Currently installed in the middle of the ground-floor hall of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie building in Berlin, Paul McCarthy’s 1999 installation The Box is a room-size wooden container in which the interior of his studio has been painstakingly reconstructed. The “twist” is that the contents of the room have been rotated 90 degrees. The cluttered space appears to defy gravity-the left wall is the ground plane, and the right wall is closest to the museum’s ceiling. A labor of futile verisimilitude must have been exacerbated by the necessity of affixing every object to its apparent support.
Two large apertures in the top of the shell-where studio windows would have been-open onto the much higher gridded metal ceiling. The effect is to ironically condescend to the persnickety mimetics of the reconstruction, and to intensify disorientation. The third window, through which the viewer can peer into the container, is on one end. Turn your head to the left, and the room levels off; look at it straight-on, and you become dizzy. Here, self-aggrandizing spectacle has been self-reflexively belittled, while a quintessentially 1990s postmodernist trope-the play on functionalizing art space-has been overshadowed by the modernism which preceded it, embodied by Mies’s architecture.
Unlike his late L.A. peer Mike Kelley, McCarthy is not an artist whom one tends to associate with the autobiographical gesture. He is a fairy-tale teller, a symbolist, which makes The Box a curiosity. He casts artistic self-scrutiny as actuarial tedium-what could be more boring than navel-gazing? But, in fact, The Box is less concerned with subjectivity than its absence. We are left not with the artist or his art, but the residue of art production: shelves, old video equipment, TV monitors, a sewing machine, a stepladder and lots of tangled cables. Against the whitewashed walls of the container, this glut of functionality is generalized as detritus. The 13 years since the work’s construction are enough to have consigned much of the technology to obsolescence. It is like looking onto the set of an old sci-fi movie. McCarthy extends the historical/temporal theme of the installation-in which modernist and postmodernist idioms have been reversed-by comprehending how every futuristic artistic idiom is ultimately condemned to appear dated.
As a self-portrait, The Box is negatively defined-the artist implied only by default, by the backdrop that foils his labors. McCarthy’s coup is to generalize a multifarious array of objects as a single sweeping sign for the Duchampian act of rendering functional object as art object, reality as artifice, the real as documentary. The neon lights on the “ceiling” are hung on the left wall so that they look like Dan Flavins. This all-encompassing act of artificializing is designated as such by the simple conceit of having the recontextualized contents of the container defy gravity, as though gravity only applied in the realm of nonart. It’s a very McCarthy-esque joke.
Photo: Two views of Paul McCarthy’s The Box, 1999, mixed mediums; at Neue Nationalgalerie.