Academic journal article Afterimage

The Fairest in the Land: The Deconstruction of Beauty in Paul Mccarthy's WS

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Fairest in the Land: The Deconstruction of Beauty in Paul Mccarthy's WS

Article excerpt


0ne of the most striking and surprising objects in Paul McCarthy's recent exhibition WS at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City (June 19-August 4,2013) was a white rubber dummy displayed in a deli counter. The outside of the deli counter bore a tag reading "ITEM #1003." In the context of the exhibition, it referred to Snow White, who, after taking a bite from the poisoned apple, falls into a state of suspended animation. The dwarves place her in a glass coffin, where she remains until her rescue by the prince. In WS, the dummy resembles a female figure, bright white in color, slim and sleek, without hair or eyes, but with a vagina clearly visible between spread legs. The glass casket allows full view of the puppet and was situated on the right side of the gigantic installation, which was, fittingly, squeezed into the Armory's drill hall. The installation also included an enormous, surrealistically lit plastic forest, elevated on a wooden framework, a chalet in its center; and two separate, fully furnished rooms that served as the main performance site.

The installation, which has for now traveled back to McCarthy's studios in Los Angeles, was accompanied by eleven videos that, shown simultaneously on several screens and monitors, documented the sort of noisy orgies that McCarthy is known for. These performances were staged and filmed over a period of more than thirty days in and around the installation while it was still set up in McCarthy's studios prior to the exhibition. The seven-hour The Feature, the main performance that was projected on large screens around the Armory's drill hall, is based on the Snow White narrative, whereas the other video performances, shown in smaller rooms located around the main hall, trace some of the characters of The Feature--White Snow, the dwarves, the prince, Walt Paul in shorter sequences largely unrelated to the fairytale. The dummy in the counter could not compete with these eye- and ear-catching components of McCarthy's work--quiet, clean, and sterile, it initially seemed out of place in the overall chaotic tawdriness.

The piece, however, has a lot to say. It affords an opportunity to take a closer look at McCarthy's use of the human body (particularly the female one) and, from there, consider its value, Function, and meaning today. It provokes us to think about beauty, about bodily ideals, and about the significance of those attributes that have risen to highest priority in contemporary Western society.

WS McCarthy's most recent endeavor in the performative installation branch of his multimedia oeuvre, a branch he has developed and explored since Bossy Burger (1991). Over the years, the performances and installations have become increasingly elaborate, with WS being by far his most refilled and perfected project, At the same time, WS is also McCarthy's most self-involved work. The piece appears to be considerably influenced by artist- and studio-based developments and enthusiasm for technologies, which somewhat obscure the artist's critical and often angry dialogue with consumer society. This is perhaps not surprising, as the undertaking of performative installations like WS, Pirate Project (2005) or Western Project (2005) involve dozens of people, years-long preparation, and multiple specializations (from drawing, sculpture, and special effects to scriptwriting, construction, and filmmaking). Indeed, with WS, McCarthy has attained new levels of craftsmanship, which in turn affect the work's performative aspect. (1)

WS is the first of McCarthy's performative installations in which two automatons--lifelike robots that roll their eyes and move their mouths--join in the performative activities alongside human actors. One resembles the actress playing Snow White (or "White Snow," as she is called by McCarthy), and the other, "Walt Paul" (McCarthy himself, made up as Walt Disney). McCarthy has long been fascinated with mechanical sculptures. …

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