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Max Porter on Paul McCarthy’s ‘Piccadilly Circus’

‘The sheer farce of it. Wonderful. That was what made so much sense and felt so good’

Paul McCarthy (in collaboration with Damon McCarthy), Piccadilly Circus, tea party pink queen feeding green queen, 2003, colour coupler print, 1.8 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artists and Hauser & Wirth

Paul McCarthy (in collaboration with Damon McCarthy), Piccadilly Circus, tea party pink queen feeding green queen, 2003, colour coupler print, 1.8 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artists and Hauser & Wirth

It was a bank and then an art gallery. Those were the days when the word ‘terror’ was traded, monetized, emptied of all meaning. The flagrantly dishonest new world order, an echo and a burp. I was a student, I wanted revelations. It was just months before I walked away from the art world in righteous disgust over the issue of an unpaid internship. Clown feet, broken biscuits, HP sauce, capitalism’s shiny play surface wobbling in its orgasmic death throes. All very silly and sticky. A cheeky anus winking through a hole in the not-real wall. George W. Bush writing ‘Guggenheim’ on Osama bin Laden’s turban. Not funny, funny, not funny. The logic of art criticism, of political discourse, the severed prosthetic leg of neo-liberalism poking through the post-9/11 wall: it was all incestuously grinding itself into a frenzy; even remembering it brings me out in a terrible Slavoj Žižek-reading, spliff-smoking, paranoid, 22-year-old prose rash. I wrote like this in a Moleskine. I was nostalgic. This was when Tony Blair was baptized in the river and came up crusader and we boycotted and marched and traded definitions of hypocrisy as we applied for jobs and what was I thinking as I looked at Paul McCarthy’s bloodbath, at the Queen Mother frolicking in a gunk-splattered frock ramming tiny cups of tea into her just-dead mouth?

I was thinking that he was getting something terribly, magnificently spot on. I was thinking that, somehow, this phantasmagorical new crap-Disney for broken America was simultaneously dated (always speaking to his friend Mike Kelley, squirting po-faced minimalism with shit, speaking of Baskin Robbins and Mormons and Suicidal Tendencies) and also profoundly anticipatory. (Fast-forward to that repulsive comb-over above the fleshy border where Donald’s spray-tan meets the lip of his reptilian neck-folds, to the dictator climbing up out of the hole, to the terrorist being one of us, to The Great British Bake Off, to plasticageddon, to any of the paradigm-shifting hashtags, to American police killing American children, to photo ops with bloated corpses, to bots, to apps which measure empathy, to the grizzly spectacle of a civilization locked in its oedipal stage, locked in fascinated combat with its own waste products.) The sheer money back then. The sheer po-faced bollocks of wall texts back then. The denial. Is that what I thought, standing in Hauser & Wirth with my notebook watching the Bunker Basement tapes, big pink-head unidentifiable slippery sex scenes replaying in the gaps? No, I was trying to be serious. I was pretending. I just wanted to write a decent thesis. I was wondering how anybody managed to function. I was aware the work was doing something. It was so bright, outside on Piccadilly, Hatchards and Fortnum’s and a Giorgio bloody Armani retrospective at the Royal Academy, but it was so dark in the basement and the sheer possibility of it, practically, financially, logistically, that was what I was thinking. How COOL, was what I was thinking, to be allowed to trash a Lutyens bank, to fuck a hole in the Queen Mother’s rubber cheek (did he?) to spray Bush blood on the old tellers’ desks a month before the actual no-such-thing-as-real Bush came to meet our not-entirely-real Queen. The sheer farce of it. Wonderful. That was what made so much sense and felt so good. Ma, what are they feeding us? This bad art that changes our lives and keeps us calm, keeps us paying, uneasy, keeps us logged on, unknowing, locked in the vaults, waiting to see who eats who, again and again and again, until the owner kicks us out for being disgusting. 

Max Porter is the author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015) and Lanny (2019). He lives in Bath, UK.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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