New York City is creeping towards a psycho kind of summer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art just unveiled its annual roof garden installation with Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (PsychoBarn), a foreboding Second Empire structure built from salvaged barn wood as a tribute to the famed Bates home in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And over on Broadway, the American Psycho musical recently opened with its synth-heavy take on Bret Easton Ellis’s slaughtering Patrick Bateman.
Both are nostalgic experiences, Parker’s for the 1960 film, and the reality that the ominous house was just some propped-up façades on a set. You can walk around PsychoBarn, built at two-thirds scale, at the same angle as the one in the film, and its structures break apart before your eyes, the effect reminiscent of Parker’s exploding installations based on charred remains of buildings. The PsychoBarn’s lattice of supports is visible from a passage by the garden’s hedge border. It’s a startling reversal similar to the flipping around of Mrs. Bates in her chair at the end of the film, revealing a skeletal visage (I refuse to honor spoilers for an over 50-year-old film).
The British artist was also inspired by Edward Hopper’s haunting paintings of old American homes, such as his 1925 “House by the Railroad,” often cited as an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho home. (If you want an uncanny doubleheader, head over to MoMA and see the Hopper.) The installation is a visually beautiful fusion of these two sides of Americana, with an old barn broken down and reborn into something out of fiction. It is not a common barn.
Meanwhile, American Psycho is all 1980s Manhattan excess, from its Phil Collins covers to Bateman’s barbarous jealousy over a fellow businessman’s Romalian-lettered eggshell white cards. And both revel in duality; the house is a shell, Bateman is totally insane, despite the Alan Flusser suit.
I happened to see both on a recent weekend, which made me wonder, what keeps bringing us back to these icons of violence? Especially as they’re no longer as startling as they once were, when Psycho inspired audible screaming in the theater and one person demanding the police censor the movie in New York; and Ellis getting death threats after American Psycho’s 1991 publication. But reducing what made these characters initially unsettling to their shapes strips them of what was originally terrifying. It wasn’t Norman Bates’s home, it was the reminder that horrible, random violence can occur anywhere, to the heroine within the first half of the film, in a seemingly innocuous motel (the film was made following the discovery of Ed Gein’s murders and dismemberments). And Ellis used the vivid killings in American Psycho to respond to what he saw as an increasingly dehumanizing consumerism.
PsychoBarn is on view until October 31 — Halloween — but any horrors that audiences once projected on this home have faded along with the red paint that serves as its siding. Maybe this is a little to do with its diminutive scale, which hardly looms like the house on the hill in the film. Likewise, while the staging, lighting, costumes, and 80s covers of American Psycho were brilliant, and its Donald Trump references nauseatingly timely, it couldn’t conjure up any of the original shock.
As I watched the sun set behind PsychoBarn’s silhouette, the light gleaming through the wooden details on the porch, it became more ominous against the illuminated skyline. Totally dark, it felt like a real ghost, like some holdout house that managed to survive the rapid development of the city around it. No visitors are allowed on its tantalizingly tactile porch, a stretch of chain warning against trespassing, but I wish you could make that physical contact with this “transitional object” as Parker calls it. The scary thing about Bates, about Bateman, was the thin space between us and them, and PsychoBarn only approaches that level of discomfort when the vacant husk of the house becomes a silhouette against the skyline.
Cornelia Parker: Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) continues through October 31 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).