Saturday, 3 December 2011
I've this week uncovered a number of reasons to count my blessings. Foremost amongst them is the fact that I don't live in Paul McCarthy's head.
Paul McCarthy is currently the lucky recipient of the first transatlantic show to be presented by Hauser & Wirth, his work simultaneously filling their New York gallery space and the two in London, whilst an outdoor sculpture dominates St James's Square. In terms of square footage this is some considerable homage to a contemporary artist from one of the most powerful commercial galleries in the world.
Now well into his 60s and known for his in-yer-face grotesquerie McCarthy hasn't let age soften his sensibilities. Impressive in a way because I imagine it must be quite hard work being this repellent. Savile Row, the latest addition to the Hauser & Wirth empire, offers us a larger than life size mechanised pink blancmange-like sculpture of George W Bush sodomising a pig, in duplicate, with a smaller pig in each case humping away at the larger pigs right eye socket. The mechanism is movement sensitive allowing Dubya's double heads to swivel around and stare at the viewer as she enters the room, which intrusion he doesn't allow to put him off the task in hand. If anything the burgeoning audience seems to add to his dense enthusiasm, the heads whirring more and more excitedly.
The most skin crawling elements of this work for me are firstly it's name: Train, and secondly the expressions in the eyes. Dubya's register a sort of numb, semi-conscious, unsalvable craving, whilst the pigs' show a terrified, silently squealing horror. It occurs to me that what's driving the two is not dissimilar. Both are lost to themselves and profoundly unhappy. The idea of an abuser and an abused begins to seem like an oversimplification, a false dichotomy even.
Over at Piccadilly we're confronted with the appex of the shock-merchants double whammy: sex and religion. In front of a row of empty pews, empty that is but for the odd gallery visitor who's plonked themselves down exhaustedly, is a monumental altar atop which sits a naked Christ-like hyper-real sculpture of the distended artist himself. His eyes are closed, his limbs semi-severed. He sits amid pots of paint and in front of his own easel. Entitled The King this is the quintessential self-portrait, the artist surrounded by his insignia and his vast ego. Around the room are enormous canvases; Britney Spears in one of her 'accidentally' indiscrete knicker-less climbing out of a car moments of a few years back, a page from a porn magazine, Henry Fonda in a ten-gallon hat - symbols of our time, placed upside down to indicate mockery and rejection as well as Baselitz style human tragedy on a global scale.
As I wander around I become aware of the sound of a chain saw drifting ominously from the basement. And sure enough, downstairs, in this ex-bank's dark, foreboding vault, a video is playing of the artist attacking the rubber model of himself that is to become King, in what could probably be called a fairly terminal manner. Not content with the sex and religion combo, McCarthy treats us to a slasher movie as well. Only this is a slasher movie with a difference - protagonist and victim are one and the same. We are not the 'victims' of this sorry state we find ourselves in, McCarthy tells us. This is not someone else's fault. We are doing this to ourselves. I can't deny it has insight.
Oddly enough, in a world that smiles fondly at memories of Vito Acconci's SeedBed and laughs knowingly at the Chapman's FuckFace series, McCarthy still somehow manages to generate horror. What I can't quite get my head around is why? Insight and horror do not necessarily go hand in hand. In the long run what's to be gained by horrifying visitors with your freakery? Does it not ultimately have the same numbing effect that Dubya and the pigs are acting out under. Feeling starts to go, life ceases to be experienced in all it's wonderful, rich three dimensionality... pretty soon, unhealthy, ambient discontentment are all that remain, our own lifelessness floating unacknowledged at the edges of our peripheral vision. So dead have we become to our emotional responses eventually we don't even realise they've gone. Loss without awareness of loss. Waking death. Then where will we go for our kicks? Presumably we'll all have to start fucking pigs. Perhaps we already are. Perhaps that's the very point he's making. Perhaps in his somewhat idiosyncratic Christ-like way he's telling us to first take the plank out of our own eyes, and then we will see clearly to remove the speck from our brother's.
Written for and reproduced here by kind permission of NY Arts Magazine.