PARIS — I admit that I was nearly fed up with Paul McCarthy’s pretentious zombie provocation — and its sudden removal. The “appalling” absurdity of this fairytale was growing rank. I without a doubt thought that I had had my fill. So my visit to the Monnaie de Paris, located on the bank of the Seine, to see his Chocolate Factory, took some doing. But I am relieved I did go.
Of course the central absurd metaphor here childishly conflates chocolate with feces, and this is what ties it to the butt-plug “Tree” of tittle-tattle fame. The show, his first large-scale solo exhibition in France, starts out visually strong at the main staircase with a huge white plastic form, a white relief of Santa holding a substantial butt-plug — and ringing a bell. It is placed next to a looming forest of even more colossal (and brightly colored) inflated butt-plugs, aka “Christmas trees.” The audio roar of the multiple motor systems, that keep them inflated, created a sustained drone hum that established an appealing ominous mood.
Continuing up into the splendor of the Salon d’Honneur, the core reception area, I observed a small squad of confectioners of both sexes, all wearing blond wigs and dressed in Santa-helpers red, working away in a fully functioning chocolate factory.
The aroma of chocolate filled my snout, producing tiny waves of pleasure. I was certainly digging it so far. Against the gleaming, perfectly preserved backdrop of the 18th-century salon, effigies of a butt-plug holding Santa Claus and his fellow icon, the butt-plug Christmas tree, are mass produced in real chocolate.
That is about the extent of the show — as room after room contains more of these wonderful smelling effigies, stockpiled on shelves in row after row. Piled around them are cardboard packing boxes. Mounds of chocolate figures grow by the day to form one massive sculpture, culminating on the final day of the exhibition in the very place where money coins were minted in the hundreds of millions.
The idea that I took away is succinctly put by John Updike in this novel Rabbit is Rich: “Money is shit.” That is the metonymy here, a metaphor that uses a connected object (the chocolate figure) to represent the true subject of the show. This “money is shit” meme has been given some standing by the views of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, when he wrote that “gold is seen in the most unambiguous way to be the symbol of faeces.” And this scatological literary metaphor has also found expression in earlier visual art — with Hieronymous Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (c.1500) — as it depicts a man shitting coins into a basket in the lower part of the right hand panel depicting Hell.
Perhaps unwisely, curator Chiara Parisi has chosen to let the artist display the same whimpering video (in various projected sizes) in each room. The image un-impressively shows the artist’s hand gruffly jotting down the words “asshole,” “stupid fucker artist,”
“stupid American insulting France” (insults he received over the “Tree” incident) on sheets of paper in a shaky hand. Paul’s growling husky voice repeats the phrases ad infinitum. This is rather tiresome to see, but the accumulation of growling verbal audio tracks in the space adds a distinctly irate vibrancy to the rooms, that one after another are packed with shelves and shelves of positioned brown bits of happiness.
The show as a whole suggests a kind of tasty Viennese chocolate Actionism. And as such, it is a fine reflection on Otto Mühl. But also on the happy consumerism at the core of the holiday season — and on the role of the artist’s hand in art today. As such, the exhibition delivers both intellectual and sensual pleasures, while succeeding morally in its general purpose: to satirize greed.
Paul McCarthy: Chocolate Factory continues at Monnaie de Paris (11, quai de Conti, Paris) through January 4, 2015.
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