Sex In Space – Paul McCarthy’s WS
Paul McCarthy’s monumental WS, currently in its last week at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side, is art on a genuinely epic scale. I saw the show four times while it was on this summer, and had several occasions to describe it (or try to) to people who hadn’t seen it. What I kept coming back to was, “It’s big. It’s really big.”
The bulk of the installation is located in the Armory’s massive Drill Hall, a 55,000-square-foot hangar space that fills an entire city block and contains a 9,000-square-foot plastic forest with 20-foot fake trees, as well as an elaborate film set of fake interiors, on which the installation’s video projections were filmed. On either end are four massive screens each showing different edits of the same scene; there are 12 loosely connected scenes that show sequentially for a total of 7 hours. The Armory’s balconies are accessible; there are balcony seats behind the screens in the rear. And to either side are smaller rooms with additional videos, dense, darkened bunker-like spaces. We’ll come back to those in a moment. The installation also spills out in the ornate, antique rooms at the front of the Armory, outside the Drill Hall.
The central conceit of the show is a relentlessly dark Snow White parody – the show’s title, WS, stands for “White Snow,” the name of the title character, portrayed in most of the films by Elyse Poppers with a fantastic blend of icy aloofness and childish delight. McCarthy himself features in most of the films as well, as “Walt Paul.” In case viewers miss the Disney references, a merchandise store at the front of the building contains copious amounts of Snow White merchandise all signed and numbered by McCarthy as Walt Paul and all marked up significantly from the prices listed on the Disney tags which are mostly still attached.
WS is a biting, dark, and furiously corporeal take on the Snow White story. The films are full of prosthetics, dirty costumes, and cheap hair; the soundtrack, one of the most relentless aspects of the show, even before you walk into the Drill Hall, is composed as much of grunts, groans, and body language as it is of words. The show is assaultive and visceral and probably not for the faint of heart. As the show’s website, promotional materials, and attendants are careful to inform the potential viewer, “This exhibition contains mature content.”
As soon as you walk in the door, an Armory worker steps forward to inform you that the show contains “mature content.” This warning is repeated – in the same terms, “mature content” – by the cashiers in the ticket office and again by the employee checking the tickets at the door. But before entering the series of smaller rooms to the right of the Drill Hall, containing a total of seven videos, a sign is posted: “These rooms contain explicit sexual content.” The thing is, though, the films in the main hall are plenty explicit; they include continuous and full-frontal nudity, an incident involving cake batter that paraphrases scat play with impressive verisimilitude, and a deliberately assaultive frenzy of general bacchanalia. Also, the sets in the main hall include a living room in which a plastic man kneels on all fours with a broom handle sticking out of his ass. The films in the side rooms are equally intense but much less busy; they feature one or two characters at a time, unlike the ensemble cast of the main hall’s films. But it’s hard to say, for the most part, how exactly the content of these films is more or less sexual than those in the main hall, or why the films on the right require a warning for sexual content but not the two films in the smaller rooms on the left.
In fact, the Armory’s attempt to distinguish “mature” from “sexual” content seems to go against the grain of the show. One of the installation’s most powerful features is its sheer what-the-fuckness. It’s not just that the show is massive and complex, it’s also that everything is going on at once. The most impressive aspect of WS is that, in its mass and complexity, the show effectively creates its own frozen time, a distinctively spatial moment in which everything is simultaneous and nothing is distinct. Of my four visits, two were alone and two with friends, and both times on leaving my friends expressed exactly the same feeling I had on leaving the first time after seeing the show alone: That was a lot to process and my brain is full; now I’m going to go figure out what it was I just saw. There are no neat thematic or affective divisions in the installation. The Armory’s promotional materials call the show’s imagery “sexually-tinged, violent, and even debaucherous,” but WS is all these things at once, and not separately. The blurring of sexuality and violence is a mainstay of 20th-century art and hardly surprising; WS not only blurs the line between sexuality and violence but between sexuality and fairytales, between violence and cooking, between debauchery and film-making, between the products of cultural production and the residue of that production. If in the 20th century psychoanalysis convinced us that sex was the secret truth of things, in the 21st century sex, like violence and art itself, is just one more texture, one more façade behind which lies nothing but the relentless machinery of production itself. Sex is not the secret message; it’s just one more form of encryption.
This last aspect is, to my mind, the show’s most interesting one, a far more original and contemporary demonstration than the old-hat notion that sex and violence might be linked, or the frankly boring imperative that art be “transgressive.” WS eschews linear narrative; it has no beginning, no before and after. This is, in fact, the most radical aspect of its revisionist take on the Snow White story: a fairytale is among the most inherently linear of narrative forms, whether it culminates in bitter moralizing, as do the oral traditions captured by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, or in a storybook happy ending, as do Disney’s saccharine takes on the same stories. WS has no narrative; it just has an endless series of jagged fragments that tear at you from every direction, that fold and blur into each other. Are the sets in the center of the Drill Hall the left-overs from the production of the films, or are the films footnotes to the sheer physicality of the sets? When Walt Paul, in one of the “sexually explicit” videos in the side rooms, yells at a weeping White Snow to “Sign the contract!,” are we watching a behind-the-scenes moment, or another fragment of the same non-narrative? These questions are beside the point. McCarthys’ show has no beginning or end, neither a happy ending nor a bitter moral; it’s a pure stream of relentless intensities, affect as pure event. WS isn’t a narrative – it’s a space. It doesn’t tell a story – it has an effect.
If WS is an allegory, it’s an allegory of the fact that in the early 21st century cultural production is about cultural production. The show is first and foremost about itself, about its own making and its own effects. Whether the sets are the supplement to the videos or the videos the supplement to the sets, what the show suggests is the increasing equivalence of what’s being made, how it’s being made, and who is making it. That’s why the Snow White theme is exquisitely well-suited to making McCarthy’s point: Walt Disney was a pioneer in the conception of a seamless, totalizing brand-name experience, a cultural space whose content was indivisible from its context. The concept of the “Disney experience” was to evoke the same range of affective responses in an audience whether they were watching an animated feature in a darkened theater or walking through DisneyLand. It’s beside the point to ask whether McCarthy is making fun of the film Snow White, of Walt Disney himself, or of Disney as a brand; WS doesn’t so much collapse as entirely ignore these distinctions by mirroring, in its conception and execution, the cross-platform, brand-name multimedia experience that marks contemporary culture in all its forms. None of the show’s elements are primary or central; their effect is relational, an agglomeration of elements rather than a hierarchy; it all works on you together, and it all works on you at once. Like a contemporary corporate brand, WS isn’t particularly committed to any particular item, object, or product; its commitment is to itself as a whole, to its own sheer mass. What matters is not so much what there is as how much there is; the details of the show’s aggressive sprawl are secondary to its overwhelming totality.
In articulating the nature of contemporary aesthetic production, of course, WS can’t settle for imitating or “performing”: it is what it does, and in that sense the show is equally illuminating and disturbing. It’s illuminating because it demonstrates so clearly the modes of aesthetic production by which contemporary culture operates, and it’s disturbing because in demonstrating them, it becomes indistinguishable from them.
Like the blurring of sex and violence, self-reflexivity is a mainstay of 20th-century art; in fact, it’s one of the features most often associated with postmodernism. But least one crucial element of postmodern aesthetics is absent here – irony. WS is perhaps satiric, perhaps allegorical, perhaps even biting and sarcastic, but it’s not ironic. It’s too visceral, too massive, too real; it doesn’t wink or nod at its own effects but glories in them. It feels its own effects; more importantly, it isn’t immune to them. Postmodern irony, of which Pop Art is often given as a crowning example, involves a fundamental distance: for all that postmodernism is associated with the subversion of hierarchies and the critique of master narratives, it is equally marked by the artist’s ability to assume a critical posture, a distanced position from which to survey and – dare I say it – deconstruct contemporary culture’s pretenses.
WS makes no pretense of distance – it’s in your face, on blast, from the moment you walk in the door, and McCarthy is literally in the middle of it. There’s no removed critical position from which to judge it; there’s no space in the Armory from which you can’t hear its grunting animal soundtrack. And McCarthy’s position as an artist is neither distanced nor judgmental. He doesn’t deconstruct – he assembles. But he assembles in precisely the way contemporary culture assembles; cumulatively, quantitatively, intensely. The promotional materials for WS claim that it “forces the viewer to acknowledge the twister underside to saccharine idols in popular culture.” But that gesture – the ironic reversal, the sly revelation – has itself long-since become a familiar cliché of the very cultural production McCarthy lampoons. McCarthy doesn’t shock by showing us that things aren’t what they claim to be; he shocks by showing us that things are exactly what they seem – and that includes WS itself.
WS is the biggest show McCarthy has ever put on; the Armory describes it as “the pinnacle of his creative output.” It’s definitely the single largest piece by a single artist that I’ve ever seen. On a strictly logistical level, there are few art spaces in New York where one could imagine such an aesthetic behemoth; physically, at least, the Armory seems a default choice. But there’s also something about the Armory itself that highlights and emphasizes the show’s nature and effect. A renovated landmark building containing one of the country’s biggest collections of intact 19th-century interiors, the Armory is located on the Upper East Side, funded and managed by the kind of big-money art establishment to which McCarthy for decades represented an outlying antithesis. As a recent article in the NYT Sunday Magazine noted, McCarthy is a quintessentially L.A. artist and didn’t sell his first major piece until he was 45. But on my last visit to the show, I saw an entirely non-descript middle-aged attendee saunter into the installation’s merchandise store and casually buy a made-in-China pewter Snow White ring for $300. To me, the purchase felt remarkably like a piece of performance art, but I doubt she saw it that way. The marked-up Disney merch in the show’s store fits perfectly with the rest of the show – it’s not incongruous, it’s just one more way of showing us how contemporary culture packages vulgar crap and resells it to us at a profit.
Part of me wants to laugh and congratulate McCarthy for so brilliantly lampooning the establishment that has slowly and somewhat reluctantly come to embrace his work. You waited long enough on the margins; go ahead and milk the system for everything you can get out of it. The sheer degree of the price markups on these items, the lack of irony with which they have been rapidly selling (according to the sales clerk in the stores, who I spoke to twice this summer), and the $15 cover charge to enter the installation all play into the show’s basic message: it’s all the same crap, it’s just about how you assemble and market it. But at the same time, I can’t help but worry that, just as exorbitant precedent for the sale of art inflates the cost of buying it, so too will such exorbitant precedents for the production of art inflate the cost of making it. Very few artists have the name-recognition, the funding, or the capability of mounting such a show; many of New York’s hungry artists would probably be pressed to afford the ticket price for even seeing it. The good news is that art can still shock and awe; the bad news is that these effects are generated not by the art’s content but its scale and its intensity, and scale and intensity are both expensive. In this sense, as in every other aspect of the show, artist and audience are in exactly the same position. Like sex and violence, WS reveals art as simply one more name that the machinery of cultural production operates behind. McCarthy’s giant installation is a simple 21st century answer to the ironic cynicism of postmodern ennui: Art can still shock; it can still be surprising, moving and powerful. If you can afford it.