DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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As with all installation art, however, the crucial point of Klutterkammer is that Bock’s highly deliberate silly craziness is utterly dependent upon its framing by the academy of deconstructive art. A respected art museum such as the ICA effectively bestows the condition of ‘High Art’ onto Bock’s playground. Perhaps, then, Bock’s most crucial achievement is to have gained superstar status within the contemporary installation art phenomenon. It is really quite curious to consider the fact that since the dominance of the anti-art discourse of deconstructive art artists are unthinkingly rewarded for making fun of art. By becoming an art clown, by making fun of the seriousness of his German Expressionist forebears, Bock is applauded and rewarded by an fine art system wherein anti-art has become, in effect, an academic style; a convention that is accepted without question. The fact that this is entirely contrary to the theory of deconstruction appears to be of slight concern.

The regressive-immersive qualities of Bock’s environments are less important than the fact that the deconstructive art establishment is willing to frame Bock’s calculated nuttiness as art. Despite the fact that we are given the illusion of immersive freedom within Bock’s apparatus we, like him, are ultimately indebted to an institutional fabric, what Foucault would call a regime or discursive formation, for allowing us to have such gigantic Wendy House experiences.

And of course we can drag onto the stage of Klutterkammer the panoply of art historical justification. We can discover echoes of early twentieth century German Expressionism: the reverence for child art and the art of the insane evident in Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. This connection seems relevant as Bock is a German artist and expressionism was one of Germany’s major contributions modern art. But Bock’s work is expressionism in the age of mass media, popular culture and consumerism.

This is less Expressionism in the sense of bearing the soul than it is pure play, sculpture as theatre, but the key question is whether this play is a privilege reserved exclusively for the artist-genius or whether there is an ‘emancipatory’ dimension. Certainly Bock invites us into a regressive experience and if we put the hyperreality argument aside for a moment then even a momentary regression in a fundamentally pragmatic world might be of some therapeutic value. But what really matters is what happens when we leave. Play is a serious business when it challenges the Protestant work ethic. But Klutterkammer does not do this, it does invites the viewer into the artist’s world of licensed excess but it does not encourage the viewer to take the virus of play out into the external world. Even when the museum is overtaken and its panoptic regime seriously compromised, it remains in control. It is, as ever, a hermetically sealed container for the virus of play.

Ultimately, the bureaucratic apparatus of the museum is the representative of the Symbolic Order, the administered world, the Protestant work ethic, Freud’s ‘reality principle’ etc. Accordingly, we do not receive the message that we should take play out into the streets. Instead we leave it, like Bock, safely inside the museum. 

Visions of Excess: Jason Rhoades

If Bock transposes the manic self-expression of Expressionism into a simulacral, hyperreality then Jason Rhoades does something similar with the American Dream. But whereas Bock takes something putatively ‘authentic’ and transforms it into simulacral theatrics, Rhoades hyperrealises the already hyperreal. Rhoades’ immersive installations are a theatre of dementia and dissolution; and like Bock, Rhoades’ mises en scène take over an entire gallery space thereby becoming thoroughly immersive. The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop is such an installation constructed in London at Hauser and Wirth in 2005. At the sensory, immersive level The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop  treats us to an experience not unlike the regression to childhood evident in Bock’s Klutterkammer. In Black Pussy we find an adult psyche metaphorically hurled through the Lacanian mirror into the polymorphous perversity of the American Dream.

A very large room is piled high with mountains of kitsch stacked on chrome-plated modular shop shelving. Adrian Searle provides us with part of the itinerary: 427 slang terms for the vagina in neon (e.g. Virginia, Pouter, Fun Hatch, Baby Hole), 180 beaver-felt cowboy hats, ‘sculpted into forms that vaguely resemble penis-heads and vulva shapes’, 556 Native American Dream Catchers, 799 ceramic donkeys, 232 small brass Egyptian pyramids, 146 pipe cleaners, ‘a few right-handed Koons bunnies’ (Searle 2005), and the list of bric-à-brac goes on. There are car tyres chrome-plated hub caps, miles of electrical cables feeding the neon signs and there is a disco soundtrack playing constantly. It is a confusing but generally ‘fun’ environment.

The viewer walks amongst the towers of this stuff and the effect, as in Bock’s Klutterkammer, is like being a child again. Somehow all these baubles become delightful and elating and it is precisely at this point that one becomes suspicious of this work. It apparently has no meaning.

Reading Searle we find that The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop was inspired by Islam. The ‘pagan idol workshop’ stems from the idols that were once housed in the Ka'bah in Mecca, before Muhammad banished them. Searle also reports that Rhoades was influenced by Moustapha Akkad’s film The Message, 1976, starring Anthony Quinn, about the life of Muhammad and Reza Aslan's book No God But God, which Searle notes is ‘a fascinating history and analysis of Islam … Aslan’s engaging and informative work does much to counter the wilful ignorance and bigotry perpetrated about Islam, especially by rightwing commentators and bellicose evangelists in the US’ (Searle 2005). We begin to think that perhaps there is some meaning to Black Pussy after all. Searle also informs us that Black Pussy is the third in a triptych of exhibitions the other two including:  

Meccatuna for a gallery in New York; and My Medinah, In Pursuit of My Ermitage ... in St Gallen, Switzerland. All three allude, in more or less obtuse ways, to Muslim culture. For Meccatuna, Rhoades wanted to take a live bluefin tuna to the holy city of Mecca, and have it circumnavigate the Ka’bah. This proving impossible—as well as dreadfully unwise, not least for the sake of the fish—someone was dispatched from Saudi Arabia to Mecca, where he bought a case of tinned tuna, which was dispatched to New York, the cans being displayed in an installation whose centrepiece was a one-third-scale model of the Ka’bah built from 1,000,000 pieces of Lego. (Searle 2005)

In the context of the ‘war on terror’ it is just as well that fine art is socially esoteric, otherwise Meccatuna may have inspired an Islamic outcry. An American artist making reference to Islam during the current war on terror is obviously significant. But the reference in Black Pussy is muted. Amongst all the bric-a-brac the only thing that would alert us would be the hookahs which are drowned in all the other stuff. Then we can contemplate why Rhoades would even think of a tuna swimming round the Ka’bah. Presumably it would be going around anti-clockwise with the pilgrims. What we find here is Islam confronted by the surreal.

Modern Western art is with very few exceptions without God, and in place of God Surrealism puts forward the Freudian unconscious epitomised by the sex drive. Black Pussy begins to make sense. The number of Muslims who believe in God vastly outnumber Christians or Jews. Belief in God in the West has been on a rapid decline since the coup de grâce that was the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859. There is obviously a clash of cultures here that came to something of a head on 11 September 2001 when the Twin Towers—which could be described as a cathedral to capitalism—were destroyed by Islamic Jihadists. Rhoades appears to be pointing to that clash with his Dionysian evocation of sex, drugs (the hookahs are also accompanied with bongs) and disco music. Ours is the culture of degeneracy. We know this because Rhoades, like Paul McCarthy (who will be examined below), consistently portrays American culture in terms of a Dionysian carnival.

What we discover from this brief encounter with the work of Jason Rhoades is that the effect of child-like fun we may experience when immersed in The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005, is contradicted by the manic sarcasm of the work. What we are being immersed in is not the pure presence which Bishop claims as a key feature of historical installation art but something more contemporary: the pure illusion of hyperreality. The fact that when The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop ends the conveniently modular shop shelving systems will be broken down into units to be sold off to collectors and museums around the world for the usual inflated prices only adds to the black comedy.

Like Bock, Rhoades’ work is ultimately framed by the art system. The viewer is afforded a pleasant regressive experience that ultimately does very little that might be described as ‘emancipatory’. There is really nothing to be shocked about, because the overwhelming register of Rhoades’ work is one of nihilistic humour.

Echoes of the 1960s: Paul McCarthy

Bock and Rhoades were born in the same year, 1965, and their work reflects the exuberant hopelessness of art at the turn of the millennium. There is no real attempt to be emancipatory because to think in terms of emancipation in the context of the globalisation of capitalism seems absurd. It is interesting therefore to examine the work of Rhoades’ mentor Paul McCarthy, who is twenty years his senior and possessed of a world view that belongs more to the 1960s and 1970s that Bishop refers to in her history of installation art. But due to one of the anomalies of the fine art system McCarthy came into stardom with the newer generation and his work tunes in very well with that of Bock and Rhoades due to its obsession with a theatre of the absurd. But there is evidence that this artist has not totally relinquished a social-critical stance.

Although McCarthy is not primarily an installation artist when he does produce installations they are immersive and most definitely corporeal. The crux of his work is video-performance art which developed out of the experiments in those media in art of the 1970s. A significant number of performance artists of that time were deeply involved in the direct corporeal expression. One can point to the work of Marina Abramovic, the Viennese Actionism group, Vito Acconci and Mike Parr.

McCarthy’s modus operandi is conflation of performance and video art; and the installations he has created fit into the category of the fragmented mise en scène consisting in his case of deliberately messy scattering of the props he has used for his performances interspersed with videos of the performances. And one can add that the intersection of sculptural and videographic installation in the work of Bock and McCarthy is usually especially effective from an immersive point of view.

The principal content of McCarthy’s performances are scatological  and highly corporeal. There are many references to bodily fluids but always via relatively benign and theatrical surrogates: tomato ketchup stands in for blood, mayonnaise for semen, brown sauce for diarrhoea. In Hot Dog, 1975, McCarthy smeared himself in such materials, made mud pies with them and proceeded to stuff his mouth to breaking point with hotdogs, gagging himself with a bandage so that they wouldn’t fall out. The photographs of that performance are quite remarkable, disgusting, but at the same time because they are photographs there is a sense of distance. And we can note that the substances he uses are not only symbolic of bodily fluids but are also mostly associated with icons of American over-consumption such as hot dogs and hamburgers. Significantly Ralph Rugoff notes that

Even his most extreme performances such as Sailor’s Meat 1975, a videotape in which McCarthy appears in a blonde female wig, make up and black bikini panties and at one point lies on a bed humping raw hamburger and ketchup, make direct allusions to popular culture, in this case, referencing images from soft-core B-movie stills. (Rugoff 1996: 45)

One can also mention McCarthy’s obsession with comic characters evident in his use of masks in his performances such as  Alfred E. Newman (Mad magazine), Pinocchio, pigs, pirates, and US presidents. Then there is the deconstructive relationship of his videos to the artifice of Hollywood films which is heightened by the fact that he lives and works in Los Angeles. McCarthy’s work could be described somewhat glibly as Viennese Actionism goes to Hollywood; which is to say we have the gore and bodily fluids but without the angst and realism (the macho Viennese Actionists used real blood).

In his account of the work of Paul McCarthy Rugoff makes the particularly pertinent observation that a ‘contaminating intrusion of the symbolic into the real, is one of the conceptual poles around which McCarthy’s art spins’ (Rugoff 1996: 49). But McCarthy does not counter that intrusion with reality. Instead he attempts to contaminate the American Dream with his Dionysian theatrics of the subversive body.

Metaphorically McCarthy politely spreads not shit but brown sauce on the mirror of the American Imaginary. The American Empire that arose out of its demonstration of awesome industrial and military power during WWII became as much a colonisation of the imagination as an extension of political influence via covert and overt support for corrupt puppet regimes that supported its interests. McCarthy’s theatre of the Id should, accordingly, be understood not in terms of an expressionist search for contact with the primal energies of the body, but rather as a negative print of a Walt Disney cartoon: something that shows us the underbelly of the American myth-making machine.

Although McCarthy’s emphasis on the body seems to point to an immersive concern for immediate presence, this is contradicted by his use of masks, props and mises en scène. In spite of the apparently extreme visceralness of his work there is no sense that the viewer is losing critical distance. McCarthy’s installations are essentially the sets and props for his videos without the actors, and without him. Those bodies are present only in the form of video projections onto the stage sets and props that are scattered around the gallery space his installation inhabits.

McCarthy’s work, then, appears to be concerned with absence in a manner that relates modern/postmodern visuality conceived as a disembodied gaze. Performance art, in contrast, is usually concerned with the presence of the performer. Rugoff notes that typically McCarthy carries out his videoed performances with a limited ‘hand picked’ audience. (Rugoff 1996: 49). Rugoff also notes that the audiences often appear in the videos to be thoroughly stunned.  He quotes Barbara Smith ‘They sit dummy-like, dressed up, with almost no expression as they watch an assortment of incredible actions’. (in Rugoff 1996: 50).

McCarthy is keeping his larger audience at a distance for good reason, because the distance afforded by seeing his work in video form facilitates the essential ingredient of comedy. Ultimately this work is dark, anarchic comedy. One could compare it with the sculpture of the Chapman brothers. What McCarthy shows is pure surface: a kind of demented pornographic cartoon. But why on earth would we be repulsed by his work when we have seen much worse on the news and television history programmes that cover modern warfare? We know that what McCarthy is touching on is real—the imperial iron fist behind the velvet glove of consumerism. The genius of his work is to show the underbelly of the real as unreal, as absurd and savage.

What is ultimately significant, however, is that McCarthy’s work seems to be a nonlinear narrative form that carries a social-critical message, whereas the new generation artists Bock and Rhoades seem happier with nonsense. Thought of in terms of the narrative continuum (linear at one pole and nonlinear at the other), McCarthy shifts social critical narrative towards a fragmentation of sense, Rhoades pushes social criticism to the brink of nonsense, and Bock takes us plunging over the edge. It will be interesting to see who retains the most kudos within the fine art system in the coming years.

Mise en scène and Narrative Immersion

McCarthy’s emphasis on mise en scène, theatrics and video brings this discussion back to the relationship between immersive installation and narrative immersion. Indeed, Bock and Rhoades’ works can also be understood in terms of the narrative continuum, being at the furthest nonlinear pole where narrative dissolves into nonsense. In this subsection I will deal with installations that are less manically concerned with the dissolution of meaning seeming to be closer to a cinematic consciousness.

 

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Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London. FIND IN TEXT

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London. Surrounded by kitsch, neon, UV light and a club soundscape the immersive effect can be described as regressive. The transient psychological effect is one of child-like wonder, like being lost in a second-hand shop.

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London. Surrounded by kitsch, neon, UV light and a club soundscape the immersive effect can be described as regressive. The transient psychological effect is one of child-like wonder, like being lost in a second-hand shop.

 

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.

Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy ... and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.

Paul McCarthy, Hot Dog, 1974. Much of McCarthy's work can be understood as a satirical commentary on the American Dream. Hence his use of American icons such as hot dogs, hamburgers, tomato ketchup, mayonnaise etc.

Paul McCarthy, Hot Dog, 1974. Much of McCarthy's work can be understood as a satirical commentary on the American Dream. Hence his use of American icons such as hot dogs, hamburgers, tomato ketchup, mayonnaise etc.

Paul McCarthy, Hot Dog, 1974. Self-immolatory performance art was not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hermann Nitsch, Norm-Omt, 1960–70. Nitsch a member of the Viennese Actionism group was a prominent practitioner of visceral performance art in the 1960s and '70s.

Hermann Nitsch, Norm-Omt, 1960–70. Nitsch a member of the Viennese Actionism group was a prominent practitioner of visceral performance art in the 1960s and '70s.