Delirium Studies

Art History and its Discontents

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The White Whale

What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?

It would be like sleep without dreams.

— Werner Herzog1At the 2:58 mark here.

Critics are always chasing the next big thing, just like those old Nantucket whalemen. They set out into the immense art-world sea. They scan the art-horizon, looking hard for a bubble, a breech, or a blow — some sign of life. When an art-leviathan betrays itself, the critics lower their little newspaper or blog-boats, pursue the beast, and start hurling review-harpoons. With any luck, they subdue it, and drag it to the side of the mother-ship. Then the art historians and the “culture workers” begin their melancholy butcheries. One might skin the monster’s penis, another will crack the head open and bail out the spermaceti — the oily treasure that gives the sperm whale its name, while yet another will probe the corpse’s bowels for nuggets of ambergris — a type of whaleshit more precious than gold. Once the body is denuded of its strange trophies and mysterious treasures, they’ll chop up what’s left, toss it into a cauldron, boil it down to render the corpse into something useful — render it down to its greasy, pure, essential meaning.

Culture-making is like the whaling industry — reductive, predatory and, when seen up close, it’s kind of disgusting. The “culture industry” works like a well-oiled machine, as long as the prey — the talent — plays along. But once in a great while, a sixty-ton monster slaps his or her tail, upsets the whaleboats, gets up a head of steam, and staves the ship. Something like that is happening, right now, in Venice.

De Aquatilibus. [Published between 1551 and 1558]. Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-95207.

By any measure, Damien Hirst’s current exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, is a whale of a show — and the critics are dutifully tossing their harpoons. They will tell you the exhibition is not just a disaster, it is the “greatest flop in living memory,” it is  “undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade,” it is “quite frankly, absurd. It should be dumped at the bottom of the sea.” It is, according to the melliloquent Edward Lucie-Smith, a “gallimaufry of anachronisms.” One critic invites us to “look on these works and despair.” Some critics have written positive reviews, but they are few indeed.

The American scholars at Artforum continue their strategy for dealing with ideologically insolent art — near-total radio silence. Any number of our learned critic/historians might relish the opportunity to publicly trash Hirst and his show (as they do in private), but they are smart enough to know that doing this might have unintended consequences.

Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic of the New York Times, attempts a tactical abdication — he chooses not to play Ahab to Hirst’s briny behemoth of a show. Cotter responds to it in passing, with a strange non-review review, at the end of his round-up of this year’s Venice Biennale and related events:

Maybe because I was coming to Venice this time from a stay in Rome, I’d already had my fill, in art, of antique bloviation and bad Baroque, and here it was again on the Grand Canal. […][E]xperience has taught me that damning criticism can be as useful, promotion-wise, as praise. So I don’t have much to say about “Treasures of the Wreck” except that it’s there; that some people care; and that it’s irrelevant to anything I know about that matters.2Cotter, Holland. Venice Biennale: Whose Reflection Do You See? New York Times. May 22, 2017.

The problem is that Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is not just any whale — it’s another Moby Dick. It is gigantic, labyrinthine, and complex. It is congenitally, unapologetically, discursive. It leads the beholder through little lies and grand truths, from oceanic vistas to ancient minutiae. It’s both hilarious and frightening, maddening and brilliant. Like the novel that explodes and expands the very idea of a novel, this show does the same for the “contemporary art exhibition.” When read closely, both are breathtakingly well-crafted — they are put together with otherworldly, monstrous, lapidary skill.

And when sent out into the world, both were panned by bewildered critics.

Damien Hirst. Golden Monkey. Gold, silver, black and white opals. 2011.
The accompanying text reads: “The large corn cob may indicate this simian sculpture is of Andean origin. Maize worship was an important feature of Mesoamerican religion, corn being emblematic of the synchronized human cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The extraordinary opal eyes appear to have been added at a later date.” A solid-gold micro-swipe at New World critics and detractors?

 

Damien Hirst. Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement). Painted Resin. 2014.
The accompanying text reads: “Standing at just over eighteen meters, this monumental figure is a copy of a smaller bronze recovered from the wreckage. The discovery of the statue appeared to solve a mystery of a disembodied bronze head with saurian features excavated in the Tigris Valley in 1932. Characterised by monstrous gaping jaws and bulbous eyes, the head was initially identified as Pazuzu, the Babylonian ‘king of the wind demons’. The unearthing of this figure has since called this identification into question, due to the absence of Pazuzu’s customary attributes of wings, scorpion tail and snake-headed penis. Ancient Mesopotamian demons were complex primeval creatures that exhibited elements of the human, animal, and divine. Embodying a transgressive response to rigid social structures, these hybrid beings could be variously apotropaic, benign and malevolent. One theory posits that the bowl held in the demon’s outstretched arm was a vessel used for collecting human blood, conforming to the contemporary perception that demons were universally destructive beings. It seems more likely that the figure served as a guardian to the home of an elite person.”

Hirst’s exhibition fills two immense venues in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi on the San Marco side of the Grand Canal, and the cavernous Punta Della Dogana in the Dorsodoro. Entering the Palazzo Grassi, one is confronted with a sixty-foot tall colossus, a naked, taloned, headless monster that fills the three-story atrium. The remains of a menagerie of primitive sea fauna adheres to the body: barnacles, corals shaped like brains, make-believe anemones, madrepores, psuedo-polyps, sea-worms. The creatures share the patina of the sea-monster’s flesh, these accretions appear as a part of him, growing out of his skin like some bizarre and florid contagion.

Damien Hirst. Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement). Painted Resin. 2014. Installation view.

The price of admission to Hirst’s exhibition is consent to a certain fantastic fiction. This is, of course, commonplace — we do it every time we open a novel, go to the movies, watch the news, or enter the voting booth. Belief is not benign. If Hirst is just yanking our collective chain, his big joke is no joke at all. Empires and carnage are the potential consequences of consensual delusion, and this notion is but one of the engines that drives Hirst’s extravaganza.

It’s a maritime fairy-tale we are asked to believe. The objects here, we are told, may have been collected by the legendary Cif Amotan II, a freed slave who lived in Antioch in the first and second centuries CE.3Anagramming Hirst’s titles is a bit of a parlor game, here “Cif Amotan II” sorts out to “I am a fiction.” Or, I suppose, “I fit on a mica.” Amotan became spectacularly rich as a freedman, and proceeded to build a “lavish collection of artefacts deriving from the lengths and breadths of the ancient world.”4From the exhibition guide, available here. Amotan’s treasures — “commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunder” — were loaded onto a ship named the Apistos (which translates from Greek to the Unbelievable), which promptly sank in the Indian Ocean, consigning the treasure to the briny depths, the mechanics of time and decay, and the underworld of myth and legend. Two thousand years later, the site of the wreck was discovered, and after a decade of underwater excavations and recovery work, the treasures were delivered from the sea to be displayed here in Venice, a perfect venue, the most amphibious of cities, and place that lives outside of time.

Damien Hirst. Scale model of the ‘Unbelievable’ with suggested cargo locations. 2015.
The accompanying text reads: “This scale model (1:32) recreates the Apistos using the results of research undertaken by the Centre for Maritime Archaeology, University of Southampton. The suggested original storage locations of the one hundred treasures recovered from the wreckage – over three quarters of which feature in this exhibition – are further detailed in the digital model. The most reliable extant account of the Apistos was found on a medieval copy of an ancient manuscript and is attributedto a sailor named Lucius Longinus (who is also recorded on a papyrus excavated from the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos). Longinus reports that the component parts of the Apistos were constructed in Alexandria and transported down the Nile before being assembled at Myos Hormos. The ship is calculated to have exceeded over sixty metres in length, its cargo weighing over 460 tonnes, including a twenty-six-metre tall obelisk, which is presumed to have been installed on the deck of the ship.”

Damien Hirst. Scale model of the ‘Unbelievable’ with suggested cargo locations. 2015. Detail.
The model comes complete with an interactive app that specifies the details of each object loaded into the ship. Some never made it into the exhibition, like this one, The Obelisk of Failure.

The exhibition guide informs us that many of the objects have not been restored, and are “heavily encrusted in corals and marine life, at times rendering their forms virtually unrecognizable.”5Guide. 3. Furthermore, “contemporary museum copies of the recovered objects are also on display, which imagine the works in their original, undamaged forms.”6Guide. 3.

Damien Hirst. Submerged Demon with Bowl. 2015.
One of a series of large-scale backlit photographs documenting the recovery of the objects from the seabed.

The colossus in the atrium is one of these copies. It is a resin reproduction, a phony of a fake wrapped in a lie, made enormous to fill its new, palatial home. The original, bronze fake is not on display, but can be seen, it seems, as it awaits its recovery on the floor of the sea, in a large backlit photograph nearby. The colossal copy, if we believe the story, is an imagined version of the work in its “original, undamaged form.” Yet the copy is covered with far more maritime incrustations — markers of sea-slumber, age, and decay — than the “original.” If this Demon started its life festooned with marine life, did it anticipate its own undersea future?

And, why not give him back his head?

Damien Hirst. Head of a Demon, Excavated 1932 (Exhibition Enlargement). 2015. Bronze.

That head rests a few feet from his body. In an embellishment to the main narrative, we are told it was excavated decades ago near the Tigris, and it was “initially identified as Pazuzu, the Babylonian ‘king of the wind demons.'”7Guide. 36. The discovery of the Unbelievable’s beheaded demon body “appeared to solve a mystery” by disproving the earlier Pazuzu identification — but if not Pazuzu, who is he?8Guide. 36.

William Blake (1757-1827). The Ghost of a Flea. c.1819-20.
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05889

He bears an uncanny resemblance to the monster in William Blake’s little masterpiece, The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20), now at the Tate Gallery in London. The Tate tells us that the figure came to Blake as a “spiritual vision,” a hallucination that informed him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by their nature bloodthirsty to excess.”9From the Tate’s display caption. The anonymous museum caption concludes with the observation that “Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”10Ibid. It is just this sort of anonymous, obvious and just-so-slightly-condescending  museum-speak that Hirst pokes at throughout the exhibition with captions of his own. For example, we are informed that a Roman spoon of the ligula type (which is not present) was “used for eating pulpy food.” That seems to be a reasonable deduction. The pitch-perfect and very amusing texts are credited to Aime Corry.

The ghost of a flea is a giant, bloodthirsty monster — and is the soul of Man. This soul-monster has found its true home inside an insatiable, reviled, pestilence-spreading, blood-sucking parasite, staring into its bowl of blood like a demented Narcissus. The painting is the result of a dream, a vision, a mystic’s kind of sight. There is nothing true here, except the type of deep truth that lurks far below the surface — in metaphor, myth, and dreams.

G. K. Chesterton tells us that the monster’s scale is a key to understanding Blake’s painting. He writes:

It will not be denied that Blake shows the best part of a mystic’s attitude in seeing that the soul of a flea is ten thousand times larger than a flea. But the really interesting point is much more striking. It is the essential point upon which all primary understanding of the art of Blake really turns. The point is this: that the ghost of a flea is not only larger than a flea, the ghost of a flea is actually more solid than a flea. The flea himself is hazy and fantastic compared to the hard and massive actuality of his ghost. When we have understood this, we have understood the second of the great ideas in Blake—the idea of ideas.11Chesterton’s biography of Blake is available here.

If Blake had made the soul of a flea ten thousand times larger than an actual flea, Hirst’s is larger again by several orders of magnitude. If Blake’s painting makes the ghost solid, Hirst translates Blake’s image into an even-more-solid object. Hirst is bigger and more than Blake, and he shows this through Blake’s idiosyncratic allegory of greed and insatiability. As soon as this art-historical in-joke reveals itself, Hirst undermines it. The hollow shell of a monster is beheaded, symbolically castrated, and left for dead.12See A Little History of Castration, here, page 82. And yet he lives, eyes wide and tongue slithering, to the annoyance of critics and the delight of the crowd. Hirst has created yet another zombie.

We could stop here, at Hirst’s art-historical, slapstick punchline, but there is still more to this Demon. He skips like a stone through time — beginning from his ersatz-ancient birth, to the actual-but-ever-elusive present moment, and from the present moment back, touching down in Pazuzu’s Mesopotamia, and once again on Blake’s flea-bitten nightmare. This Demon folds time onto itself, the ancient past and the object’s future are both remembered and anticipated — it is this sort of paradoxical time-bending, of recollecting forward, that is a foundation of Hirst’s entire Cosmos-building extravaganza.13Hirst’s exhibition shares much with the idiosyncratic Cosmos-builders of the New Museum’s recent exhibition, The Keeper. For a detailed note on recollecting forward, see this.

Art, specifically, allows this sort of strange temporal experience, this very special effect. Art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood write:

No device more effectively generates the effect of a doubling or bending of time than the work of art, a strange kind of event whose relation to time is plural. The artwork is made or designed by an individual or a group of individuals at some moment, but it also points away from that moment, backward to a remote ancestral origin, perhaps, or to a prior artifact, or to an origin outside of time, in divinity. At the same time it points forward to all its future recipients who will activate and reactivate as a meaningful event. The work of art is a message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting.14Nagel, A. and C. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone. 9.

We all know that time is linear, unidirectional, and inescapable. Placing things outside their proper place in time is a mistake, an anachronism, an affront to the natural order of things, to “truth.” But what if the very idea of anachronism is the mistake, itself a chronic misfit — and art operates in time far differently than we do.

There is no anachronism. But there are modes of connection that in a positive sense we can call anachronies: events, ideas, significations that are contrary to time, that make meaning circulate in a way that escapes any contemporaneity, any identity of time with ‘itself.’ An anachrony is a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left ‘its’ time, and in this way is given the capacity to define completely original points of orientation (les aiguillages), to carry out leaps from one temporal line to another.”

— Jacques Rancière15Rancière, Jacques. The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth (English Translation). InPrint: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available here.

Hirst’s Treasures allows us access to this slippery truth. Hirst dives over and over again, into the realm of anachrony, of timelessness — the abyss of myth, ritual, the divine, dreams and nightmares, and deep time.

Damien Hirst. Head of a Sphinx. 2012. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Head of a Sphinx. 2012. Silver, paint.
This panoramic photograph describes a 180 degree view of the front of the object.

(Foreground) Damien Hirst. The Warrior and the Bear. 2015. Silver, paint.
(Background) Damien Hirst. Sinner. 2011. Silver, paint.
Elsewhere, a text tells us that the Warrior and Bear subject “relates to the ancient Greek maturation ritual of arkteia, which involved groups of Athenian girls imitating she-bears, dancing and performing sacrifices. This act of orchestrated wildness served to appease Artemis — goddess of the hunt — following the Athenians’ slaying of a bear. While the practice of arkteia was intended to expel the animalistic qualities of a woman’s nature in preparation for a life of domesticity, this figure subverts the tradition by celebrating the ferocity that inhered within the goddess.” This exposition, like all of Hirst’s references, is entirely historically accurate.

(L) Damien Hirst. Penitent. 2011. Silver, paint.
(R) Damien Hirst. Sinner. 2011. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Penitent, view of back of object. 2011. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Huehueteotl and Olmec Dragon. 2016. Silver, paint.

Hirst mines this underwaterworld, and dredges up, for example, a collection of silver objects on display at the Palazzo Grassi. Underneath their faux-thalassic encrustations, we behold Hirst’s treasures: an Egyptian figure, encumbered with barnacles and brain coral, a wild Greek huntress, fierce and ascendant, a pair of human heads, each one equally blinkered and bound by either penance or sin, and finally, a child’s robot. Here’s another gag — the robot is not some Mesoamerican god, it is a Transformer.

These shiny treasures vibrate, rapidly cycling between two temporal poles — the present, marked by the contemporaneity of the toy robot, or the fashionable fetish gear encasing the Sinner and Penitent, and the deep historical past, evidenced by the Sphinx and the Warrior. This chronological vibration cycles through our everyday kind of time, a type of time that is divisible between past, present, and future — between remembrance and anticipation and now. But the florid maritime growths that afflict each artwork suggest yet another type of temporality — a sort-of oceanic time, the temporality of the abyss, the unbounded, cyclic, eternal non-time of aeon.

Sigmund Freud opens Civilization and Its Discontents with a discussion, suggested to him by his friend Romain Rolland, of the idea of “oceanic feeling,” a sensation of eternity. Freud writes:

[Rolland] was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic‘. This feeling, he adds, is purely a subjective fact, not an article of faith, it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.16Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton. 24. Freud was skeptical, indicating that this oceanic feeling is by no means universal.

The ancient Greeks made the distinction between these two types of time — chronological and eternal, knowable and mystical — and gave each one its god. Hirst’s glittering treasures rub up against both of them. These Treasures are burnished by the friction between Cronos and Aion — between history and knowledge, and mystery and faith.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze.
“An unflinching portrait of base degradation, this sculpture depicts the Greek god Cronos consuming his own offspring. The myth tells of a prophesy that warned Cronos he would be deposed by his progeny, just as he had overthrown his own, tyrannical father. He thus proceeded to swallow each child borne of his wife, Rhea. The baby Zeus, who was to fulfill the prophesy, is present at the base of the sculpture. The story of Cronos was later conflated with Dante’s tale of the thirteenth-century nobleman Ugolino della Gherardesca. The starving Ugolino is damned eternally for the sin of eating his offspring, and became — for generations of artists — a symbol of the loss of reason in the inexplicable forces of chaos in the world.”  Here Cronos himself is devoured by the fauna of the sea.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze. Detail of the baby Zeus.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze. Detail.

As I have noted earlier, repetition is one of the hallmarks of cosmos-building, and so it is with these Treasures as well. If there is one figure that repeats and pervades this exhibition, it is Medusa. A semi-precious, gorgeous-green malachite Medusa’s head is an iconic image, a distillation that serves as a cipher for the entire project — she appears on posters throughout Venice, postcards, ticket stubs, and the cover of the catalog.

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2008. Malachite.
The accompanying text from the Guide: “The Head of this Gorgon is carved entirely in verdant malachite, a photo-historic copper ore that omits poisonous dust during carving. Fourteen of the world’s most venomous snakes — rendered in exquisite detail –crown the Gorgon’s petrified features. The African rock python, horned viper, and coral snake are all represented. In the early Roman Empire, exotic snakes were sometimes awarded as tribute; in 20 BCE, the emperor Augustus was gifted a giant venomous reptile from the Indian ambassador.” Another text is available in the vitrine itself: “The story of Medusa embodies numerous dualities: beauty and horror, sex and death, poison and remedy. This carved malachite head casts Medusa as victim, her petrified expression recalling Homer’s description in The Iliad of the ‘grim mask’ of the Gorgon on Agamemnon’s shield: ‘glaring fearfully, with Terror and Panic on either side’.”

Medusa is indeed the god of not just duality, but of simultaneity, of bothness. Medusa embodies both life and death, Eros and Thanatos, male and female, poison and remedy at the same time. Medusa is the first being that might, with perfect grammatical correctness, use the pronoun “they.” “They” appear over and over again, haunting Hirst’s entire project.

Damien Hirst. Detail of Severed Heads of Medusa. 2016. Graphite, pencil, ink and gold leaf on vellum. Each of the dozens of Hirst’s gemlike drawings is inscribed with the words “In this dream.”

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2015. Crystal glass.
The accompanying text: “According to myth, the beautiful Medusa was cursed with her head of writhing snakes and the powers of petrification as unjust punishment for being raped by Poseidon. She has thus been variously cast as monster, seductress and victim. The crystal head presents her terrible fury, her pointed fangs alluding to the Gorgon’s monstrous aspects; in the Archaic period, she was sometimes shown with boar’s tusks, hands of bronze and wings.” Hirst’s contextualizing notes here, as always, are art-historically accurate. An Archaic Greek fanged Medusa can be found here, for example.

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2013. Gold, silver.
The accompanying text: “From the Roman era onwards, Medusa’s great beauty became one of her most prominent characteristics. The late-medieval poet Christine de Pizan described her as a figure of ‘such striking beauty that not only did she surpass all other women, but she also attracted to herself […] every mortal creature upon whom she looked’. In a metaphorical duplication of the Gorgon’s fatal powers, Pizan concluded that her pulchritude ‘seemed to make people immovable’.”

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2008. Bronze.
The accompanying text: “Imbued with great apotropaic powers, the Gorgon — depicted here after her decapitation at the hands of Perseus — features repeatedly in the collection. The different versions emphasise the fluidity of Medusa’s character and the unique combination of themes she personifies: horror, fear, sex, death, decapitation, female subjugation and petrification. Once severed, her head retained extraordinary transformative properties: Ovid relayed that it was Medusa’s blood, dripping from her neck and onto twigs and seaweed strands, and still harboring the power of petrification, that accounted for the existence of coral.”

Medusa appears in malachite, glass, and gold. In one green, patinated bronze iteration at the Punta Della Dogana, Medusa’s head lies on a glass table, surrounded by the broken remains of the vipers and serpents that once adorned her head. Rising out of the side of her head is a coral growth, shaped like a primeval tree. She sprouts something like the  Tree of Life, that fundamental and near-universal ur-object that unites myths and religions from around the globe. This verdant Medusa’s head stands in for a strange and monstrous Mother Earth, the progenitress of all things in this constructed cosmos.

In an astonishing essay entitled Diva Matrix, an Austrian numismatist named Alphons Barb considered a group of things that other scholars — mistakenly, in his view — have literally removed from history. Or tried to. The subjects of his investigation are small, engraved stones called “Abraxas” or “Gnostic” gems. These gems are commonly engraved with a depiction of a uterus, and are often embellished with various phallic symbols –for example, cocks (the avian kind), snakes, suggestive elongated shapes, or cocks (the other kind). These objects were popular collector’s items in the seventeenth century, even the artist Peter Paul Rubens had some, but his were fake.17Barb, A. A. Diva Matrix: A Faked Gnostic Intaglio in the Possession of P. P. Rubens and the Iconology of a Symbol. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (1953), 193-238.

By the nineteenth century, these stones were considered “wretched objects,” beneath the dignity of scholarly study. They were removed from collections, or hidden away in deep storage. They were given, Barb writes, “a third-class funeral,” buried under heavy spadefuls of critical contempt.18Barb. 193.

One of the objects Barb discusses, a 3rd CE Greek amulet from the collection of the British Museum. Described as “Magical gem; intaglio; haematite; engraved: ouroboros enclosing womb with key, roots, and/or serpents.”

In his consideration of these strange, magical things, Barb dives ever deeper into ancient heresies, cosmologies, and origin myths surrounding the iconology of the uterus. With each step, through erudition and iconological legerdemain, he leads us to the sea. He begins with Gnostic cosmic mythology that promoted Hystera (Womb) as creator of the universe.19Barb. 197 This myth is borrowed from an older myth, which identified the primeval womb with “the dark waters of the abyss.”20Barb. 198. In Babylonian cosmology, Thalassa (The Sea), was cut in two — “split like a shell-fish” — one half forming Earth, the other, the vault of Heaven. This, in turn, Barb argues, looks back at a mythology even more ancient. He argues that the symbolic primeval womb takes the form of a spiral, a helix, the shape of a sea-shell — “shell-fish, cockles and conchs — the sexual symbolism [of these depictions] is well documented.” The ocean is the site of the birth of Aphrodite, spawned in the sea-foam splash of Uranus’ testicles, removed from him by his son Cronos, and cast into the ocean. Botticelli delivers Venus on what Barb argues is a womb-shell. This scallop shell, in turn, appears on “innumerable sarcophagi and tombstones where not Venus but the head or bust of the deceased appear inside the shell.”21Barb. 206. Venus’ shell would return as the pilgrim’s shell, a symbol, perhaps, of Christian rebirth.

These shells are not simply ornamentation, but an allusion to “rebirth and eternal life.”22Barb. 206 Mystical rebirth, like the earthly kind, requires a womb. Throughout time the dead have been buried — returned to womb of Mother Earth before a mystical rebirth. Barb describes an ancient, esoteric, oceanic twist. He writes:

“The chthonian conception of rebirth from “Mother Earth” was gradually replaced in the upper and middle classes of later antiquity, under philosophical and theosophical influence (mystery religions), by a maritime conception, a kind of funerary “Neptunium” as opposed to the older “Plutonism.” If one had to return to the Womb to reach the sources of life eternal, why should one stop at Mother Earth, who was herself created from the first abyss, the primeval ocean. For from Okeanos, as Homer already knew, have originated all things and even the gods. To represent this “Womb of the Sea” [one would choose] the shell symbol.”23Barb. 206.

Treasures presents a collection of fake shells — fashioned from silver, gold, and bronze — throughout the exhibition. They appear like way stations, minor but necessary stops along the path of Hirst’s undersea thought-labyrinth, there to remind us that the sea is the source of all things.

Damien Hirst. A selection of eccentric flints, animal figurines and valuable shells (including cowries and a shell necklace). 2016. Glass, powder-coated aluminum, painted MDF, silicone, LED lighting, stainless steel, gold, silver, bronze, and painted bronze. Detail.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Nautilus Shell. 2011. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Nautilus Shell (Interior Exposed). 2011. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Clam Shell (I). 2010. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Clam Shell (II). 2010. Painted bronze.

Barb makes an abrupt turn at the end of his essay. He adds an appendix, a sort of post-hoc argument overlay, which returns us to Medusa. He reminds us of Freud’s analysis of Medusa’s Head — the psychosexual link between the petrifying fear of castration and a boy-child’s first glimpse of female genitalia, and the later, comforting petrification of his own erection at the sight of the Medusan vagina.24Freud, Sigmund. Medusa’s Head (1922). Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books. 1959. Vol. 5, 105-106. Barb searches for ancient mythological support for Freud’s insight. He reminds us that Medusa’s beheading was also a creative act — at the moment Perseus sliced Medusa’s head from her body, the horse-god Pegasus and his brother Chrysador were born — delivered from the womb of Medusa’s head. Barb argues that Medusa’s head does not just function as any womb, but as the symbol of an oceanic proto-womb. He writes, “The close relationship, if not identity, of the primeval womb with the “Abyss” = the Sea tallies with the fact that Medusa’s parents are reported to have been sea-gods, she is made pregnant by Poseidon himself [and] that in modern Greek folk-lore the Gorgons are identified with Nereids.”25Barb. 210.

Barb continues by troubling the art-historical cliché that Medusa’s head performs as an apotropaic symbol on Roman sepulchral monuments. 26In fact, he calls this reading a “cheap cliché.” Barb. 201. Instead, Barb suggests, Medusa’s head functions as a primeval womb-symbol, offering the promise of rebirth and eternal life.

Hirst’s Medusa, the one from which sprouts that strange coral tree, functions as a primeval earth mother, but, like all Medusa stories, this one knots together opposites. Here she lies, an object of the earth and sea, the mother, not only of all things, but of chthonic complexity. She is simultaneously Earth Mother and Sea Mother, a god of both earthly and watery underworlds.

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze.
The accompanying text: “Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses presents the extraordinary wealth of Graeco-Roman myths centered around concepts of transformation, in which an individual’s altered state was at times representative of a heightened character trait. In this sculpture, the fantastical assumes a grotesquely life-like appearance through the exceptionally detailed casting.”

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze. Detail.
From the catalog: “Juxtaposing the chiton-swathed classical form with the vastly oversized head and legs of a fly, this sculpture evokes metamorphic stories such as that of Arachne, a Lydian woman famed for her skilled weaving. The proud Arachne challenged Athena to a spinning contest, and proceeded to craft an exquisite tapestry that expertly portrayed the gods’ transgressions. The enraged goddess responded by turning Arachne into a spider, cursed to weave for all eternity. The story can be read as a parable on the power of art and the age-old antagonism between creativity and authority. Notions of transformation — both physical and metaphorical –were powerfully felt in the ancient world and extended beyond the realm of myth; in the Greek dance of morphasmos, there performer initiated a series of animals and became spiritually possessed by each in turn.”

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze. Detail.
Like many of Hirst’s surprises, they only reveal themselves if the beholder considers the entire object. Stepping around this sculpture at the Punta Della Dogana, a perfectly formed vagina appears on the back of this beautiful monster’s head, suggesting a metamorphosed Medusan head-as-womb.

[Perseus] washes his victorious hands in water drawn for him; and that the Gorgon’s snaky head may not be bruised on the hard sand, he softens the ground with leaves, strews seaweed over these, and lays on this the head of Medusa, daughter of Phorcys. The fresh weed twigs, but now alive and porous to the core, absorb the power of the monster and hardens at its touch and take a strange stiffness in their stems and leaves. And the sea-nymphs test the wonder on more twigs and are delighted to find the same thing happening to them all; and by scattering these twigs as seeds, propagate the wondrous thing throughout their waters. And even till this day the same nature has remained in coral so that they harden when exposed to air, and what was a pliant twig beneath the sea is turned to stone above.

— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV, 740-752.27Ovid. Metamorphoses, in Ovid III, F. J. Miller, trans. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard. 230-31.

In her catalog essay, curator Elena Guena points us to this passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.28Guena, Elena. ‘The Coral Diver’ in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: Damien Hirst. London: Other Criteria. 2017. 10 It is yet another origin story, describing the mythological creation of coral. It is not Perseus’ intention to create this strange stuff — alive, soft and billowy in the sea, but petrified into dead stone when brought into our terrestrial world — it is a mythic accident, an overflow of Medusa’s posthumous powers.29For an art-historically definitive text on Medusa’s blood and coral see Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood.” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 2, June, 1999. 215-235. In this essay, Cole argues that the peculiar turgid blood pouring out of the head of Medusa in Cellini’s Perseus, in Florence, is, indeed, stylized coral. If we can think through myth, as our ancient kin were able to, Hirst’s entire project is bathed in the blood of Medusa. His mythological subjects, both ancient and new, sprout forests of coral — they are wrapped like mummies in candy-colored, stone-like instability. This stone instability is not a product of incoherence, ambiguity, anachronism, oxymoron, or paradox — but one of an essential simulteneity that art allows us to see, and to feel. It is that old, familiar oceanic feeling — the polar opposite of polar thinking, antidote to corrosive Manichaeism, the realm beyond insufficient logics and inadequate words — that Hirst invites us to experience. He invites us to dive into the abyss, and the water is fine.

–Michael Westfall

Damien Hirst. The Collector with Friend. 2016. Bronze.

Notes   [ + ]

1. At the 2:58 mark here.
2. Cotter, Holland. Venice Biennale: Whose Reflection Do You See? New York Times. May 22, 2017.
3. Anagramming Hirst’s titles is a bit of a parlor game, here “Cif Amotan II” sorts out to “I am a fiction.” Or, I suppose, “I fit on a mica.”
4. From the exhibition guide, available here.
5, 6. Guide. 3.
7, 8. Guide. 36.
9. From the Tate’s display caption.
10. Ibid. It is just this sort of anonymous, obvious and just-so-slightly-condescending  museum-speak that Hirst pokes at throughout the exhibition with captions of his own. For example, we are informed that a Roman spoon of the ligula type (which is not present) was “used for eating pulpy food.” That seems to be a reasonable deduction. The pitch-perfect and very amusing texts are credited to Aime Corry.
11. Chesterton’s biography of Blake is available here.
12. See A Little History of Castration, here, page 82.
13. Hirst’s exhibition shares much with the idiosyncratic Cosmos-builders of the New Museum’s recent exhibition, The Keeper. For a detailed note on recollecting forward, see this.
14. Nagel, A. and C. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone. 9.
15. Rancière, Jacques. The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth (English Translation). InPrint: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available here.
16. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton. 24. Freud was skeptical, indicating that this oceanic feeling is by no means universal.
17. Barb, A. A. Diva Matrix: A Faked Gnostic Intaglio in the Possession of P. P. Rubens and the Iconology of a Symbol. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (1953), 193-238.
18. Barb. 193.
19. Barb. 197
20. Barb. 198.
21. Barb. 206. Venus’ shell would return as the pilgrim’s shell, a symbol, perhaps, of Christian rebirth.
22. Barb. 206
23. Barb. 206.
24. Freud, Sigmund. Medusa’s Head (1922). Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books. 1959. Vol. 5, 105-106.
25. Barb. 210.
26. In fact, he calls this reading a “cheap cliché.” Barb. 201.
27. Ovid. Metamorphoses, in Ovid III, F. J. Miller, trans. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard. 230-31.
28. Guena, Elena. ‘The Coral Diver’ in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: Damien Hirst. London: Other Criteria. 2017. 10
29. For an art-historically definitive text on Medusa’s blood and coral see Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood.” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 2, June, 1999. 215-235. In this essay, Cole argues that the peculiar turgid blood pouring out of the head of Medusa in Cellini’s Perseus, in Florence, is, indeed, stylized coral.

Feedback Loops

The first thought that came to mind as I became beguiled by Marilyn Minter’s Green Pink Caviar was a certain type of denouement, a post-climax climax, seen occasionally in a certain sub-genre of very smutty film. Minter mimics the fetishist’s precision of fixation on a very particular and very anonymous body part engaged in a very specific activity — a mouth stuck in an endless loop of slurping and spitting, like an eternal pendulum swinging between disgust and desire. Resolution is not a possibility in this post-climax world — resolution has already happened, it is already a memory, it has come but not yet gone. These languid lips continue to suck and slurp post-petite mort, as if they are attached to some beautiful, fixated, erotic zombie. As one beholder has it, perfectly and concisely, “This is sick and horny.” (A statement I interpret as high praise.)

Resolution is the farthest thing from the desiring mind. Lacan tells us that the pleasure is in the desiring itself. Desire is a want, a hunger, a void folded in on itself — lack endlessly feeding back on itself. Desire’s painful pleasure is in, paradoxically, un-attainment. Desire is insatiable — insatiability is Minter’s theme.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Marilyn Minter. Still from Green Pink Caviar. Video. 2009.

Then I thought of the seasons. It’s Minter’s colors that did it, and their order. In the first scene, the electric alien-green color of the goo being lovingly licked up and drooled out reminded me of springtime; the warm, shimmering metallic gold of the following scene brought to mind the colors of a late summer’s harvest; then, the orange and red, an odd and radiant fall landscape; and finally, the shimmering, metallic chill of the final scene reminded me of winter. I imagined some strange book of hours, images of a kind of fishy, oral and human devotion-compulsion, set into the eternal cosmic rhythm of the seasons.  I saw a doubled temporal structure organizing Green Pink Caviar — the passing of seasons, repeating endlessly as a foil to the incessant, breath-like flowing and constantly present rhythm of licking, sucking and spitting. I saw one endless feedback cycle embedded in another endless feedback cycle, each one feeding and folding on the other.

I thought about Breugel’s seasons and the golden-ness of The Harvesters in New York. Something about the silver-chrome smears of the last act of Green Pink Caviar brought me back to a room in Vienna, filled with Bruegel’s miraculous paintings, and one in particular — the cold and wintery Hunters in the Snow. I was reminded that time, entropy, and the Earth are all insatiable, too.

Saal X, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

Pieter Bruegel. Hunters in the Snow. 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Pieter Bruegel. The Harvesters. 1565. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

A young Viennese man-about-town emerges from a frame of  brilliant yellow-green. He is wearing a suit with a dark tie and a pocket square done up in an elegant crown fold. He is seated behind a desk, surrounded by papers and a bottle of wine. He appears serious, maybe a bit apprehensive.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

Otmar Bauer. Still from the film “Zeigt.” 1969.

He takes the wine bottle and drinks. After ingesting most of the wine in a matter of seconds, he retches, puking all over the desk in front of him. He gathers up the vomitus with his hands and consumes it, which causes, immediately, more spasms of vomiting, which he gathers up, chokes down, pukes up, and so on. He has put himself and his body in a precise and literal feedback loop of consumption and eruption. He concludes by breaking the loop, escaping the spiral vortex — he rubs his head and body with his own vomit, stands up and laughs with pure joy. Ende.

The film is Zeigt by Otmar Bauer, produced in 1969. He was a participant in the artistic movement, Wiener Aktionismus, which shocked that staid city during the 60s with work, films, and performances that trafficked in disgust. The human body was the Actionist canvas, and its effluvia were the Actionist’s materials — shit, semen, vomit, piss and blood — so much blood. Until recently, the Vienna Actionists were shunted off the main line of modernism, off into a critical and provincial cul-de-sac. Actionism was seen as an interesting, if reactionary, self-flagellating symptom of Teutonic guilt haunting the post-war generation of Mitteleuropa. Which, of course, it is. What Vienna Actionism is not, it turns out, is easily dismissed as a sick-and-horny, art historical dead-end. The nascent critical reemergence of Vienna Actionism in the United States provides needed context for the phenomenally popular work of Marina Abramovic, the performances of Carolee Schneemann, the interventions of the Russian collective Война, and the transgressions of Petr Pavlensky, for example. Comparing Bauer’s Zeigt and Minter’s Green Pink Caviar provides more than context or some sort of meaningless art historical primogeniture. Instead, they share a topos, each one illuminates the basic mechanics and complexities of transgression.

 

One of the more entertaining art historical feuds occurred in the late 1920s between André Breton and Georges Bataille. Breton, the father of Surrealism, published the Second Manifesto of Surrealism to define what the movement was, and more importantly, what it was not. In the manifesto, he describes Surrealism as a caustic ideology —  one that dissolves the differences of opposition. He writes, “Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.”1Breton, André. “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. R. Seaver and H. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1972. 123. Surrealism’s goal is to find that point. He then goes on to call out by name, un par un, traitors to the Surrealist cause. Breton expels them all, creating Surrealism’s contradictory opposite, an amorphous not-Surrealism against which he can rail.2This divisive tactic apparently lives on in daily provocations of our current Surrealist-in-Chief, Trump. Breton’s Manifesto is also infamous for this provocative sentence: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into a crowd.” (Breton, 125.)  Compare this with Trump’s surrealistic comment here. His most formidable nemesis, Bataille, he saves for last.

At the close of the Manifesto, Breton upbraids Bataille for counterrevolutionary anti-idealism, for choosing, instead, to wallow in madness and obnoxious investigations of the filthy crevices of the human mind and body. Breton attacks Bataille’s use of adjectives, condemns him for adhering to a boneheaded brand of materialism, makes an armchair attempt at diagnosing Bataille’s psychopathology, and, finally, charges Bataille with impudence for soiling the “impeccable integrity” of the heroic Marquis de Sade.3Breton. 180-86.

Bataille published a steady stream of heretical essays, and each one needled Breton. In one in particular, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade, Bataille describes two philosophical-psychological teleologies of Sade’s work.4Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades)” in Visions of Excess, A. Stoekl, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985. The essay, according to Denis Hollier, was published only posthumously. In it he makes the case for his understanding of Sade, and corrects Breton’s.

In Bataille’s view, to worship Sade as a demonically  sub-human or divinely super-human destructive force is to miss the point. This renders Sade, as Bataille terms it, a foreign body — the use value of Sade is in overloading this foreign body with exaltation and loathing — what is both beyond and beneath our  comfort and human understanding– and voiding the entire mess, like sending a scapegoat out into the wilderness, or, more precisely, like taking a good shit.5Bataille. 92. This leaves one feeling lighthearted, relieved, unencumbered by troubling internal matter, whether it is physical, metaphysical, or psychological. And in this excretory relief there is also ejaculatory pleasure — Bataille builds a Borgesian encyclopedia of excretory delights: urination, vomiting, defecation, ritual sacrifice of animal-gods, sexual activity (perverse and not perverse), gambling, sobbing, religious ecstasy, the laughter of exclusion, orgiastic impulses of the mob, the excessive adornment of bejeweled women — each one categorically linked by the shared pleasure, as Bataille writes, of brutal rupture.6Left unmentioned is Breton’s ejection of Bataille from the Surrealist orthodoxy. Bataille, to be sure, understood Breton’s relief and pleasure in cleaning the Surrealist house.

But this is only half of the story. Bataille opposes this notion of violent scatalogical rupture and excretion with the harder-to-swallow impulse of appropriation —  fundamental urge to take in, to consume, to eat. Bataille sees, in the oppositional relationship between these two linked animal urges, a fundamental engine for human behavior — from the distant and ancient social taboos and ritual to the rise and supremacy of capitalism.

Sade’s genius, Bataille explains, is not in the destruction of the taboos and law and rationality that serve as limits to human experience, although there is perverse pleasure in expulsion — whether the foreign body is a troubling person, a troubling idea, or an entire troubling race — but rather in closing the loop between appropriation and excretion. Bataille cites an illustrative passage from Sade’s Justine:

Verneuil makes someone shit, he eats the turd, and then demands that someone eat his. The one who eats his shit vomits; he devours her puke.7Bataille. 95.

Sade sets these two fundamental and oppositional forces — appropriation and excretion — into a rhythm. Each one feeds the other — they are set into a feedback loop that defines, for Bataille, a natural relation — a dialectic of transgression. Foucault, writing about Bataille, amplifies this interdependence of limit and transgression. Limits are meaningless unless transgressed, and transgression needs a limit in order to exist. Each one gives form to the other. Foucault writes, “Transgression, then, is not related to the limit as black to white, the prohibited to the lawful, the outside to the inside[…] Rather their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust.”8Foucault, Michel. A “Preface to Transgression” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. D. Bouchard, ed and trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1977. 35. In other words, Foucault’s spiral is another feedback loop — limits and their transgressions are caught in a relationship of twinned insatiable desires — order and disorder, continuity and rupture, coherence and incoherence  — folded endlessly upon each other. In this process of consumption and expulsion, unspeakable worlds are consummated. Green Pink Caviar is one of those worlds — a world that is all orifice, stuck forever in a Sadean feedback loop.

— Michael Westfall

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Breton, André. “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. R. Seaver and H. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1972. 123.
2. This divisive tactic apparently lives on in daily provocations of our current Surrealist-in-Chief, Trump. Breton’s Manifesto is also infamous for this provocative sentence: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into a crowd.” (Breton, 125.)  Compare this with Trump’s surrealistic comment here.
3. Breton. 180-86.
4. Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades)” in Visions of Excess, A. Stoekl, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985. The essay, according to Denis Hollier, was published only posthumously.
5. Bataille. 92.
6. Left unmentioned is Breton’s ejection of Bataille from the Surrealist orthodoxy. Bataille, to be sure, understood Breton’s relief and pleasure in cleaning the Surrealist house.
7. Bataille. 95.
8. Foucault, Michel. A “Preface to Transgression” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. D. Bouchard, ed and trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1977. 35.

I Hate Dick

One hundred and eighty five years ago, a drawing of a pear made a Frenchman art-history-famous. It was published by lithographer, caricaturist and journalist Charles Philipon (1800-1862) in Paris in 1832. It is instructive, in a Bob Ross kind of way — it depicts how, in four easy steps, the head of the king, Louis-Philippe I, could be magically transformed into a piece of fruit. For this, and other transgressions, Philipon was imprisoned, heavily fined, and had his newspaper seized by the state.1Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.

Charles Philipon. The Pears. 1832

This royal crackdown had the unintended consequence of popularizing the whole affair — its victim owned a satirical newspaper, after all — and the image of the pear became wildly popular. Soon after Philipon’s caricature was published, Paris was awash with pear-king cartoons. The works created by these caricaturists are generally held to be examples of artistic integrity, of the power of art and artists to speak truth to power, and of a certain, specifically Gallic, satiric charm. These caricatures provide the starting point for an art historical thread that follows rabidly secular social critique, which lives on, though severely wounded, today.

Auguste Bouquet. Favorites (Whiskers) of the Pear. (Les favoris de la poire.) La Caricature. 1833.

Honoré Daumier. Une énorme poire pendue par des hommes du peuple. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Voici Messieurs, ce que nous avons l’honneur d’exposer journellement. 1834.

Honoré Daumier. Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare). 1832.

Charles Philipon. Projet d’un monument Expia-poire à élever sur la place de la révolution, précisément à la place où fut guillotiné Louis XVI inventé par Ch. Philipon et dessiné par M… C’est “une poire colossale sur un piédestal bien simple, bien bourgeois” et sur ce piédestal, l’inscription : 27, 28 et 29 juillet 1830. 1832.

Charles-Joseph Traviès de Villers. Ah ! scélérate de poire pourquoi n’es-tu pas une vérité ! ou M. Mahieux poiricide : il s’apprête à couper la poire qui n’a pas tenu ses promesses. 1832.

With this shopworn bit of legerdemain — the old switcheroo — the artists magically shift the object of popular imagination from the king’s still-sacred and legally protected image to that of a piece of fruit, and offers a comically thin veil of deniability. The pear suffers the tender mercies of public rage, as one historian writes: “Philipon’s artists were able to inflict an extraordinary variety of symbolic tortures on the king. Louis-Philippe was hanged, drawn, and quartered […] When accused of incitement to regicide in court, Philipon was able to reply, with some justification, that he could at most be accused of incitement to make jam.”2Kerr. 85.

In this magical world of caricature, the pear shifts in scale and meaning. It first stands in for the king’s disembodied head, then it  grows to represent his entire body, and then grows even larger to represent the body of the entire state. It grows to monumental proportions — the colossal pear is imagined atop a column placed at the precise location of the last royal beheading. And, suddenly, in a strange image, the pear shrinks back to its natural size, to be picked up by a monstrous hunchbacked dwarf, grimacing as he looks heavenward, and prepares to slice the pear in half — an act of pomological beheading. But here the fruit resembles not a head, but a scrotum — in an act of satirical overdetermination, the artist has transfigured the pear into a pair. The royal pear-beheading becomes a double insult — at once an act of decapitation and an act of castration. In Paris, in 1832, the image caused a sensation.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Like Philipon, Guston show us a step-by-step transfiguration; the president’s head  grows and transforms, not into a pear, but into a full set of tackle.

In October, 1970, Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times, decided to take Philip Guston (1913-1980) down a notch or two. In a notorious review entitled A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum, Kramer describes Guston as “something of a sacred figure,” and then proceeds to systematically disabuse his readers of this ridiculous notion. Guston, Kramer asserts, is a stylistic carpetbagger, a “latecomer,” a “colonizer rather than a pioneer.” With his new figurative paintings, Kramer tells us, Guston once again misses the Zeitgeist-boat with his reactionary, anti-intellectual and out-of-touch return to content after making a name for himself as a kind of sham abstractionist.3Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”

Guston was stung. He went to Italy to teach and visit his beloved Renaissance paintings. When he returned, he relocated to Woodstock, New York, and withdrew from the New York City art scene. There he met Philip Roth, who also went up the river to escape critical fallout — in his case caused by his recently published novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth was writing Our Gang, a satirical Nixon-novel, and he encouraged Guston to join the cause. Guston’s project, culminating in a narrative series of 73 drawings entitled Poor Richard, was not published until 2001, some thirty years after its creation, and some twenty years after Guston’s premature death. The Poor Richard drawings, scores of preliminary sketches and awesome, obscene culls, were recently on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. From left to right: Kissinger, Agnew, Nixon and Mitchell.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. Compare to this B. Kliban gem.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971.

Philip Guston. Untitled (Poor Richard). 1971. The original “baskets of deplorables.”

Guston invites us to read images that describe a spare, mute, alternative-universe narrative of Nixon’s life. From childhood damp-dreams of grandeur, Nixon rises to political power, assembles a crony cabinet, then panders, bullies, and sets sail to China. By the end of the story we all know the fall is inevitable. The severed head of Nixon, now castrate, lies next to Agnew’s and Kissinger’s amid rubble in a desolate, lonesome landscape. In the next image, our antihero and his companions are deposited into the dustbin of history. Then, in a wonderfully bizarre coda, each one rises, zombie-like, from their ashcan grave. Our antiheroes board a boat in the form of a comic-book toilet and set sail, one more time, into the sunset, off to their beachy Xanadu, Key Biscayne. There, they become pastries — Nixon a cookie, Agnew a sponge cake, and Kissinger, a pot pie. The gang is transformed into their own just desserts, and Poor Richard’s saga is baked into our American history, whether we like it or not.

Philip Guston. San Clemente. 1975.

The show leads us in the end to a painting, San Clemente, made after the Watergate scandal. It depicts Nixon as a sad creature. He walks the beach shod in just one of his ex-presidential oxfords, working against the wind, his once-turgid nose droops flaccid and ponderous, a single tear from a bloodshot eye stains his testicle-cheek. He drags an enormous, necrotic, monstrously swollen left leg. Nixon’s corruption was not some mythical Achilles’ heel, but a very real, very loathsome anchor that pulled him, and us, down into the abyss.

Nixon on the beach.

Philip Guston. Poor Richard. Plate 70. 1971.

After his death, Guston would find himself critically and art historically rehabilitated. Peter Schjeldahl, for example, wrote that he was one of the many who hated Guston’s new paintings back in 1970. The paintings scared him.4See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker. Looking back, however, Schjeldahl now tells us that Guston’s late works are “the most important American painting of its time.” The paintings do indeed speak, Schjeldahl now thinks, with perfect pitch, of their time and their Zeitgeist, although he and the critics didn’t understand that at the time. Guston’s late work would augur the next decade of American painting — so-called Neo-Expressionism and the return to figuration in the 1980s — a period that has also eluded critics and art historians, and is just now emerging from institutional exile.5See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.

A few blocks south of the Guston exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth’s soon-to-be-demolished ex-Roxy space, another contemporary exile is busily scaring away most of the New York artworld. Paul McCarthy’s (b. 1945) current exhibition, Raw Spinoffs Continuations, has somehow eluded critical attention. It appears that critics’ tactics have changed over time. The outrage unleashed toward Guston almost a half a century ago has been replaced with something far safer, far more spineless, and just as wrong-headed — radio silence, broken only by feigned yawns and intermittent yelps of annoyance.6I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Dopey #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Grumpy. Bronze. 2016. In background, White Snow Dwarf, Sleepy #1. Bronze. 2016.

Paul McCarthy. White Snow Dwarf, Bashful. Bronze. 2016.

Anyone who might harbor the secret desire to grab a king-sized double-headed dildo and use it to beat the living bejeezus out of the nearest troll might find some solace in McCarthy’s current exhibition. The work is not overtly political, at first glance, but then again, it is. After stepping through the multiple crime-scenes of dwarfish calamity, continuing on to the back of Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous space, one finds George W. Bush rendered basking in the sweet afterglow of a good pig-schtupping — with metal rods shoved through his forehead. These are tableaux that one comes to expect from McCarthy, but the trick is to see through shock (or schlock, if you insist) in order to see what else might possibly be going on. McCarthy asked this of his audience long ago, and it is a critical skill, at this particular moment in our political history, that seems more necessary than ever.

Paul McCarthy. Paula Jones. 2005-2008. Detail.

Paul McCarthy. Puppet (Original). 2005-2008. Detail.

The abuse McCarthy’s dwarves have suffered dwarfs the pear-torture of Philipon’s artists, and Guston’s comic castrations; these dwarves have suffered the tribulations of the damned. Dopey’s eyes have been gouged out, Grumpy’s face has been bashed in, and the back of Bashful’s skull is missing. There is nothing left of Sneezy but armature and innards, two enormous feet, and a nose that emerges out of his block-head like an engorged pecker, which appears to be draped with a wet tube sock. As I consider poor Sneezy’s terrible fate, his pecker-nose and clown-feet bring back to mind one of Guston’s Poor Richard drawings.

Paul McCarthy. Sneezy. Bronze. 2016.

One of McCarthy’s preoccupations, and there are many, is facture, the process of wrenching something out of our quotidian world and making it into art. This is a difficult undertaking. While the dwarf-sculptures seem like they are meditations on the varieties of destruction, they are masterworks of construction as well. McCarthy spells out for us how creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, or simply and paradoxically the same — like the two sides of a Möbius strip. The cast-bronze sculptures are lined up facing their original clay, foam and steel models so that they stand like mirrors to each other. But the mirror images are not quite exactly right, something seems fishy, as in Groucho and Harpo’s famous gag.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. On the right side are the bronze dwarf sculptures, on the left, Nine Dwarves (Affected Originals) 2009-2016. A pallet (get it?) of the artist’s tools and materials sits in the far left foreground.

That sort of fissured Duck Soup repetition repeats once more. Two works, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) and Amputation (AMP), Blue, echo like a tragicomic call and response between the quote-unquote-real-world and the art-world. The warm fleshy real world of wood and foam and plastic dildos and fake severed heads and and captain’s chairs is chopped up like salad and re-cast as something else — an echo amped, or amplified — a repeated, fiberglass feed-back art-world cleaned up and painted a jaunty, uniform Kleinish blue.

Paul McCarthy. Raw Spinoffs Continuations. Installation view. Nine Dwarves (Affected) in foreground, Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) in middle ground, Amputation (AMP), Blue in background.

Paul McCarthy. Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation (Affected) 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Body parts, vessels, and tools litter the post-apocalyptic world of Amputation (AMP), Blue. The sculpture is like a Pompeii for the future, a relic of catastrophe that magically preserves an ancient, foreign and primitive culture in situ. The joke is on us — the primitive culture that is preserved is ours.

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Scattered amongst the rubble are countless dildo-parts. Mutilated penises are everywhere, some are chopped and served in a bowl — a strange fruit salad. Like Philipon and Guston before him, McCarthy offers us the cutting satire of castration, but the laughs are of a different sort. Gone are the knowing chuckles of Philipon’s continental drolleries, or the cartoonish barbs of Guston’s Poor Richard. It’s not a king or a president that is the target of McCarthy’s castratory excess — it’s every dick, everyman’s dick, dickishness itself  —  the table turns and McCarthy presents a democratic castration of the polis. Gazing at McCarthy’s funhouse mirror offers us the bleakest laughs of all — at ourselves and our perverse, congenital hubris and cultural fixation on destruction, violence, and (global) mayhem. We are all complicit. Surrounded by the blasted and mutilated detritus of a Disneyfied, suburbanized, Americanized armageddon it just might be that this didn’t just happen, like some Vesuvian natural disaster; we did this to ourselves — we are doing this to ourselves.

— Michael Westfall

Paul McCarthy. Amputation (AMP), Blue. Fiberglass. 2013-2016. Detail.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Kerr, David S. Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Oxford University Press. 2000. 65-85. Kerr gives a wonderful and detailed account of the various political points sharply made by these pear-king caricatures.
2. Kerr. 85.
3. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, responded to Kramer’s hit piece with an inspired letter to the Times. The letter should be required reading for every art historian and art critic as it serves as a reminder for the proper place of art writing in general. A taste: “And as long as I’m on the subject of the ethics of art criticism, when did it happen that so many critics forgot the simple truth that art precedes art criticism, not only in time, but in importance? At what point did the parasites begin to consume the host; at what point, I would ask Kramer, did critics set themselves up as manipulators and politicians and lose touch with what art is really all about?”
4. See Schjeldahl’s 2003 essay on Guston, The Junkman’s Son in The New Yorker.
5. See Schjeldahl’s 2017 review, The Joy of Eighties Art in The New Yorker.
6. I’m thinking here, not just about the critical psuedo-silence regarding this show, but of the abbreviated Artforum review of McCarthy’s spectacular invasion of New York in 2013– which involved some 70 truckloads of art installed all over the city — that can be paraphrased with a few hysterical words accompanied by melodramatic hand-waving: “Eeew! Gross! Stop iiiii-it!” ¶McCarthy’s academic reception is not much better. I recall interviewing for a spot in an art history graduate program, and speaking with a professor who has become well-known for her writing on small-d democracy and “participatory art.” When I mentioned my enthusiasm for McCarthy’s work, she puckered her face up into a grimace, as if I had just broken some foul wind in her tiny office, and declaimed: “Who could be interested in that old modernist!?!” This sort of art-hating art history professor used to shock me, but they are so common and I run into them so frequently that now I can only gin up some mild disgust and a bit of pity.

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