Thursday, April 28, 2016

Looking for Paul: Inez Van Dam vs. The Buttplug Gnome*

NOTE: The Gnome kind of looks like Santa Claus and the buttplug kind of looks like a Christmas tree, so why not have an annual competition for local artists to design a condom that really looks like a Christmas tree and then everyone will be happy for a short period during the festive season - (well - maybe, maybe not, almost everyone - except for people who loathe, and/or don't celebrate Christmas). 

               Gnome? Santa Claus? Buttplug? Christmas Tree?

trigger warning: Do not, I repeat, do not go to The Old Spaghetti Factory before the show. If you do go, have salad with a light vinaigrette. Or just drink lots of Vodka...
                               sculpture by Paul McCarthy

fuck the pain away

with cheese whiz and a baggy 
I craft a little pouch 
then wrap it round my weenie
and fuck my brand new couch
    The Dildettes

All art is quite useless.
    Oscar Wilde

 images of work by Paul McCarthy
Speaking of buttplugs, coincidentally enough, i am a member of a little known comedy troupe called The Dildettes (find our page on Facebook!) Our brief gaggle of performances ranged from a late night showing at the Canadian Spoken Word Festival in Victoria (2014) to a sports bar patio tour of St. Catherine’s and surrounding environs in the summer of 2013. We each made $17 for the entire debacle. it was thrilling, if not a little anti-climactic. We devote each performance to poetry about dildos featuring rounds of anal inflected haiku to solo features where one of our three titillating troubadours delights the audience with a full length ode to the iconic phallic sex toy, and its cousins the buttplug, anal beads, vibrators, what have you. I only insert this self-serving bit of shameless penetrating promo in order to provide a wider context for anal entertainment, and as a segue into the current Harbourfront World Stage performances of Looking for Paul: Inez van Dam Vs. the Buttplug Gnome - running at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre April 26-30.

In all its symbolic, metaphoric, and epic proportions, the show is indeed an an anal-oriented tour de force of heteronormative dimensions. Segments in the second half could have balanced the gender defacement by placing the men in somewhat more abject positions, and yet it is relatively well-balanced as all the actors take part in a spectacle of, well, you have to see it to believe it, and I won’t spoil your appetite by giving any of this smorgasbord of truly grotesque (‘grotesque’ in the sense of the grotesque as a sublime art form) delight and disgust.

Unfortunately, one is never quite sure whether the primary aim of the project is ever met, being a scathing interrogation of the position of the artist in relation to public funding, public art, and what are an individual citizen’s rights when it comes to how art is chosen to be positioned right outside our dwelling place. Inez van Dam, as the instigator of the primary narrative, doesn’t appear to like giant sculptural buttplugs. Her distaste for this, in the form of Paul McCarthy’s buttlplug gnome, located in a square in Rotterdam, begins the action of the play (see batemanreviews preview for details on the premise of the show). 

The first half is beautifully performed and constructed by an ensemble of creators and actors. Walter Bart, Yannick Noomen, Matijs Jansen, Maartje Remmers, Marleen Scholten, Inez van Dam, and Daniel Frankl display degrees of performed cockiness, intellect, insecurity, and emotive excellence that keeps the pace moving merrily and rapidly along through a plethora of diverse email exchanges ranging form the businesslike to the erotically playful and the anxiously infuriating. In a kind of hybrid fact/fiction drama the overall program suggests the impossibility of fulfilling the aim of the residency in LA. The ensemble performs this tightly conceived staged reading with finesse and well crafted writing. An hour or so in, well, one may begin to long for a bit of variety onstage. And that is precisely what one gets, with a vengeance.

Initially funded by a $20,000 grant from an LA arts council and presented in cooperation with Harbourfront’s World Stage, Wunderbaum (Netherlands), Richard Jordan Productions (UK), Theatre Royal Plymouth, REDCAT, and Summerhall (Edinburgh), The Buttplug Gnome raises many questions for spectators to take with them long after the show, but the answers are as ephemeral and unformed as the second half of the show. And yet, this lack of structure and coherent narrative resolution, where threads are left hanging at the drop of a buttplug, is deceiving as the skill of the performers, and the technical prowess of onstage technicians, takes us deep inside, a variety absurdist, at times harrowing moments of theatrical boundary busting. A lack of any clear solution is at the very heart of the project. 

Again spoilers are not to my taste. Suffice it to say, be prepared for an evening of entertainment that is at times witty, clever, sobering, infuriating, and not what one might call, in the culinary sense of the word, appetizing U.less, well, you’ll get the drift when you see the show. But it is never dull, and it is, oF course, always penetrating…Oops, I said penetrating again…


As background material, the butt of this buttplug comic-drama is LA artist Paul McCarthy whose lascivious and iconic performances, sculptures etc etc etc of etc have been shaming the American Dream for several decades - turning it into the nightmare that it’s often inevitable flip side always withholds. When McCarthy’s work landed in a square in Rotterdam and pissed off a humble bookstore owner whose flat and working place shared a view of the buttplug gnome, well, all hell broke loose. She was chatted up by an actor from a local theatre troupe (Wunderbaum) and before she knew it they were all in LA on a lucrative artist residency attempting to seek revenge - among other more aesthetically inclined things - on the artist (McCarthy) who created the buttlpug gnome that landed in her back yard in the first place. 

Van dam might be considered a bit of a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) kind of character, and yet her sincerity and wide-eyed, parodic tone, found in here intonation and performance presence, belie a simple reading of her perspective, and the overall outlook of the theatre company that has taken up her story and turned it into a complex, unsettling, and provocative piece of performance.

In a nutshell, it all becomes a necessarily convoluted personal debate-cum-anti-deabte/spectacle regarding public art, public tax dollars, and all that jazz. It seems that some European countries, having enjoyed ample arts funding for quite some time now, are in danger of lapsing into late capitalist North American conservative models whereby the grants get smaller and the going gets tougher. Welcome to the New World! Well, the current World Stage performance may not change any of that, but in the meantime it is a glorious mess of theatrical expertise and stomach turning flight of fancy as one hour and forty five minutes of air time takes audiences though a complex and intensely citational show that unapologetically rips off - and pays homage to - one of the great American parodic 'ripoff' artists of the late 20th and early 21st century - in the spirit of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, among others.

And yet, if you don't believe in originality and the sickly sweet stench of assumed sincerity/aesthetic authenticity in art, then none of it is a ripoff as we see artists uniting globally to ask hard penetrating / un-penetrable questions - and giving no answers in the face of a corporate/politically run planet that continues to destroy art and replace it with consumerist thrill and conniving capitalist conviviality. It is with a great sense of poetic [IN] justice that the production has also been presented in conjunction with LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (REDCAT - Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre). 

There are many intriguing online discussions of Paul McCarthy’s work that beg the question around originality and the true sense of radical art practice (see The Art of Soulless Ripoff by Kim Nicolini for one such discussion, running the gamut from profound insight to sentimental historical reductionism - ). 

The Buttplug Gnome is just the tip - of the aesthetic iceberg. Don’t miss  it, before it melts in a rank penetrating aura of scathing, pasta-invested, rapidly diminishing global funding proportions. 

I, kind of, loved it!!!

oh, and don't forget the CN Tower, it kind of looks like a buttplug too...


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