Artist Behind Controversial Paris Sculpture Explains: "It Was the Shape of a Particular Butt Plug"

Spencer Lowell
Paul McCarthy

L.A.'s Paul McCarthy, whose 'Tree' caused a scandal in France this fall, takes aim at the Hollywood mythmaking that also feeds his work

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I chose Los Angeles over other cities when my wife, Karen, and I moved here in 1969. We chose it over New York, we chose it over Europe. We chose it because of what it was: the sun, the smog, the f—ed-up world here.

In the early '80s, I started talking a lot about Disneyland, and this notion of virtual space, of entering another world, of cultural conditioning. It fascinated me that Walt Disney built a mound all the way around his theme park, and behind the mound lies backstage Disneyland. I grew up in Salt Lake City, which is a valley surrounded by a mountain range. I actually believe the Mormons moved there specifically for that reason: to get away from everything and contain their beliefs.

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It took me years to get to Snow White and my 2013 installation at the Park Avenue Armory, WS (White Snow). That was a huge undertaking: Eighty-five trucks carried the piece from L.A. to New York. And it's a difficult piece — not just to put up, but for the Armory to exhibit, too. WS is really about something else, it's not Snow White, but Snow White becomes the bones, the thing that people can connect to. She wanders through the forest. She comes upon a house, but the house is the one I grew up in, made in three-quarter scale. She goes into the house, she starts cleaning up. The dwarves come. Then there's a series of drunken debauched parties, not unlike the ones that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. And I played Walt Disney, this patriarch with a prosthetic nose and false teeth and a little mustache. I think I looked like him; I think I'm a better Walt Disney than Tom Hanks was.

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It would be hard for me to say that being the prankster or provocateur isn't part of the work. There seems to be an edge I like riding. But when I made the big Tree in France, I really did want to make it. An 80-foot inflatable was something I wanted to see — something about that object at that scale excited me. And it's this monotone green. It's like, What is that shape? Is it a tree? An abstract object? It was the shape of a particular butt plug, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter. But when you make it 80 feet tall and put it in a public plaza, I don't know that you would necessarily say it's a butt plug. You might say, "That could be a tree. It's green. It looks like a Christmas tree." The piece was also a nod to Hans Arp, who sculpted similar shapes, and to the work of Constantin Brancusi. It was taking a low form and a high form and putting them together. There's a joke there, and I knew that the nature of the joke was going to be provocative once people realized the image was based on a butt plug.

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But I had no idea that plaza, Place Vendome, played such an important part in French history — the column in the middle has a direct relationship to Napoleon and the Paris Commune — and I didn't realize the Minister of Culture's offices were right there. It was the only spot offered to me by the FIAC Art Fair, which arranged the location. (They knew exactly what the sculpture was, by the way, even though I always referred to it as "a tree.")

After Tree went up, a number of people were circulating around it, asking questions. Somebody came up to me and asked me if I was the artist, and I said yes. Then he hit me in the head, hard, maybe twice — I can't really remember. He was screaming that I insulted France, but that was never my intention. I think the piece is about Western culture. Later I was told that five people came and cut the ropes, causing the piece to fall over. Then the president of France, the mayor of Paris, everybody came out to support it. I could have put more security around it, but I couldn't justify asking them to put themselves and their bodies on the line for this piece.

There is this thing going on, a kind of radical conservatism that's pretty violent in a way, and I think it exists in countries all over the world.

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