Thursday, May 22, 2014



Over the past four weeks, I have slept in five different rooms broken by intervals of sleeping at home. I woke up in the night last night and for a moment felt completely displaced, as if my identity was still asleep. In that moment, my impression of my room, my bed and myself were entirely out of sync. Even though it was dark, I saw bright white walls. For a second my senses were useless- there was an impression, a certainty that my brain refused to let go and in the moment I felt like no one. The sensory displacement of a dream, the creature of my dreams for a moment became me. It vanished slowly over the following minute as the blood climbed into my brain and dilated the channels of my normalcy, my home. This happens from time to time and I recall as a child feeling terror in the moment of displacement. The memory of that terror tinged the momentary relish I took in this departure with a sense of power.  The strangeness of my adulthood. I find deep pleasure in the conquest of my old monsters, but then what is the right power to assign old pains? If I can hold them with the calipers of my current peace should I pass their carapace over fire to see the colors they turn- should I make a spectacle of those pains to show they are now nothing to me? Or let them rot and revive in time in the lobes of my brain, maybe show up as insuperable traumas in my later dementia?

Where are the shits of yesteryear? 

Last summer I walked into the Park Avenue Armory to see Paul McCarthy's White Snow. Of the things that installation accomplished in me, a temporary detente with my epic body shame may have been the most significant. I stood at the entrance and stared for a good half hour before venturing in further. Over the entrance hung three enormous screen. In glaucous and saturated shades a number of pseudo dwarves in college sweatshirts were waking from a nap in the forest. They burped, they casually masturbated, they moaned and groaned. Then they Heigh-Hoed. My eyes moved from screen to screen since each held a different scene. Once they reached home they were greeted by White Snow, played by Elyse Poppers, who brought a party kit with her and seemed to be on hand to entertain. I wandered into the installation and found among the sets the remains of the party that was about to happen on screen. There was a dirty smell and flies and a stained carpet and dummies that doubled for corpses of White Snow and Walt Paul- McCarthy's Disney inspired alter ego in this piece. 

Past the sets stood a forest of polystyrene painted brown possessing the uncanny morphology of three story shits. The forest platform split for a path I followed. The forest floor was just above my head and a cross section of foam core could be seen buttressing the fake shit trees and in the middle of the shit forest sat a three-quarter scale replica of McCarthy's child home. The armory itself is immense and cavelike. The sound from the films played through speakers mounted above in the rafters. Groans and shrieks and giggles that blew out the balance on the sound system echoed through the main hall where the piece was installed. 

Along either wall smaller sculpture and then beyond doors into cavelike chambers where films showed. In one of these cavelike rooms I sat beside a sixty something year old man in Ferragamos. He was accompanied by a woman equally well turned out and of similar vintage.  I sat beside them on a bench and watched the screen, smaller than the ones hung out in the main hall and only ten feet away. The film was of White Snow and Walt Paul engaged in a mommy-son domination fantasy. Walt Paul walked on his knees. His eyes darted with mischief. White Snow ordered him around the set. She washed his mouth out with soap and told him how disgusting he was. The man in his Ferragamos snapped pictures with his phone as White Snow disrobed. The scene was guttural, primal and horrifying, but played on the edge of pathos so deftly, where I felt deeply for Paul McCarthy and even more deeply for Elyse Poppers, who stood up to all of the harsh physicality McCarthy demands of his performers, who through out the collected films stands as the consistent point of focus and control, who carries so much of the work with unnerving portions of force and charm and how deeply the whole piece played with the viewer- the monstrous size of the installation, the hours and hours of available film- the whole work there to overwhelm the viewer to give a sense of bottomlessness and yet at the same time to show every gesture, so it would seem that McCarthy himself reached the bottom.

In February, I attended a screening of Matthew Barney's River of Fundament at BAM. Like White Snow the piece featured a recreated home and used shit as its central focus. The recreated home was Norman Mailer's and it floats on a barge over a river of shit, the river you have to pass to be reborn, to trick nature, as Mailer is reborn three times in the movie, as Barney is reborn in the form of his Masonic apprentice from Cremaster 3. The movie is uneven, but it is most compelling in its first hour and half as it follows the participants in a wake for Norman Mailer, including a cross section of sixties intellectuals, film makers, writers, a pharaoh, his retinue, the lesser participles of Mailer's Egyptian spirit and a number of gods. In the opening sequence, Barney has figured out the pacing, blocking editing and adapting of Mailer's source, Ancient Evenings, while simultaneously establishing the objects that will be transformed over the course of the film. There's a purposefulness in the pace where we see Salman Rushdie hanging out by the pig that's being roasted for the wake, as we see the LA car dealer/evangelist cutting silver grey lines as if they were coke then rendering them in a miniature blast furnace into a tiny shovel that then dissolves when swizzled in his drink. There's some beautiful music then there's just wind- there are musicians who play the steam radiators of the reconstructed home. The first hour was the only time I saw Barney beat his own films, succeed in a way his old films failed. That's not to say there weren't compelling parts later, but they were detracted by the woodenness of the scenes that were shot live as performances- the LA car sequence being the one stand-out as well as the rendering of the golden Osiris-mobile in a towering blast furnace in the rain. That latter as part of an homage to James Lee Byars (who wrote his 100 questions during a residency at Herman Kahn's Hudson Institute). When Barney's at his best, he is only in competition with himself. Having seen and been a fan of the whole Cremaster cycle, this work seemed redundant in places and borrowed heavily from Alejandro Jodorowsky and Joel Peter Witkin (NeverSFW btw) at times. 

White Snow and River of Fundament both reminded me of Makavejev's Sweet Film, especially his footage of the Viennese Actionists, who lived in a commune and followed the psychological guidance of Wilhelm Reich in practicing radical confrontations followed by recursions into infant play with vomiting, shouting and smoosh play. The point being the community accepts the human animal in its extremes with it's many urges- giving full expression to the unconscious, to undo the repression built into learning a social code.

The power of shit- as Mailer puts it: many a fine sentiment has been buried in shit. McCarthy's shit forest stands in for the uncanny passage of time, the shit of sentiment, of personal history and of forgotten time accumulated and confronted. Barney's shit stands for the horror of death but also the promise, the prospect and possibility of renewal and growth. I did walk away from River of Fundament thinking of the history of the human form in western art and how up until recently art refused to acknowledge that the body had holes and here we had Arrrrrrt (roll the R, alá Dalí) about shit- it may be progress towards something- self acceptance maybe? Though in Barney's case the acceptance maybe tempered with the somewhat delusional premise of the male artist's ego- maybe as long as we're looking at ideals we're only looking at shit and the real thing is always going to be you and I. It's always been the alchemist's trade to try to turn shit into gold. 

The same day I went to White Snow, I also visited James Turrell's exhibit at the Guggenheim. I laid on my back in the Guggenheim atrium for an hour staring up at Aten Reign- the colors shifting subtly up from floor to floor to the skylight and the color of the sky changing ever so slightly with the colors of the rotunda. It was the opposite of trompe l'oeil. It was a method showing the ways in which our eyes are constantly fooled, a way of showing the in born flaw in our perceptions. Our bodies, in other words, are designed to perceive illusions. It takes some thought to show that.

If we think of the telescope as Archimedes' lever that moved the world, Galileo's discovery as the first great realignment of modern European thinking where scientific reasoning showed that both faith and the climate of perception were faulty. I think now of the business of attraction and the bodies of supermodels actors and actresses, the illusion that our bodies can somehow become theirs- that their bodies are theirs - and that we can forget ourselves to become someone else for thirty minutes, for two minutes of thrilling numb tourism. It's anesthetizing and fraught and enough to make me consider Bridget Jones the epic heroine of our times. But I have a vested interest in moving away from body fantasies and the pseudosciences of appearance- aside from being on a diet, a friend let me know I look just like this criminal type:

At the close of White Snow there was a gift shop where the stunned and stumbling patrons could buy a piece of Snow White merchandise signed by Walt Paul for a ridiculous mark up. I almost broke down and spent $15 for a plastic-wrapped set of paper plates. After the sensory assault, I needed to have something to touch. I held off and stumbled forth to the subway, where I gripped the handrail and swayed with the car bumps and kept my eyes to myself.

Life in an Asymmetrical Universe

I may be the only person who adored The Counselor. It seems to have been panned universally. I'll give my spiel then I'll shut up. Cormac McCarthy helps edit theoretical astrophysicists books in his spare time. He practices a form of economy in his fiction that borders on psychic invocation. He found in the Cartels of Ciudad Juarez the moral core of our asymmetrical universe- as Warren Zevon puts it- the vast indifference of heaven. Though I'm still a hundred pages to go in 2666, it seems that he and Bolaño may have been in deep agreement here. There's something in this brutality and the indifference that allows it to occur that mirrors all the worst behavior of WWII but that points to a null in human behavior- an absolute empathetic zero bred by self-preservation for the indifferent and an absolute ruthlessness on the part of the killers. The violence in The Counselor and the near indifference towards audience comprehension ring with the coldness of that world, where our stand in- the poor Counselor - was in over his head from the beginning. If we don't see in the shape of contemporary society the pattern of this indifference and worry about what things may come, we may be equally lost.

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