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In bad taste? Vomit and disgust in Paul McCarthy’s performances of the 1970s

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-125
JournalPerformance Research Journal
Volume22
Issue number7
Early online date22 Mar 2018
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Mar 2018

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Abstract

In the 1970s, Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy made visceral performances which appealed to audiences’ innermost feelings of disgust and revulsion. Using everyday materials – notably, consumable foodstuffs – such as hot dogs, ground meat, ketchup, chocolate syrup, mustard and mayonnaise, he enacted performances of consumerism in which he both ingested and expelled this potent mixture of materials. McCarthy succeeds in relaying this nausea to his audiences, both in the live moment of performance and whilst watching performance recordings. In this proposed article I consider vomiting in McCarthy’s performances, and the sense of nausea felt by his audience, as an act of resistance against unthinking consumers who swallow culture whole. In other words, McCarthy employs tactics of bad taste – typically, invoking 'low culture' and bodily excretions – as a critical tool for activating audiences.

Looking at a number of McCarthy's performances – such as Hot Dog (1974), Meat Cake (1974), and Tubbing (1975) – this article looks at the urge to vomit and the will to prevent it, as a way of both alienating audiences and becoming more intimate with them. Artist Barbara Smith recalls from her experience of McCarthy’s live performance Hot Dog, the sense of nausea she felt when watching him stuff numerous hot dogs into his mouth. She considered it kinder to leave the room to vomit than to do so in front of the artist, for fear that he would do the same and risk choking. In my own reflections on McCarthy’s video performance Tubbing, I read his struggle to chew and digest raw meat not only as a struggle with his own body, but as indicative of his career-long interest in the politics of cultural critique; breaking it up, destroying it, or reconfiguring it into something less palatable.

McCarthy's choice of consumables used in his performances perform as selected icons of American consumer culture – particularly ground hamburger meat – has been aligned with mass consumerism and the working class (Levine 2013: 121). In this article I look to situate McCarthy's performances within a larger trend of US artists using meat in performance and action-based art in the 1960s and 1970s, as a device for critiquing class, taste, and consumerism. Notably: Carolee Schneemann's performance Meat Joy (1964) explores the eroticism and alignment of bodies – both animal and human – as a celebration of sexual liberation; and Allan Sekula's Meat Mass (1972), a series of actions in which the artist stole pieces of high quality meat from supermarkets and were then photographed having been 'exposed to the destructive forces of heavy traffic on a busy expressway', sought to interrupt 'the capitalist circulation of luxury goods through robbery and waste' (Generali). In these performances, meat is used as an artistic material but also acts as a surrogate for the artist's body. For McCarthy's performances in particular, the alignment and interchangeability of meat and flesh – most powerfully represented in the ingestion and excretion of materials – is perhaps one of the most tasteless, and yet politically evocative elements of his work.

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