American artist Paul McCarthy is at it again. An 80-foot inflatable sculpture entitled Tree is creating controversy in Paris, leaving passersby uncomfortable and citizens humiliated because of the creation’s unfortunate, or perhaps deliberate, resemblance to a sex toy. The piece was created specifically for the Fiac festival, a contemporary art fair in Place Vendome.
The green “tree” was installed yesterday, and is not being taken well by critics, including a man who attacked McCarthy when the artist went to visit the sculpture in its exhibit place. The man slapped McCarthy three times, shouted that he was not French and had no business having his work on the square, then ran away. McCarthy was shocked by the incident, asking “Does this kind of thing happen often in France?”
“Vendome” has been trending on French Twitter today. French Spring, a far-right group opposed to gay marriage, has posted pictures and outraged comments such as “Place Vendome defaced!” and “Paris humiliated!” One tweet said “Taxpayers – this is where you money goes!”
Tree is just another controversial piece in 69-year-old McCarthy’s repertoire, many of which are Christmas-themed works. In 2001 he created a Santa Claus sculpture intended for placement outside a Rotterdam concert hall. It was never erected because of the suggestive Christmas tree held by Santa that earned the sculpture the name “butt plug gnome.” Another inflatable work created by McCarthy, called Complex Pile, depicted a huge pile of excrement. This one was displayed in Hong Kong.
The Tree work is a “thought sculpture” designed specifically for its location near the Chocolate Factory exhibition, McCarthy’s first major solo exhibition in Paris, according to the French art site Artistik Rezo. The gallery includes a forest of similarly suggestive Christmas trees, ending in a room full of chocolate figurines. Some of the figures are of Santa holding the same suggestive Christmas symbol.
McCarthy’s work often takes cherished American icons and myths, such as Santa Claus, Walt Disney or Western movies, and adds a touch of sarcastic malice to what has been traditionally viewed as pure and innocent. Whether absent or present, humanity is always an element of his art, even if the work is just “residue” from humanity. He has been shown in major art exhibitions in the U.S. and world-wide.
Described as “abject,” McCarthy’s work often fits the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word: “despicable, wretched, self-abasing,” promoting horror and revulsion. It is like a terrible accident that one cannot look away from. He sold none of his art until 1990, but then quickly became a big name as a West Coast contemporary artist. His exhibitions are described as making one feel sicker and sicker as the exhibition goes on.
In comparison to some of McCarthy’s exhibits, Tree seems somewhat mild. However, the Flashart website states that, even disregarding their looming proportions, the giant outdoor sculptures of the Fiac exhibit “appear bizarrely out-of-place in the polished surrounds of the historical buildings.” Particularly when yet another innocent Christmas icon is displayed in a not-so-innocent fashion. The Fiac Art runs from Oct. 23-26 in Paris, and March 27-29, 2015 in Los Angeles.
By Beth A. Balen