Magazine article Artforum International

Schooled for Scandal

Magazine article Artforum International

Schooled for Scandal

Article excerpt

PURVEYOR OF SCANDAL-FOR-SCANDAL'S-SAKE OR SCREAM THERAPIST PURGING THE PATIENT? MOST OF US DON'T KNOW PAUL MCCARTHY WELL ENQUAH TO SAY: THE WEST COAST PERFORMANCE LEGEND HAS MANAGED TO ELUDE THE RETROSPECE RADAR IN AMERICA. THE THAT CHANGES THIS MONTH, AS A THREE-DECADE SURVEY OF MCCARTHY'S WORK, ORGANIZED BY THE NEW MUSEUM OF ON CONTEMPORARY ART IN NEW YORK, OPENS IN LOS AGGELES AT THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART. ON THE OCCASION, TOM HOLERT EXAMINES A UNIQUELY SPLIT ARTISTIC PERSONALITY.

Shortly before his 1994 book Extension du domaine de la lutte (published in America under the perhaps felicitous title Whatever) earned him a reputation in cultural circles in France as "scandalous," Michel Houellebecq embarked on a lecture tour of French art schools, addressing the relationship between quality and talent, as well as sexual failure. While in Avignon, he happened to witness a video in which an artist stuck his penis through a hole in a sheet of plywood and, with a piece of twine, moved it around like a marionette. Houellebecq's reaction: "It made me very uncomfortable. The atmosphere of decay, of tragic failure attached to today's art ultimately gets stuck in your throat."

Curiously, the view on an artist's preoccupation with his own penis did not shock the writer; it depressed him. What he saw made him sad, he wrote in the Paris magazine Les Inrockuptibles, because of its "almost intolerable precision." Far from sensing an art scandal, Houellebecq commented on these images of sado-masturbatory experiment with an abject memento mori: "I dreamed of trash bags welling up with coffee filters, fruit and vegetable rinds, meat with gravy. I thought of art as the act of skinning, and of pieces of flesh clinging to the skin."

Like Houellebecq's unfortunate performer, Paul McCarthy's list of ingredients includes a "member," "plywood," "a hole," and an "atmosphere [...] of tragic failure." He too occupies himself intensively and repeatedly with his penis. In addition, he has made a show of his anus (e.g., Painter, and stuck his head into a wail(Plaster Your Head and One Arm into a Wall, 1973). "I perform on myself"--so read the notes to the 1974 performance Meat Cake, in which McCarthy sat on a table, his head deformed by adhesive tape and covered with butter--"[and] include my dick working carefully with it."

In this grotesquerie, the body of the artist (which seems to mutate into a body without organs, or one with too many) is both prop and stage. Crucial expressive operations are carried out by way of liquids, pieces of clothing, furniture, dolls, masks, odors, and noises. The whimpering, mumbling, wailing, and wheezing turn the performer into a prisoner of a world with too many authors (or perhaps none at all). Any attempt by the various protagonists to escape this polymorphous environment only entangles them even further in its grip. The line between autonomy, authorship, and autism dissolves; ostensibly unleashed, viscous masses (ketchup, mayonnaise, Vaseline, chocolate) and low-culture references (B movies, porno flicks, canceled soap operas, pop psychology, and abandoned amusement parks) are put into circulation. They contaminate each other literally and semiotically. Remnants of the aimless play and desultory fights between masked performer, body parts, and stand-ins for bodily fluids are observed amid th e ruins of an abandoned architecture haunted by the ghosts of TV shows past.

Since the late '60s, Paul McCarthy has redirected the course of his production again and again: from conceptually inspired body-art performances to mechanical-motorized sculptures to ever more lavish multimedia video installations. Regardless of the approach, however, he has dedicated himself to the construction of atmospheres and spaces in which he pursues the constructive devaluation of cultural hierarchies. The claustrophobic character of these architectonic and performative environments can be traced back in McCarthy's case to the fact that nothing stands outside mediated representations and social constructions. …

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