September 13th, 2011
Paul McCarthy (b. 1945) & Mike Kelley (b. 1954)
stills from Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, 1992, video and installation (second image from top courtesy of Hauser & Wirth gallery)
I know, I know, it’s been awhile — I should prolly rechristen to “Art of the Month” at this rate. Or “Art of the Indeterminate Multi-Weekly Interval”. And with that mega-syllabic title, I launch into another, that of today’s Art of the Day: “Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone” (1992) by Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley.
I saw five or ten minutes of “Heidi” in an NYC gallery years ago, I don’t remember which, might’ve been MOMA. I remember strolling about and suddenly finding my peripheral vision arrested by some kind of onscreen frenzy that disturbed me before I understood why, before I’d focused my full attention on it. I approached it and stood watching, embarrassed, compelled, fascinated, repulsed. If I remember correctly there was a man and a woman, both were manipulating some kind of mannequin torso, struggling to push what appeared to be sausages down its cavity & which exited the doll’s anus in some kind of basin of liquid. The adult figures went about their activity with haste & focus and urgency, splashing and slipping and wrangling with the doll in this weird pointless (and simultaneously deadly important) ritual of forcefeeding that sort of resembled midwifery or operating room surgery in its energy and concentrated involvement with the body. It was a weird tangle of fluid and skin and wet that suggested birth, death, defecation, abuse, parental care, discipline, emergency room, horror movie, the list goes on. It was just so stacked with meanings, so many of them charged and taboo.
But it wasn’t just that richness of disturbing referent that compelled me to watch. It was the camera framing, the man’s monotone voiceover (disconnected from the immediate action), the direction, the focus of the piece that all helped it transcend mere grody viscera thrown in your face. A vision and a narrative structured all the onscreen juice & frenzy, even if I didn’t get to stand there long enough to see it all play out (eventually embarrassment got the better of me and I walked away). The memory of watching that video snippet remained with me for years whenever I’d see some video artist attempt to mine similar body-shock territory (rarely with anything close to the focused & thoughtful transgression I saw in that brief bit of “Heidi”).
Fast forward about ten years to just the other day, when I was reminded of “Heidi” again, and decided finally to do some net-hunting for the artist(s) and title (I’d forgotten both years ago). After several wild weird online goose chases involving lots of amusing & pornographic Google results, I finally realized McCarthy & Kelly were the artists and “Heidi” the piece. I was thrilled. If anyone out there’s ever had an art object — be it book, poem, film or sculpture or whatever — whose title and creator you’ve forgotten gnaw away at your mind you’ll know the thrill I mean. You get this little pop of relief and excitement — because up until that moment the entire experience had begun to seem to me like some kind of incorrect dream from a decade ago, some amalgam of other artists, other videos, some bizarre sticky psychological stew I’d whipped up that had no reality-referent.
At any rate, I didn’t find the full video, but I did manage to scrounge up some stills that (unfortunately) only hint at the sheer primal birth/sex/death/family/shit/pain/horror power this piece communicated. And I learned more about the artwork itself — it stems from co-creator McCarthy’s interest in Joanna Spyri’s 19th century novel “Heidi” (the chronicle of a young girl’s travels and experiences & Switzerland’s most well-known literary achievement) and, in his words, “consisted of a fabricated set, a group of partial and full life-size rubber figures, two large backdrop paintings, and a video tape shot entirely on the set.” (from eai.org). Enjoy & see the full-length version if you can/want. Oh & in the more-info links section below is a link to a small clip of the video I found on Vimeo — be warned, it’s pretty graphic.
A short clip from “Heidi” (warning: graphic) at vimeo.com.
More about McCarthy & Kelley’s “Heidi” at arttorrents.blogspot.
More Kelley at pbs.org.
More McCarthy at Hauser & Wirth.