Paul McCarthy, WS SC at Hauser & Wirth exhibition review.

Before entering Paul McCarthy’s latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth I noticed a sign on the blacked out windows of the gallery warning of the explicit content within. As I have grown up living amongst the capitalism of the modern Western world I shrugged this off, safe in the knowledge that from a young age mass media culture has exposed me to such absurd realities that anything fictional could no longer affect me. When I was to leave the exhibition an hour or so later, the only words of reflection I could write were; ‘shocking to the point of anxiety.’

Although McCarthy’s ongoing appropriation of fairytales is incorporated in the title of this exhibition, WS being a twisted abbreviation of ‘Snow white’, there is little visual inclusion of these comforting symbols of childhood innocence here. Instead McCarthy frames these abject large-scale paintings, with adverts ripped straight from magazines. In ‘WS, Dolce & Gabbana’ a D&G perfume advert stares back at me from it’s lustful airbrushed mask whilst unknowingly being swamped by the down pour of ‘sexy’ feces coming from an obscene lewd act above.

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‘WS, Dolce & Gabbana’ 2014

All of the paintings have a strange feel of stagnant voyeurism about them; once past the blacked out windows viewers are exposed to multiple scenes of awkwardly absurd sex acts limply played out by warped figures against pastel backgrounds. Each depiction of niche fetishes is devoid of passion, the characters aren’t sad or happy, they are indifferent, detached but yet seemingly aware of their own bleakness. In contrast, the collaged images of Internet porn tease us with the guilt and disgust that comes with looking at such literal exploitation.

In ‘SC, Luncheon on the Grass’ a young woman stares straight ahead from an A4 print out centred at the top of the composition, upon her head is a festive Santa hat, yet her mouth is agape with the feces smeared across her cheeks. McCarthy parodies this anonymous girl into an ‘updated’ version of Manet’s ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ where sexuality is no longer subtle and secret but crude and cruel, highlighting the state of human compassion in the structure of capitalism we live in today.

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‘SC, Luncheon on the Grass (Déjeuner sur l’herbe)’ 2014

It’s not just consumer culture and famous paintings that are sexually parodied into McCarthy’s lurid paintings though. Hollywood celebrities native to McCarthy’s hometown of LA are also dotted around the exhibition, appropriated as embodiments of both fiction and reality amid these chaotic portraits, which imitate the blur of the virtual and literal in our technological society today.

Just as the Modernists revolted against the industrial revolution, here McCarthy revolts against the technological revolution. With his collective use of disturbing sexual imagery and the consumer porn of advertisements alongside the context of fairytales, McCarthy begins to build up a chronological narrative of how basic human instincts are affected by the uprising of technology. He points out that at a young age we learn morality from fictional characters in fairytales so that later on we can learn about sexuality from fictional relationships in porn. Ultimately this exhibition explores truths about the technological advance that we find ourselves in, and how obscenity has become our reality and will remain to be so for as long as our basic human instincts are exploited and manipulated by capitalist systems.

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‘SC, Brad Pitt’ 2014

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim palace exhibition review

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp caused controversy by placing a urinal within the white walls of the art world, a centaury later Ai Weiwei removes his creations, a combination of ready-mades and specifically made sculptures, out of these white walls and into the luxurious setting of Blenheim palace to spark a debate that undeniably puts art back into the service of the mind.

The curator, Michael Frahm, has described the exhibitions aims as ‘trying to give an insight into how contemporary art can look in a 300-year old building.’ But with Ai’s pieces being so politically charged, it is not so easy to read the contrast between setting and work as simply aesthetic, and the tribute to Duchamp hanging above Winston Churchill’s birth bed makes it near impossible.

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Chandelier 2002

Ai is most famous for his provocative destruction of historical Chinese artifacts so to see the largest UK exhibition of his work in a world heritage site that functions solely on the preservation of historical artifacts is dizzying to say the least. On entering the ‘green drawing room’, visitors of Blenheim are greeted by several Han Dynasty Vases that date back to 202 BC. Unlike the perfectly preserved artifacts native to Blenheim, these vases have been defaced, smoothed into a slick metallic gleam by auto paints. Within the white walls of a gallery space this act of destruction instantly transforms the vases from historical Chinese artifacts to an anonymous tribute to industrialization, highlighting the negative experiences that Ai has faced with the Chinese government, but the uncomfortable contrast that occurs when placing them in a historical time capsule achieves much more than this.

Not all of Ai’s pieces are so easily distinguishable from Blenheim’s extensive collection though, the grand Chandelier which opens the show spectacularly seems right at home within the confines of the 300 year old architecture, as do the beautiful floral plates in the China Ante room which are said to be inspired by the flowers that Ai puts in the basket of his bike everyday to mourn the freedom he had before his long standing house arrest in 2011.

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Han Dynasty Urns (202 BC) in auto paint 2014

In the finale of the exhibition, held in the Long library, Ai’s series ‘Study of perspective’ is impossible to miss. Whether the viewers focus is on the borderline explicit content, or the fact that landscape prints have been presented at a head turning 90 degree angle (an inevitable miscalculation caused by curating an entire exhibition from another country), these images are unavoidably confronting. This is where the exhibition really comes to a climax, the pictures hassle the viewers, whether they have come to see Ai’s work or not, with a semiotic view of authority, so much so that they obstruct access to the books that the library holds.

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Study of perspective 1995-2003

On leaving this exhibition my strongest impression was one of discomfort. Ai’s use of destruction throughout his work is heightened at Blenheim in a way that a white walled gallery could not achieve. Frahm’s curiosity as to what contemporary art would look like in a 300 year old building has not been successful because of its aesthetics, but because of the revolutionary discovery of what happens when you take art out of normality and into an interior that harshly contradicts the work, just as Duchamp did back in 1917. The conflict between preservation and destruction is on going here, it is mentally jarring to experience Ai’s work, which destructs and belittles the culture of his country in the context of Blenheim, which preserves and glorifies material objects that once belonged to the inherent elite.