ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Paul McCarthy - 2007 - In de maag van een eekhoorn [NL, essay],
In the Stomach of a Squirrel
Paul McCarthy at the S.M.A.K.
It was at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, where Paul McCarthy gave an impressive talk one evening, that I started grasping his work. Crawling across the stage that was covered in large sheets of paper, he shared with us the works of art which had moved him as a young student. Every turn in the story was drawn on the floor with a thick black marker. That is how the talk soon disintegrated into compelling images. We saw how a Kaprow wall, in which jam sandwiches were used as mortar, led to a McCarthy wall, in which a wall of black car tyres stacked on top of each other was stuck together with a thick layer of bulging wet cotton wool. McCarthy told how he had made a square opening in the wall in his tiny, windowless student room and how he had then started using a square, metal ventilation duct as a spatial theme.
McCarthy removed several fake walls in the museum and made very large openings in some real ones. At the moment, you can look right through the museum from the entrance. The unpleasant, basement-like feeling of the ground floor has gone, because you can better understand the structure of the building (by looking from one side to the other) and see daylight everywhere. Compared to how it was before, the museum is now bathing in light, and is no longer strictly divided into separate, inaccessible enclosures. It looks more like a forest. Hopefully this structure will be kept, so that we can create and experience more organically connected, flowing exhibitions in the future.
Today you will not notice any of this new light in this exhibition, because the museum is completely plunged in darkness, except for one room. I usually hate that. I find it sad that in the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels you always have the impression of entering an old, stale cellar and have to look at a Hans Arp sculpture in the poor light of one spotlight, as if it were a two-dimensional image. For some artists, however, a blackout is essential. I understood this for the first time by building a darkened cabinet with Guillaume Bijl for the first Small Stuff exhibition in 1999 and suddenly seeing the connection with Proust's description of the dream as “an illuminated intestine”. Darkening and artificially illuminating an exhibition space makes sense if you want to create a “mental space”. Yesterday, when I was attempting to assist McCarthy in displaying some of his works, he used the term “a world of thoughts”.
“Your work reminds me of Proust's description of the dream as 'the illuminated intestine’,” I say.
“That’s a beautiful image,” he answers. “I once made a work that takes place in the stomach of a squirrel… In this situation, you have three stomachs: my pavilions, the interior design of the museum and its actual structure. Actually, I should achieve a fusion of the architecture of the museum with the architecture of my work. In the central hall on the first floor, for example, there should be a staircase standing on my pavilion and perforating the remaining part of the ceiling, but it’s too late now. The only way I can deal with this is to see this as a studio experiment and not as a final, museum-related solution, which would take up much more time.”
How invigorating it is to watch this dedicated man as he tries to create a wonderful exhibition! Very modest, moving quietly, he rearranges the shrubs of The Garden. He continuously seeks to strike the right balance between showing the remains of experiences, creating strong museum set-ups with autonomous sculptures and creating a dream world in which you encounter forgotten thoughts and feelings. One of the strengths of this oeuvre and exhibition is the constant shift in style. An image that is derived from Jeff Koons' oeuvre is revisited in various ways, which reveals subtle changes. How can I explain this? When Broodthaers showed numerous images based on eagles in Düsseldorf, he said that he wanted to make the ideology visible. As the real eagle remained invisible, the way its depiction was used became visible. McCarthy's work is about a similar shift of styles, which is, in turn, a mirror for the shifting overlaps of his work, his life and his fantasies. The starting point is confusion, contagion, that takes shape in a gentle, but compelling way.
The room above the entrance to the museum is the only room that is not darkened. Here, an initial setup of The Garden was completed during the first working week. Immediately afterwards, it was completely dismantled and rebuilt, albeit now separated by a kind of walkway. “In 1990, this sculpture was still effective, but not nowadays,” McCarthy tells me. “I had only set it up four times, so I didn't really know what effect it would have here. The second set-up is indeed much stronger. Not only because it enables a different physical experience of the installation, but also because it behaves completely differently in space.”
It is a great experience to see an artist find such beautiful solutions. However, there are still many rooms in the museum, all of which have yet to be given a definitive shape. What a great opportunity for us to experience the result of this tour de force! Very rarely do we see people of this level working with such a high level of commitment. It's almost like a large Hollywood production: all cogs can click together to create a masterpiece or fall apart like a pretentious heap of loose sand. But it's going to be a magic castle, I think, with many corridors and doors and windows, and beautiful magic.
Montagne de Miel, 2 October 2007