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Looking Back: Paul McCarthy’s Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement

July 25, 2012

Here is something I wrote a couple days ago looking back at Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement:

Paul McCarthy may be an odd choice as an example for what’s ideal, as his work is often centered around the not ideal, and in many instances explores the shockingly corporeal. But last year I was lucky to catch the tail end of Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement at the Whitney, and saw how his work captivated and utterly transformed the dynamics of a gallery space. The exhibition was built around three installations (two of which were made specifically for the show, but based on unrealized proposals McCarthy made in the 1970s), and perhaps because these plans came from earlier in his career, we see the artist’s ideas less entrenched in the shtick of being Paul McCarthy (in his defense, the work still centers around spectacle and neurosis, with architecture here being a stand in for the human body, so it’s still classic McCarthy). Aggressive and disorienting, McCarthy’s is a violent and disruptive architecture, one that displaces us as viewers, and one that shows how art can transfix and demand presence.

The most compelling pieces in Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement were the two mechanized installations Bang Bang Room and Mad House. Both involved disruptive movement in box-like rooms, and their fury of motion drowns everything else out when they became active.

Bang Bang Room was belligerent and bossy, a sculpture confident and doing it on its own terms, I am going to do something and you are going to watch, but elegant in its intentions. At first stationary, four walls of a room each with a door ajar, the viewer might enter the small room-sized construction, but at regular intervals its nature changes. At these “on times”, the room becomes manic and possessed, as walls slowly fan away from frames and doors aggressively slam then reopen. The ongoing sound and spectacle were jarring, and for its duration it was hard to look away. Architecture coming to life in such a disruptive way mesmerized, as the room appeared to delouse itself or tried frantically to express something essential but couldn’t.

Corresponding to Bang Bang Room was Mad House, which became active at the same moments (both pieces were on a timer that left them alternately alive or dead at approximately ten minute intervals). In the center of another square room/structure sat a single chair. The chair, perhaps a space to sit and relax, here pivoted in a room spinning at fantastic speeds. Inside, the chair also spun, but at a slower rate than the room, so the two were always out of phase. The chair’s measured orbit caused a lag between the two speeds that seemed to carve out a hollow space in time between the stationary vantage point of the viewer and the hyper-acceleration of the room it inhabited.

Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement demanded attention in such a pleasing way. These pieces were tactile and took complete ownership of the space around them; so that once they began it was impossible to not pay attention. They thrust the viewer into some inexplicable process, and getting lost in the amazement of watching ordinary structures thrust open and spin like carnival rides, these objects demanded that we stop and watch, showing us what can be done when you get lost in the senses.

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