Magazine article Artforum International

Body Doubles: Michael Ned Holte on Michele O'Marah

Magazine article Artforum International

Body Doubles: Michael Ned Holte on Michele O'Marah

Article excerpt

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 Bay watch, 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 Motley Crue 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 Guantanamo Bay.

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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--nee 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! …

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