Jason Rhoades, Detail, The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005. Hauser and Wirth, London.
If the German absurdist artist John Bock projects the manic self-expression of Expressionism into postmodern hyperreality then Jason Rhoades does something similar with the American Dream. But whereas Bock takes something putatively ‘authentic’ and transforms it into simulacral theatrics, Rhoades hyperrealises the already hyperreal. Rhoades’ immersive installations are a theatre of dementia and dissolution; and like Bock, Rhoades’ mises en scène take over an entire gallery space thereby becoming thoroughly immersive. The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop is such an installation constructed in London at Hauser and Wirth in 2005. At the sensory, immersive level The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop treats us to an experience not unlike the regression to childhood evident in Bock’s Klutterkammer. In Black Pussy we find an adult psyche metaphorically hurled through the Lacanian mirror into the polymorphous perversity of the American Dream.
A very large room is piled high with mountains of kitsch stacked on chrome-plated modular shop shelving. Adrian Searle provides us with part of the itinerary: 427 slang terms for the vagina in neon (e.g. Virginia, Pouter, Fun Hatch, Baby Hole), 180 beaver-felt cowboy hats, ‘sculpted into forms that vaguely resemble penis-heads and vulva shapes’, 556 Native American Dream Catchers, 799 ceramic donkeys, 232 small brass Egyptian pyramids, 146 pipe cleaners, ‘a few right-handed Koons bunnies’ (Searle 2005), and the list of bric-à-brac goes on. There are car tyres chrome-plated hub caps, miles of electrical cables feeding the neon signs and there is a disco soundtrack playing constantly. It is a confusing but generally ‘fun’ environment.
The viewer walks amongst the towers of this stuff and the effect, as in Bock’s Klutterkammer, is like being a child again. Somehow all these baubles become delightful and elating and it is precisely at this point that one becomes suspicious of this work. It apparently has no meaning.
Reading Searle we find that The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop was inspired by Islam. The ‘pagan idol workshop’ stems from the idols that were once housed in the Ka’bah in Mecca, before Muhammad banished them. Searle also reports that Rhoades was influenced by Moustapha Akkad’s film The Message, 1976, starring Anthony Quinn, about the life of Muhammad and Reza Aslan’s book No God But God, which Searle notes is ‘a fascinating history and analysis of Islam … Aslan’s engaging and informative work does much to counter the wilful ignorance and bigotry perpetrated about Islam, especially by rightwing commentators and bellicose evangelists in the US’ (Searle 2005). We begin to think that perhaps there is some meaning to Black Pussy after all. Searle also informs us that Black Pussy is the third in a triptych of exhibitions the other two including:
Meccatuna for a gallery in New York; and My Medinah, In Pursuit of My Ermitage … in St Gallen, Switzerland. All three allude, in more or less obtuse ways, to Muslim culture. For Meccatuna, Rhoades wanted to take a live bluefin tuna to the holy city of Mecca, and have it circumnavigate the Ka’bah. This proving impossible—as well as dreadfully unwise, not least for the sake of the fish—someone was dispatched from Saudi Arabia to Mecca, where he bought a case of tinned tuna, which was dispatched to New York, the cans being displayed in an installation whose centrepiece was a one-third-scale model of the Ka’bah built from 1,000,000 pieces of Lego. (Searle 2005)
In the context of the ‘war on terror’ it is just as well that fine art is socially esoteric, otherwise Meccatuna may have inspired an Islamic outcry. An American artist making reference to Islam during the current war on terror is obviously significant. But the reference in Black Pussy is muted. Amongst all the bric-a-brac the only thing that would alert us would be the hookahs which are drowned in all the other stuff. Then we can contemplate why Rhoades would even think of a tuna swimming round the Ka’bah. Presumably it would be going around anti-clockwise with the pilgrims. What we find here is Islam confronted by the surreal.
Modern Western art is with very few exceptions without God, and in place of God Surrealism puts forward the Freudian unconscious epitomised by the sex drive. Black Pussy begins to make sense. The number of Muslims who believe in God vastly outnumber Christians or Jews. Belief in God in the West has been on a rapid decline since the coup de grâce that was the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859. There is obviously a clash of cultures here that came to something of a head on 11 September 2001 when the Twin Towers—which could be described as a cathedral to capitalism—were destroyed by Islamic Jihadists. Rhoades appears to be pointing to that clash with his Dionysian evocation of sex, drugs (the hookahs are also accompanied with bongs) and disco music. Ours is the culture of degeneracy. We know this because Rhoades, like Paul McCarthy (who will be examined below), consistently portrays American culture in terms of a Dionysian carnival.
What we discover from this brief encounter with the work of Jason Rhoades is that the effect of child-like fun we may experience when immersed in The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop, 2005, is contradicted by the manic sarcasm of the work. What we are being immersed in is not the pure presence which Bishop claims as a key feature of historical installation art but something more contemporary: the pure illusion of hyperreality. The fact that when The Black Pussy … and the Pagan Idol Workshop ends the conveniently modular shop shelving systems will be broken down into units to be sold off to collectors and museums around the world for the usual inflated prices only adds to the black comedy.
Like Bock, Rhoades’ work is ultimately framed by the art system. The viewer is afforded a pleasant regressive experience that ultimately does very little that might be described as ‘emancipatory’. There is really nothing to be shocked about, because the overwhelming register of Rhoades’ work is one of nihilistic humour.