The Museum as Marketing Temple
Mike Bouchet & Paul McCarthy at the Portikus, Frankfurt
behavior, cultural imperialism, and everything a globalized market
promises—these are the issues that connect the works of Mike Bouchet
and Paul McCarthy. Bouchet, who lives in Frankfurt, has an entire floor
in the Deutsche Bank Towers dedicated to his work. Ever since he
studied with the bad boy of the West Coast art scene, he and McCarthy
have worked closely together. Now, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, the two
artists have created a collaborative project at the
Portikus—transforming the exhibition hall into a bizarre cross between
department store, kitchen laboratory, and propaganda machine. Sandra
Danicke met the artists as they were installing the show.
thick slime oozes out of the windows. Long, inflatable tubes in red,
white, and blue bob up and down in the wind. The main entrance to the Portikus
in Frankfurt is barricaded, forcing visitors to descend a spiral
staircase to reach the exhibition hall through the basement-level
office spaces. Mike Bouchet and Paul McCarthy
have taken on the Portikus—and seized every opportunity they could find
to confuse visitors. Instead of just hanging something, placing it
somewhere or plugging it in, they’ve occupied the entire building and
crammed it full of material to the point that it feels like it’s about
to burst. The title of the show already makes the lack of moderation
abundantly clear: Powered A-Hole Spanish Donkey Sport Dick Drink Donkey Dong Dongs Sunscreen Model.
week before the opening, the mere sight of the insanity inside the
Portikus is overwhelming. Astonished, one stands in the hall that
usually serves as the central exhibition space; one squeezes around a
gigantic architectural model that is easily identified as a reference
to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
One is blown over by a flurry of impressions. The overall shape of the
model resembles a damaged ship, sitting there on a row of stacked
sawhorses bearing donkey head emblems, which in turn appear on huge
portrait photos of Michael Douglas.
Propped up against the wall are canvases with colorful suntan lotion
ads of the Bilboa brand. And then there’s this sickeningly sweet smell
lingering in the room, as though someone had sprayed several cans of
air freshener. Is this supposed to stay that way? Mike Bouchet and Paul
McCarthy return from lunch in the best of moods. “We still don’t know
what’s it’s going to look like next week,” McCarthy admits, amused.
“Maybe we should keep some of that stuff. The coffee cup? The folding
Since the 1970s, Paul McCarthy (born 1945), who
lives in Los Angeles, has been widely considered the enfant terrible of
performance and video art. His abyssal films and installations address
sexuality, aggression, and the perfidious mechanisms of a culture
rooted in entertainment. Again and again, grotesquely costumed
protagonists—usually accompanied by a liberal application of smeared
foodstuffs—go wild, and it’s often McCarthy himself who has smeared
himself with ketchup in the name of art, or inserted a Barbie doll.
while they explore similar themes—consumerist behavior, cultural
imperialism, and everything the globalized market promises—the
sculptures of his former student Mike Bouchet, who was born in
California in 1970 and lives with his family in Frankfurt am Main, come
across as somewhat less excessive. “One day Mike and I realized that we
both autonomously made a sculpture that converted the New York Guggenheim Museum
into a toilet.” And that was when they decided to collaborate.
McCarthy, a polite bearded gentleman wearing a woolen hat sporting an
orange-colored dollar sign, explains: “Just because the building looks
like a toilet.” In the end, they realized that the Guggenheim in
Bilbao—to the artists’ minds a kind of “imperial cultural
franchise”—also has a grotesque form reminiscent of a battleship.
McCarthy and Bouchet began working together on a sculpture that
addressed the subject. “The shape of a building has an enormous impact
on the way in which you look at the things inside,” Bouchet explains.
“But nobody seems to reflect on that.”
When the artists were
invited to put up a show together, it seemed logical to investigate the
building’s odd form in this case, too. In the Internet, entirely by
chance, they found a formal analogy to the “Spanish Donkey,” a wooden
sawhorse tapering upwards like a sharp wedge that served as a torture
device in the Middle Ages: the bound victim was forced to straddle the
horse without his or her feet touching the ground, causing the entire
weight of the body to rest on the genitals. “In exhibition spaces
humiliation and power is a major topic,” Bouchet observes. The fact
that a donkey adorns the sawhorses sold in the US is just as much due
to chance as the matter with the suntan lotion. “I mistyped the word
Bilbao in Google and wrote Bilboa instead,” McCarthy explains with a
We climb to the upper floor, where the intensity
of the gummi bear smell becomes almost unbearable. “We’re cooking syrup
from energy drinks,” explains Bouchet, visibly enjoying the astonished
look on the face of his conversation partner. “We add gelatin, and when
it’s thickened, we dump it out of the window,” the artist says as he
picks a glob of light-brown goo off a windowsill where they’ve tested
the flowing consistency. “Try it. It tastes good.” The largest portion
of the mass, however, winds up elsewhere. To put it more precisely: in
a toilet bowl, from which a pipe leads right through the floor and onto
the architectural model on the ground floor. Evidently, in the end the
Bilbao model will look a bit as though feces had been dumped over it.
In odd contrast to this, the Portikus employees will be dressed in red Valentino garb.
the gummi bear kitchen, the A-Hole Sport Drink is produced—a
blue-hued beverage with a beef and banana aroma that’s served in glass
jars of the kind hot dogs are sold in. A product could hardly be more
artificial, or more American. Using an aggressive product placement
strategy, the sport drink appears as a fictive exhibition sponsor. It
also serves as the basis for the The Bigga Picka Uppa: “You put a
Snickers bar inside, chew and swallow it, and afterwards you’re ready
to kick ass,” explains Bouchet in marketing expert slang. “It’s
isotonic, it contains caffeine and proteins—it’s able to push you to
another level.” To prove that he’s dead serious, the artist shows me a
photo series on his cell phone that has him eating it—a rather dubious
pleasure. “It totally transforms your consciousness. That’s what art is
about,” cried Bouchet in a tone of voice that’s so tastefully
exaggerated you can almost take him for a salesman.
we’re sitting at a freshly mounted table in the attic, in a film set.
While Bouchet plays salesman, McCarthy stares at a small pile of
sawdust left behind on the tabletop: “The woodchips are not
uninteresting. Maybe we should keep them.” A black curtain closes off a
storage room, while next to us mattresses are screwed into the walls.
“We’re going to have a dinner party,” says McCarthy. His son Damon
is planning on filming the action. “We still don’t know what’s going to
happen. I think we’ll serve spaghetti with a sauce. That’s all we know
When it’s time to say goodbye, he suddenly grows
serious. It’s very important to McCarthy that the work isn’t merely
taken for slapstick. “It’s an entity with lots of layers. An assemblage
with coincidences. It’s so much about what it means to us being
artists, dealing with the institutions.” As for the realization he
hopes for in viewers: “At least that it allows them to see the building
in another way.”