PRINT February 2010


Michele O’Marah

ACCORDING TO HER WEBSITE, Pamela Anderson is “the millennium’s most recognizable icon.” The claim may seem a bit premature, but there’s no doubt that in her twenty-year career, Anderson has proved a remarkably durable cross-platform pop-cultural presence—the “most downloaded star,” per Guinness World Records. This ubiquity surely stems not only from her more obvious attributes but also from the fact that, paving the way for the antics of Paris and Britney, she was among the first mass-media celebrities to thoroughly blur the line between scripted performance and the performance of celebrity itself. Aside from her iconic turn on Baywatch, for the most part her appearances as fictional characters—miscellaneous roles in B movies and as a “Tool Time girl,” a bodyguard, a bookstore clerk, and an animated stripper in various TV series—have been thoroughly eclipsed by appearances “as herself” not only in such feature films as Borat but in the variously documented exploits of her “private” life: her ill-fated marriages to Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and Detroit rap-rocker Kid Rock; her breast augmentation, subsequent reduction, and reaugmentation; her contraction of hepatitis C from a tattoo needle shared with “secretly” toxic husband Lee; and—most notoriously—the leak of a stolen honeymoon sex tape of Anderson and Lee . . . oh, and an earlier tape made by Anderson and beau Bret Michaels (lead singer of the glam-rock band Poison and eventual star of reality dating show Rock of Love). This admittedly promiscuous persona is lent nuance by a seemingly genial and mildly ironic disposition, as well as by activism and advocacy on behalf of such causes as animal rights, the American Liver Foundation, the legalization of marijuana, imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, socialized medicine, the castration of child predators, and the closure of Guantánamo Bay.

Of course, life as the millennium’s most recognizable icon sounds pretty complicated—it’s a pileup of signification that Roland Barthes would have surely defined as myth—but to call Pamela Anderson a paradox would only be to arrive, rather belatedly, at the fact that this self-described “model/actress/mother/developer/entrepreneur/philanthropist” has already fully embraced the contradictions of her being. More than the exaggerated proportions, it’s this self-possession, perhaps, that has made artists including Marilyn Minter and Richard Prince gravitate to Anderson. Always asserting herself—and playing herself—as a consistent brand that is familiar yet chimerical, she is at once a readymade and a blank canvas available to artists drawn to representations of embodiment and desire.

The latest and most ambitious project to take Anderson as its empty center is “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do,” 2009, a trilogy of videos (The Death of Barb Kopetski, Word UP, and A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do) by Los Angeles–based artist Michele O’Marah that retraces three scenes from the 1996 Anderson vehicle Barb Wire—“empty center” meaning that the icon’s absence registers as a sort of displaced presence. In O’Marah’s project, which debuted at Kathryn Brennan Gallery at Cottage Home in Chinatown, Los Angeles, in January, three actresses (Emily Schaub, Trisha Paytas, and Amber Allen) play the part of nightclub owner and mercenary Barb Wire—née Barbara Kopetski—a character who, in the original film, is, inevitably, at once Barb and Pamela.

In directing these actresses, O’Marah doesn’t aim for parody, camp, or kitsch, though the production’s cheap sets and exposed seams might imitate kitsch’s effects; instead, she arrives at a pragmatic form of approximation that allows a human element—the proverbial “artist’s hand”—to emerge from the smooth plastic surfaces of the original. Barb Wire is set in Steel Harbor, “the last free city,” during America’s Second Civil War in 2017. Directed by David Hogan, it was adapted from a Dark Horse–brand comic book of the same name, and the inherent flatness of that medium governs the ruinous design and canned dialogue—Barb’s catchphrase, usually followed by a repulsive man’s violent death, is an emphatic “Don’t call me babe!”—of the Hollywood extrapolation. The complexity of O’Marah’s Barb Wire lies in the seriousness she devotes to this original text, lending paradoxical depth to its flatness, and the like-minded studiousness with which the actresses assume the doubled persona(e) of Pamela-as-Barb.

For more than a decade, O’Marah has been working in the geographic and economic shadows of Hollywood and has lavished attention on many of its forgotten or soon-to-be-forgotten products and by-products. Her first major production was Valley Girl, 2002, a three-years-in-the-making, nearly shot-for-shot re-creation of Martha Coolidge’s 1983 cult film, in which two fashion-forward teenage girls from the sunny San Fernando Valley follow a pair of streetwise punks across a cultural divide and into the bowels of Hollywood in order to find themselves—and perhaps love. Valley Girl was followed by the three-channel video Peacehead, 2004, which constructs its narrative from fragments of 1970s paranoid political thrillers; Faustus’s Children, 2006, a video collaboration with David Jones (script and sound) and Tim Jackson (special effects) that borrow freely from Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions (1999), and Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History (1992), among other tales of the privileged class’s dark side; and How Goes It with the Black Movement?, 2007, a video that restages a bristly interview of Black Panther Huey P. Newton by conservative mouthpiece William F. Buckley Jr.

All of O’Marah’s videos are noticeably no-budget, handmade affairs shot mainly in the artist’s studio. They are nevertheless rich in set design and costume detail, from cardboard sandals (in Valley Girl) to an “exploded” mattress (in A Girl’s Gotta Do . . .). These accoutrements are typically exhibited in galleries, alongside props that perform double duty as sculptures. At times, the artist’s ability to wring value out of her small coffers rivals that of the savviest of studio heads: For the tawdriest third of the Barb trilogy, Word UP, which mirrors the wet-and-wild stripping sequence that opens Barb Wire, O’Marah located a Hollywood water wrangler who offered to provide a water truck and supervise the special effects for a decidedly budget-friendly two hundred dollars. Still, the artist decided to produce the effect by herself, using a garden hose, a choice that speaks to her interest in control and the self-defined limits (and “look”) of her practice.

Authorship aside, O’Marah’s videos are inherently collaborative (though not collective); casting typically tends toward—ahem—nonprofessional actors, which generally means Los Angeles–based artists who are friends with O’Marah. (A series of her Warholian “screen tests,” many of which will be exhibited for the first time next year at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, includes peers such as Samara Caughey, Kim Fisher, Mark Grotjahn, and Evan Holloway, all of whom have acted in O’Marah productions.) In this sense, the casting call for the Barb Wire videos—ads were placed on Craigslist and in trade publications such as Back Stage—marked a rather significant shift toward mainstream Hollywood preproduction. For another artist, the fascinating videotaped auditions and head shots submitted by hopefuls vying for the part of Barb might constitute a “conceptual” piece systematically indexing the aspirations and feminine ideation of these actors. Such thematics are certainly on the artist’s mind—“I think [Anderson] uses her body as a tool for self-promotion, which isn’t my first choice as a model for women,” O’Marah has noted. “But then these ladies who come to my studio think she is sexy and that sexy is fun, and then I think, ‘Who am I to look down on their choices?’ But if you show your tits your way are you really in control?” But for O’Marah, working as Hollywood’s double, the prep and post work remains just that.

The blond actress playing Barb in the stripping scene arrived for her audition in a pink BARBIE sweatshirt and is, in fact, a stripper in “real life,” thereby doubling not only Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire but also Anderson’s cartoon avatar, Erotica Jones/Stripperella. Such incessant doubling begins to obliterate the wall—mostly theoretical at this point—between art and life, suggesting Barb Wire to be an already-ruined allegorical text on the paradoxes of constructing (or, I suppose, deconstructing) one’s identity. In Barb Wire (the original), the heavy-metal band Die Cheerleader covers Patti Smith’s song “Dancing Barefoot,” which fittingly provides the lines “She is re-creation / She, intoxicated by thee.”

The Death of Barb Kopetski, in which Barb is transformed from a romantic freedom fighter into a coldhearted mercenary, is undoubtedly the key scene in this allegorical formation: In a deft montage of flashbacks-within-a-flashback set at the outset of the civil war, we see Barb Kopetski and Axel Hood, a fellow freedom fighter, taking time from fighting to make love, followed by a note from Axel that breaks her heart and leads to her new name/identity. Emily Schaub, the actress in this scene, is the only Barb with dirty blond hair, providing an unexpected dose of “naturalism” amid the artifice of found war footage and bargain-basement rear projection. (On the other hand, Amber Allen, a black actress, is outfitted with a platinum-blond wig to play Barb in the action sequence A Girl’s Gotta Do . . ., rendering the act of doubling transparent.)

Unlike the recent rash of big-budget Hollywood remakes, from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) to Robert Zemeckis’s forthcoming Yellow Submarine, which are implicitly positioned to improve on, if not erase, the quainter original versions, and unlike the work of artists like Kalup Linzy and Charlie White, who adopt familiar genre conventions to produce new material, O’Marah’s videos double the primary texts and manage to make them more visible while simultaneously severing the perceived connection between economy and value that fuels the endless torrent of spectacularized Hollywood product. To call O’Marah’s videos critical is almost beside the point.

True, her trilogy emerges at a moment of economic decline, despotic born-again tea-party protests, and inflammatory speech that could indeed anticipate violent unrest, if not a second Civil War. However, I suspect O’Marah’s project has less to do with such larger, topical political issues than with the individual at the (empty) center of such forces—paralleling her own small-scale economy and artisanal efforts instead of the industrial spectacles of Hollywood. In other words, the politics of O’Marah’s work resides in her tactical reconstruction of Hollywood products while resisting most, if not all, of the industry’s strategies. Her serious (and laborious) but ambiguous act of doubling recalls, for me at least, Borges’s fictional author Pierre Menard, whose rewriting of two chapters of Don Quixote is “verbally identical, but . . . infinitely richer.”

Michael Ned Holte is a critic and curator based in Los Angeles.