Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paul McCarthy's WS—Your Wildest Nightmare?

Of WS, the immersive installation at the Park Avenue Armory by Paul McCarthy, I can say one thing for sure: I will not soon forget it. Its scale and ambition are unquestionable, and McCarthy seemed not to have compromised the darkest of his very dark visions. Any serious interpretation of its disturbing Snow White/Walt Disney symbolism is best left to the shrinks. 

Some description of what's on view:

  • Two huge screens on each end of the Armory show the seven-hour video at the core of the installation. The footage, of which I admittedly saw a mere fraction due to time and digestion restraints, features a bachannale/orgy with Snow Whites, dwarves, and the Walt Snow character (McCarthy). The soundtrack of preverbal human communication is extremely loud and inescapable. On one end, there's a bank of theater seats where you can plant yourself if you don't mind sitting 15 feet away from an I-Max sized screen of naked dwarves doing creative things with balloon animals and food.
  • The set where the video was taped is installed in the west end of the Drill Hall; a full-scale ranch house with some open walls and window cutouts. The aftermath of the bachannale remains; it looks like a tornado hit a catering hall at Christmas time.
  • In the center of the hall, on a raised platform, sits a massive forest with gnarly, ominous trees and giant flowering plants. Nestled into the foliage is, additionally, a 3/4-scale replica of McCarthy's childhood home, of which you can only see the clean suburban exterior. Imagine approaching a strange house on Halloween, lit from within, beckoning yet off-putting.
  • Carpeted aisles lead you through the maze of woods. You will be admonished by diligent ushers to not touch the styrofoam base, which is hilarious given the context of abject avarice, physicality, and consumption.
  • Climb the stairs to the balcony catwalk, the best perspective of the huge installation.
  • Refrigerator cases on the north and south aisles hold suspicious-looking frozen food and one of McCarthy's incredibly life-like human replicants*. The fridges are pretty big appliances, but in the Drill Hall, they seem pathetically small.
  • The small rooms that line the Drill Hall contain additional videos from the artist's White Snow Mammoth, which, depending upon what's on screen, can be a respite or further discomfort. In any case, the color is spectacular, and the production values admirably high, generally speaking.
Alex Poots, new artistic director of the Armory, who organized the show with curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles, calls it a Gesamtkunstwerk, but there must be a better term in German for "realization of all your nightmares." Anyone? (McCarthy's son Damon collaborated on creating WS, along with an entire page of helpers.) All credit to the folks at PAA for allowing McCarthy free rein; at the same time, I imagine that paying the $15 admission fee for this house-of-horrors experience may not sit well with people expecting a fun day with art, as Ann Hamilton's installation was (not to denigrate the complex layers of meaning and symbols that she embedded in addition to the world's largest swing set. It's just, swings!).

* Life Cast, McCarthy's concurrent exhibition at the uptown Hauser & Wirth Gallery, nearby at 32 E 69th, includes five of these replicants, so real-looking that I seriously expected them to blink an eye or twitch. It runs through July 26, as does another H&W McCarthy show on 18th St. in a new space, which I have yet to see.

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