Malcolm McLaren Puts on a Show


“It’s all the same,” is an argument at the core of the Twentieth Century.  We find it in the totalizing narratives of anthropology (Joseph Campbell or Sir James Frazer), and structuralist-inclined psychology (Freud or Jung)-even in notions of art as universal or timeless. But by the second half of the century, artists and critics were no longer convinced that everything was the same, world-over, even if they had gained assurance that as far as pop culture went, the same, over and over and over, was all there was: a uniform dimension of the spectacular, insipid, and unfathomably shallow. Step in, cultural decoders and re-fashioners like Andy Warhol—and prefabricator extraordinaire (and not coincidentally post-FabFour) producer-cum-artist Malcolm McLaren.

McLaren, of the high-profile creative adventurers of the late Twentieth Century, is perhaps the most readily equated to mercury: impossibly everywhere impossibly quickly. In June 2008 at Art 39 Basel (then co-directed by Cay-Sophie Rabinowitz), McLaren premiered Shallow, a 21-chapter series of “musical paintings” that remixed snippits of pop songs from the last 50 years and accompanied the tracks with looping porn clips from aged and forgotten stag films. Later that year, with support from the New York City public arts group Creative Time, nine of the pieces were shown on MTV’s HD screen in Times Square.

At the New York Public Library, McLaren spoke to Rabinowitz (who was launching the second issue of the photography quarterly she co-edits, Fantom) about Shallow, sex, dubs and rock ‘n roll.  The chat was casual, though McLaren’s reminiscences, and wardrobe, captivated the New York audience with meticulous charm.

“Back in the day,” said McLaren, explaining his deployment of filmic moments that lead up to, but never depict consummated, fornication, “you had to wait an awful long time to see a drop of sex.” McLaren tracks contemporary culture to a return to a Medieval style of talent show, but not an expression of a sexual revolution: “You’re not watching a talent show [American Idol, et al], to get yourself sexually liberated.” For better or worse, he describes the current climate as suspended in a state of perpetual foreplay: art and culture is a simulation that is unable to or perhaps uninterested in closing the deal. Present-day creative fatigue results not just from widespread corporatization, but from a lack of need, or desire.

With a vast knowledge of music history and a large part in shaping it (managing The Sex Pistols), McClaren interprets music since the 50s as a rerecording; songs are no longer new, they are reconstructions of old songs, deconstructed. In Shallow—the title of which was picked up in conversation with a South American man who pronounced the word “Shhaaaallow”—McLaren has divvied music history into discrete phrases, a short riff from here and a few notes from there, and reassembled it in the 21 spooky melodies of Shallow.

In paring the detritus of cast-off pop tunes with antiquated porn, McLaren couples the melodious haunting with a visual haunting. Violence and decay-in keeping with the punk fashion McLaren pioneered-is made beautiful, seductive, with the inevitability of impending destruction.  The film sampled in Shallow, said McLaren, “had been so corrupted that it looked like painting.”

Bristle one might at another pop icon’s entre to the gallery, but as McLaren says, “Putting on a show is putting on a show.”