The first time I saw a picture of the inflatable sculpture Tree, standing 79-ft. high (24 m.) in the Place Vendome in Paris, I thought it was an abstract version of your basic conifer – a Christmas tree reduced to its simplest signifier, a triangle-shape, like one of those pine-scented cardboard air fresheners that hangs by a string. Then I noticed the artist’s name, and I thought: “Oh, it’s by Paul McCarthy, so it’s actually a giant butt plug. In the Place Vendome.”
For those of you just entering the conversation, “butt plug” would be the term for a variety of sex toy the purpose of which is easy to figure. The term has now entered the lexicon of millions of people who didn’t know it just a week ago, largely because McCarthy’s sculpture made international news over the weekend when vandals disconnected its air supply and then cut the cables supporting it. Soon the tree toppled and had to be removed from the august plaza. By that time the sculpture, which was installed as part of Fiac, an annual Paris art fair, had become a cause célèbre on right-wing French media, where it was described as a deliberate affront to French culture. A week earlier, when the work was officially inaugurated, someone at the scene slapped the artist in the face and ran off.
Places, everybody — it’s time once again for an episode of that venerable social tradition, the art scandal. McCarthy is used to being at the center of them. A well-known Los Angeles-based artist, now 69, he’s made a career of violating taboos, opening the lid on dark boxes and wallowing, sometimes literally, in bodily fluids and excretions, or at least things that look like them. One thing we’ve known about him since his earliest videos in the ‘70s is that the man has absolutely no fear of ketchup. Or mayonnaise. Or excrement. A few years ago he produced another inflatable sculpture, sometimes called Complex Pile, that’s an unmistakable mound of the stuff. When it was displayed last year as part of an outdoor sculpture show in Hong Kong, it deflated in a sudden downpour. That’s what heavy rains will do to a pile of poop.
Artists have been fooling around with our bodily wastes and nether regions as the final frontier of the forbidden for a long time. Andy Warhol and his studio assistants made his series of Oxidationpaintings by urinating on copper plates. In 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni issued 90 sealed cans that carried the words Merda d’Artista – meaning Artists’s Shit. He claimed that each of them contained just that, though no one really knows, since they soon made their way into the international art market at high prices and no one is willing to open one to see what’s inside. That would turn their expensive artwork into… well, you know.
Why would an artist go there? For Warhol, pissing was probably a way to satirize the macho mystique of the Abstract Expressionist art that Pop Art had overtaken. For Manzoni, canning his own bowel movements — if that’s what he did — was probably his way of satirizing the art market. (Mission accomplished!) McCarthy’s motives have always been more complicated. The forbidden isn’t a sideline for him. It’s his consuming obsession. His life’s mission is to facilitate the return of the repressed. Like Karen Finley, the performance artist who mobilized cultural conservatives in the early ‘90s by smearing herself with chocolate and having intimate relations with a yam – and who surely knew McCarthy’s work — his videos are full of himself and his collaborators performing acts intended to gross out the viewer and violate taboos. Last year he mounted a giant multi-character performance art and video production in Manhattan in which a woman playing Snow White was sexually abused by demented versions of the Seven Dwarfs. (McCarthy has a thing about desanctifying Disney characters.) There was also an unspeakable act involving a roast chicken.
So Tree is one more example of McCarthy’s standard operating procedure. It’s also a way of lampooning the pretensions of monumental public sculpture generally, as Claes Oldenburg did almost 40 years ago when he created that giant steel clothespin for Centre Square in Philadelphia. Except of course, that was a clothespin, with its associations of clean laundry. McCarthy’s sex toy is all about the unclean passages of the body, which he then manages to associate with Christmas, simultaneously our most sentimentalized, commercialized and even politicized holiday. (The war on Christmas!) Tree isn’t even the first time McCarthy has conflated the Yuletide with a sex toy. In 2001 he made a sculpture of Santa flourishing one for the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The grateful citizens of Rotterdam balked at putting it in front of their concert hall, its intended site, but eventually found a less exalted place for it.
Ordinarily McCarthy’s work is installed in a museum or gallery, a kind of aesthetic decontamination chamber, where it’s viewed by an audience prepared for what they’re about to experience and willing to tolerate its gross content as part of the trade off necessary to seeing whether he has something to tell us about ourselves. But when his art escapes into the public square, the reactions aren’t always so measured. An artist devoted to provocation can’t be surprised if his work provokes. This is not meant to condone an act of vandalism against art – much less slapping around the artist. But McCarthy has a sense of humor. How could you not when you come up with the idea to put a giant sex toy in the Place Vendome? He must have loved it when no less a grande bourgeoise than Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, came to its defense. “Art has its place in our streets,” she said, “and nobody will be able to chase it away”.
Actually, McCarthy has decided not to reinflate Tree, at least not in Paris. Too much grief. But doesn’t that let the vandals win, to, as the mayor put it, chase it away? I say up the ante — bring in Complex Pile next. Why should Hong Kong have all the fun?