptural component of “Caribbean Pirates” appears in a large central gallery: On one side is the Frigate, 2001–2005, a crude, rust-brown fiberglass boat based on an actual pirate ship; it’s combined with the two-story, stagelike Cakebox, 2001–2005. An oversized mechanical Captain Morgan, 2005, is enthroned within this scene, captured and bound by thick rope to a chair, his head cracked open to expose the electrical wires that make up his brain and now hang down along with his pirate tresses. The set is soaked with stains and adorned with used, broken things—leftover props, jars of gross liquids, a pink hat, and abused tools caked with mysterious substances reeking of sexual innuendo.

The multichannel video projections of Pirate Party and Houseboat Party (both 2001–2005) (the latter’s “set” appears in the central gallery alongside the frigate), match the chaotic, orgiastic complexities of the installation, and their overall visual and sonic effect is like a wall of hysteria. The densely deviant behavior improvised by McCarthy’s actors (spreading chocolate on each other or sawing off limbs and noses, screaming bloody murder in the former instance while partaking of a strange cocktail party in the latter) is captured on camera from multiple angles. Although the handling of the video might appear haphazardly loose, all the footage has been carefully edited (nearly two hundred hours of shooting for Pirate Party and Houseboat Party were edited down to six shorter video loops). Occasionally a single recorded moment is shown simultaneously in different places, the images running backward or in slo-mo. In most of McCarthy’s earlier videos, the performers are trapped by his sets, running through doors and cutting holes in the wood. In Houseboat Party, an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike channels Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a movie adapted from the stage. Her body and hands shaking, she screams while standing in front of the ocean, a blue-screen-like projection, as the boat rocks and the handheld camera races to get it all in. The obviously fake Taylor in front of the very fake ocean adds another level to this claustrophobia, the act of filming itself trapped by its own artifice and cinematic reference.

If McCarthy’s video projections locate the viewer in a non-narrative explosion of popular vernacular, his figurative sculptures are, by comparison, classical. Like a hall of Greco-Roman busts, one room is devoted to a series of pirate heads cast in brown carbon fiber. With their varied smooth, creamy, melted, or gnawed surface textures, they evoke chocolate bonbons. Like the performance videos, these heads display transformation and are records of sculpture based in real time. McCarthy works closely with studio assistants, directing them to cast heads or make pirate forms based on Disneyland characters and then redirects them to lop off the noses, reconfigure the cheekbones, or add dicks where their eyes should be. A separate room houses flesh-colored figures, including a lifelike mannequin of the artist, sans pants, asleep on a cot. A work table nearby shows a series of heads and some plaster and fiberglass casts. Together they offer transitions, possible identities, plastic-surgery options, disguises for living.

The political metaphors in McCarthy’s work are brazen without being didactic. His obsession with maleness is parodic, after all, not satiric. Much boy art bores me with its utter self-absorption and display of male ego, but I find McCarthy’s work compelling, even moving. There is plenty here that on its lugubrious surface certainly seems aggressively hostile to women, but do the paradigms of misogyny apply to a world without normality? The extreme artifice and insanity, physically underlining the constructedness of the world the artist creates, with its overloaded clichés of male power, dissolve into absurdity. Pissing, belching, pillaging are negated by excessive repetition—they can’t be “real,” they are so artificial. Or does their artificiality make them somehow almost too real? If this is the case, it’s a necessary critique, an expression that feels, like a bad dream, authentically real.

McCarthy shows us that an artist can still activate our contemporary political and cultural unconscious without ever sacrificing a precise formal intelligence—or better, that it’s impossible to activate this material without such formal intelligence. And that an artist can still make use of parody without it being a burned rhetorical gesture. And even that, with the right invitation, we can still be made to like a parade.

Rachel Harrison is a New York–based artist.