GT: Your art must be hell for museum registrars. I was struck by this when I saw Painter in the Sydney Biennale. The installation featured a video about a painter who creates large abstract canvases using sixfoot tubes of paint marked with various colors and
hues including “blue” and “shit.” The installation also included performance props and the cheap set. In Sydney, it also included enlarged copies of faxes and emails relating how the set had been damaged in transit. Although the work was obviously composed of cheap and casually used materials, the correspondence lent the installation the precious aura of artifacts, as it addressed the outrage and dismay of yourself and the collector who lent it.
PM: That installation was never properly crated when it was shipped to Australia, so it
spent two or three weeks just bashing around in wooden boxes. It was destroyed by the
time they opened the container in Sydney. Everything was unpacked and photographed
for insurance purposes, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it. Then two or three days before the opening, I was asked what I wanted to do. So I chose to blow up photographs of the container and the things on the floor, and we set up the walls that were okay.
GT: Entering the space, the first thing you saw were the enlarged correspondence and
damaged containers. Then you saw this video about the fetishized relationship of painters and collectors before going back to read about the frustrations of an artist and
a collector about the shipping of this piece. It created this queer coda to the work. This concern about the conservation of the installation seemed ironically incongruous with its content.
PM: It becomes very convoluted, because you didn’t know whether you were being
asked to look at the video or the set, which was once its housing. Around that, you have
the whole situation about the destruction of the piece. So you are seeing the same objects in the video that are now destroyed on the floor and referred to in the letters. It became a dialogue between the owners of the piece and the insurance company about who was responsible. I just sat there waiting to tell them what it once was. The piece itself deals with collectors and dealers, so there was this strangeness to it all.
GT: What was the ultimate fate of Painter?
PM: It’s in the traveling show as a video projection, without the set.
GT: You seem to take this as an unremarkable turn of events, perhaps due to your
background in creating ephemeral performances. How has your attitude toward documentation changed over time?
PM: I was recently on a panel on this subject with Allan Kaprow and Vanessa
Beecroft. There were obviously generational differences of opinion on this topic, different views of what performance is, and what documentation even means. There’s always that old question about photographing performance that gets into the meaning of representation. The questions addressed to Allan, for which he has set answers, as this stuff has been rehashed and rehashed, those questions might apply to me. And then
along comes Vanessa Beecroft, and all of the sudden the old questions don’t even apply.
GT: What’s the main difference between the way you have approached documentation,
and the way younger artists like Vanessa Beecroft document their work?
PM: My work goes back to the 60s, and the notions of Conceptualism, Fluxus and
Happenings. The whole basis for those attitudes was political. Photography was
frowned upon to a certain degree in the 60s, more so than in the 70s. There were some
like Yves Klein who arranged to be photographed, but a lot of artists from the 60s
— the Viennese Actionists, Allan Kaprow, the Japanese Gutaj — weren’t photographed,
or don’t own their photographs. Among the Actionists, Otto Muehl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler wanted to do it, but this idea of refusing to photograph your work was part of that mentality. By the time the 70s hit, a lot of performance artists were controlling their photography. Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneeman.... In the 60s, I didn’t photograph everything. By the time I hit the 70s, my work took a change at one point when it became more involved with narrative, with the personages. There was an attitude to mimic Hollywood — to set up the camera and lights. The performances were done for the camera. It wasn’t a matter of getting one iconic image, as with Burden’s work. It was about photographs in series. It was more cinematic. There wasn’t a question of photography as a consumer object, as something to sell. And it wasn’t a question of trying to represent the performance. I viewed the photographs as closer to painting than to performance. To me, there was a real difference between performance and photography. I was making these actions, and the actions produced a photograph or a video. The context could never be repeated. If you missed the action, you couldn’t go back. So I had this attitude of wanting to make a lot of images of an action.
At one point in the late 70s I began to perform for bigger audiences, and the camera
was still a big part of it. I stopped doing performances in public in ’84, and when I
started doing performances again, I wanted to make the situation in which there was a
set, a camera, and an action. There was an audience, but it was on the outside, looking
in on something being filmed. In a way, the action was for them. But the assumption was that they were watching an action being made for a camera.
GT: So even if they were present, audience members were acutely aware of the camera, as with the taping of a television program.
PM: The camera was in between the action and the audience. The action was always
directed to the camera, as on a soundstage. There was this whole thing of the disorientation of sets — where the door is, where the front is, where the back is. By the late 80s and 90s, the work became about sets. Setting up a situation in which it appeared as if a film was being made, and in which a film was actually being made.
The distance between my work in the 60s and the 90s is an interest in representation,
a focus on some notion of the virtual, which does have something to do with what Vanessa Beecroft makes. It’s unfair to say that her work is primarily about the documentation. I think she’s very much interested in the performance.
GT: When a viewer sees your work, either in person or in a documentation, there’s no
getting away from a visceral response. No matter what else is going on in the work, it
never fails to get you on a gut level.
PM: It is physical. I think you’re affected physically. People often ask me, “Aren’t you concerned with the audience? What do you want the audience to walk away with?” It’s not that I’m not interested in the audience, I just take them as a given. I don’t actually
think about them.
GT: That comment is about their effect on you and not about your effect on them.
PM: Their effect on me is about me affecting them. But because I don’t perform in
public situations very often, most of what I do is not related to audiences. For the most
part, when I think about pieces, I may think about the viewer’s position, as in The Garden, where it is important that you walk around it. It’s designed so that you have to
turn your head to look at it through the trees, and there’s a voyeuristic level to it.
There are pieces designed so that positioning the viewer is the thing. Usually it’s
about me — I’m the viewer. My work has as much, or more, to do with me as with the
viewer. At any rate, the question of viewer and audience has so much to do with the
difference between pieces. I don’t think about the viewer in the same way with each
piece, and I’m not always thinking of the viewer. Sometimes I’m shocked by the responses of viewers. I don’t always see the responses coming.
Grady T. Turner is Director of Exhibitions at The New-York Historical Society, and an
art critic whose work appears regularly in Flash Art.
Paul McCarthy was born in 1945 in Salt Lake City. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
Selected solo shows: 2001: Deitch Projects, New York; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; 2000: MoCA, Los Angeles; 1999: Blum & Poe, Santa Monica; Studio Guenzani, Milan; Hauser & Wirth, Zurich; 1998: Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna; Patrick Painter Inc., Los Angeles; Luhring Augustine, New York; 1997: Hauser & Wirth, Zurich; 1996: Tomio Koyama, Tokyo; Air de Paris, Paris; Luhring Augustine, New York; Drantmann, Bruxelles; Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen; 1995: MoMA, New York; Art and Public, Geneva; Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin.
Selected group shows: 2000: “Le jeu des 7 families,” Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva; “Dialogos con la fotografia,” Soledad Lorenzo, Madrid; Biennale of Sydney, Sydney; Patrick Painter, Inc., Los Angeles; “Video Works,” Lisson, London; “Around 1984: A look at Art in the Eighties,”, PS 1, New York; “Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy Collaborative Works,” The Power Plant, Toronto; 1999: XLVIII Venice Biennale, Venice; 1998: “Sod and Sodie Sock,” Secession, Vienna; “L.A. Times,” Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin; “Out of Actions,” MoCA, Los Angeles/MAK, Vienna/Museu d’Art Contemporaini, Barcelona/Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; 1997: “Alpenblick,” Kunsthalle, Vienna; “Dramatically Different,” Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Grenoble (France); “Display,” Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, Copenhagen
(Denmark); Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju (South Korea); “Sunshine & Noir,” Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen/Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg (Germany)/ Castello di Rivoli, Turin/Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum, New York; 1996: “Everything that’s interesting is new,” Dakis Jannou Collection, Athens; 1995: “Raw,” Postmasters, New York.