Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Spoiler Alert

November 19, 2010

Paul McCarthy's "Santa Claus" as seen in Wunderbaum's Looking for Paul

Just when I thought 2010 would end without me seeing a naked man in a pirate mask have the pickle he’s penetrating himself with bitten in two by another actor covered in ketchup and hay, I am reminded of life's little surprises. For a show about the politics of public art and social conflict that starts out with a statue of a gnome holding a butt plug, I guess the former scenario seems like a natural place to go. The most audacious occasion of the year in theater may well be a performance entitled Looking for Paul presented by the Dutch theater collective called Wunderbaum who are completing a three-week residency in Los Angeles with these performances at REDCAT downtown. The troop is known for challenging works that don’t shy away form confrontation or politics and often arise from a chaotic collective process. They've been here before in 2006 with a decidedly tamer show called Lost Chord Radio about the American West. This weekend's performance is quite a step up from that on just about every level.

Looking for Paul starts innocently enough with a woman who looks very much like Wunderbaum troop member Maartje Remmers but whom the audience is told is actually an everyday Dutch bookstore and cat owner, Inez van Dam. Ms. van Dam has a bone to pick with legendary Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy. During a rather tongue in cheek slide show presentation on her beloved hometown of Rotterdam, Ms. van Dam eventually arrives at the source of her conflict and purported desire for revenge: a 20 foot bronze sculpture by McCarthy purchased with public monies by the city and placed directly outside her home and business. The catch is that McCarthy’s creation, entitled “Santa Claus” features a whimsical gnome holding a bell in one hand, and a giant butt plug in the other. It’s hard to miss and Inez van Dam tells us that this avant-garde artwork by a highly regarded international artist is pretty much a constant buzz kill. In the story that follows, Ms. van Dam befriends the members of Wunderbaum and is then brought to Los Angeles with them as part of a three week residency, paid for in part by public funding here in L.A., where she and the troupe have decided to forgo the performance originally planned for their REDCAT appearance, Venlo in favor of a new work, Looking for Paul in which issues about public art, funding, social justice, celebrity, and the world of international art are all taken on simultaneously.

As is probably apparent by now, Looking for Paul thrives on blurring the line between the nugget of truth and a huge amount of arch put-on to flesh out their tale. It's a play about the creation of the play itself. The four actors in Wunderbaum plus local actor/activist John Malpede whom they recruit for the project on their arrival, proceed to read a script we are told is culled from e-mails sent to one another over this three week period describing the development of Looking for Paul. This extended dialog, delivered by the five performers seated in lawn chairs at the foot of the stage, is often riotously funny in its broad swipes at just about everyone including McCarthy, the art world, Los Angeles politicians, the culture of celebrity, and Lady Gaga. The troupe describes its research process by which they interview several Los Angeles theater players to learn more about arts funding in the U.S. and to obtain material for the show itself. This self-referential comedy escalates as Inez aligns with the actors for a commando PR “revenge” campaign against McCarthy while wildly struggling for something, anything to do for their upcoming performance at REDCAT. Arguments ensue, dreams of Hollywood stardom rise and fade, the politics of art are debated, and delicious food is consumed all over town.

In the end, the troupe agrees to reenact a purported performance from one of McCarthy’s own recent video works as the conclusion of Looking for Paul. The five actors reappear in trademark McCarthy masks for a version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all of the scatological, consumerist critique associated with McCarthy’s video work. Chocolate, ketchup and (what I assume is fake) feces are smeared everywhere and over everyone as mostly naked actors copulate with haystacks and each other screaming out for "room service" with just a little bit of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” thrown in for good measure. And this is where we came in. It’s simultaneously homage and parody and one that both upends and recapitulates the very debate over public funding of potentially offensive art laid out at the start of the piece. The piece undeniably looks and smells like McCarthy's work, but it is simultaneously peppered with references to the L.A. story just spun out before the audience. And just as an added layer of irony for the evening, Mr. McCarthy was in attendance at REDCAT on Thursday when I saw the show. What he made of all this, I don't know since he himself is a character in the L.A. narrative part of the evening as member's of Wunderbaum actually contact and meet the artist as part of their preparations.

Wunderbum’s Looking for Paul is a meta-theatrical experience that revels in its ambiguity and gleefully blurs the line between the real and theatrical artifice. It raises intelligent questions in an unexpected way and wisely never takes itself too seriously. But it is undoubtedly a serious performance and for anyone with an interest in contemporary art it should be required viewing. There are two more chances to see Looking for Paul: Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20.


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