In Looking for Paul, Rotterdam-based theater company Wunderbaum have staged a meandering interrogation of arts collaboration, funding, function, and meaning. With American artist Paul McCarthy’s sculpture, oft-called the Buttplug Gnome, as the stepping-off point, this three-part performance uses photography, text, and a messy bacchanalia to draw attention to questions of art’s value. When they stage a scene involving mayonnaise jizz you might need some additional context for what exactly is being said and done. Suffice to say Wunderbaum continues to take their performative cues from McCarthy and the work plays with emulation, homage, and fakery to push at the edges of expression. Although the ideas explored are interesting, the execution of them feels a bit empty, though that may be part of the point.
Wunderbaum received a commission to create a piece in Los Angeles which allowed them the platform to explore the cultural differences in arts funding in the U.S. versus the Netherlands. McCarthy’s black sculpture of a Santa holding a buttplug stirred up controversy in the Netherlands because it was a public sculpture purchased with taxpayers’ dollars.
Focusing on “Rotterdam local,” Inez van Dam, Wunderbaum addresses how public art impacts on people. Inez buys an apartment on a quaint town square but after the Buttplug Gnome gets the NIMBY shuffle and various neighborhoods in Rotterdam reject it, it ends up outside Inez’s window permanently.
Inez introduces us to her situation through a hilarious slideshow of photos showing the increasingly miserable Inez and her art nemesis outside her window. She is angered by what she calls her “black anal depression.” Inez wishes for art to be about the “beautiful” things in the world and not this piece of aggressive American expression.
Inez becomes Wunderbaum’s inspiration for the LA show but the format of Looking for Paul is largely given over to the Wunderbaum company reading emails about what kind of show they each think they should make. With the help of an American performer Daniel (Daniel Frankl) they hope to find a way to integrate the idea of Inez coming to Los Angeles to confront McCarthy or seek revenge. But overall the emails reflect the tension between company members, an increasing sense of panic as their commission deadline approaches, and a sense of individual needs taking control over the collective.
The stage “character” of each performer spills out between email sign-offs and show proposals. Marleen (Marleen Scholten) wants a leading part in a real play. She thinks the show should be more “rock n’ roll” and as a serious artist wants nothing to do with the provincial Inez. Matijs (Matijs Jansen) feels that the show should demonstrate their European-ness. Walter (Walter Bart) is full of half-baked ideas including one involving Lady Gaga and the more time he spends in LA the more he seems celebrity obsessed. The emails demonstrate the public and private faces the performers take with each other.
Ultimately Looking for Paul hopes to stir a debate about the value, cost, and meaning of art. But the static email format employed seems like the dullest way to approach this. The entire segment drags and the company can’t quite skate by on constructed personality alone. Matijs assures Inez in one of the emails that their approach “seems a bit chaotic but eventually it comes together.” Certainly that is meant to comfort the audience as well.
Though it’s not mandatory to know Paul McCarthy’s performance work before seeing Looking for Paul it certainly helps frame the finale (with the grossly unorthodox use of food stuff). Utilizing previous McCarthy characters and actions Wunderbaum places them in a layered scene of their own invention. Taken at face value the final segment of the work might feel a bit plastic but knowing it is a reconstruction and amalgamation of McCarthy’s tropes rather than a wholly original piece of performance helps to explain that feeling of derivativeness. Although the artists have been playing with questions of fabrication and reality all along, the finale (without knowing the pieces of McCarthy’s work they were riffing on) left me puzzled.
It seems there are two options for the finale. You can revel in the McCarthy-esque shenanigans and luxuriate in how far the performers will go to reproduce it or struggle to lay meaning on top of the chaos. I worried that if I did not find meaning, I had turned into the closed-minded Inez. The performers hurl themselves into the finale with abandon but the “risks” they seem to have taken still oddly feel small because they are reconstructing someone else’s meaning.
The piece is meant to place us in this debate about art. But while I thought I’d obviously come out in favor of art, instead I found myself questioning the impact of the art on display here.