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St Sebastian Tom Sawyer Cathy Mishima Expo 67 : Excerpts from a Failed Exegesis of a Failed Exhibition about Failure

from "FAILURE! Experiments in Aesthetics and Social Practices" Journal of Aesthetics and Protest 2007

Click here to view a gallery of images from this installation.

Excerpts from a Failed Exegesis of a Failed Exhibition about Failure

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks.
I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb thought might be sailors' trowsers buttons; but it afterwards turned out that they were nothing, more than pieces of small squid bones embalmed in that manner.
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Chapter 92


The West wall was dominated by another supergraphic: a happy, cartoonish pepto-bismol tinted whale called Pink Bubble Moby , through (or, technically, slightly above) whose belly wound the super-8 loop Alpha Omega Alpha . From Moby’s blowhole into the gallery space shot a stream made from scores of lines of pink embroidery thread, which passed over the top of the projection beam, bouncing off the gallery ceiling to create a dangling curtain studded with hundreds of tiny black-and-white cutout images of the syndicated newspaper comic strip character Cathy . This was The Guisewite Ambergris .

I’ve always liked to write about the little moments that destroy momentum -- that become microcosms of the whole life struggle. The fleck of dust that gets in the contact, that makes the makeup run, that smudges on the power suit, that makes the dynamic, high-powered professional have to start all over, change clothes, arrive a half-hour late and have the whole schedule thrown off for the day…
Every time I get something under control in my own life, the world provides more material. The skimpy lingerie revolution -- the gourmet giant chocolate chip muffin revolution -- the 1,200-calorie "low-fat" Chinese chicken salad -- the "leather hot pants for the new 21st-century, no-nonsense businesswoman" -- the 25,000-acre warehouse of electronics without one human who knows anything about any of them except, sometimes, how to ring one up -- the nine pairs of sneakers I now have to own and pack to make sure I always have the appropriate athletic shoe for the workout programs I’ve been pledging to start for the last 10 years?
-Cathy Guisewite

Guisewite’s Cathy grafts the (authentically Modernist) bleakly comic repetition and existential anomie of Samuel Beckett’s dialogue onto the hypnotic, addictive mass media cult of narcissistic self-loathing – a high-maintenance mechanism of persuasion and ongoing ethical rationalization. This marriage is truly an inspired aesthetic alchemy, a vomited lump of “gray amber” that could just pass for the umbilical stump of a new world.

In 1970, famed Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka) and a band of young followers took over the eastern offices of the Japanese defense forces, took a General hostage, and demanded that the Emperor be reinstated and the Japanese army embrace the Samurai code. When he was jeered, Mishima turned from addressing the assembled soldiers and committed seppuku as one of his followers beheaded him. Mishima’s first sexual experience came from masturbating to an image of St. Sebastian.


In 1997 I created an installation for POST gallery in Los Angeles entitled St Sebastian Tom Sawyer Cathy Mishima Expo 67 . It was one of a series of works considering the complexities of martyrdom, particularly its potential as a creative act and the apparent fundamental contradiction between selfless sacrifice and the thinly veiled prima-donnaism of the messianic personality type. In this work, I linked Sebastian to (among other things) the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal Canada - known as Expo 67 - where the American Pavilion was a giant 20-story geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, which in many ways was the last point at which the Modernist avant-garde was collectively perceived as being in tandem with the progress of Western Civilization. “The last good year” they call it in Canada. I used the project as a tool to explore the collapse of visionary utopian Modernism as symbolized by the destruction of the 67 Fuller dome by fire in 1976, and filtered through the prophetic aberations of sad French guys like Bataille and Duchamp.

The installation was conceived as an experimental narrative circuit structurally analogous to any tragically-flawed-by-hubris utopian gesture, a ‘stations of the cross’ moving the viewer in a more-or-less counterclockwise loop in a deliberately non-coherent sequence of tableaux that relate in fits and starts to the titular thematic concerns. There were approximately16 discrete works included, including a miniature curated group show in one corner (with work by Tim Hawkinson, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Jeffrey Vallance, and others) alternately titled Culturally Natural and Naturally Cultural . There was an untitled school-project style Q-tip and Saran wrap Model of Expo 67 and a soft pink upright cornucopia entitled Late Proposal for the American Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal Canada as well as several other elements that I will refrain from discussing in detail.

The first and most fundamental discontinuity in this informational Oroborus occurs as the viewer enters the gallery, interrupting the projection beam of a super-8 film loop Alpha Omega Alpha consisting of two appropriated fragments shot from a TV screen: Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence (from the 1973 made for TV movie featuring Vic Morrow --the actor beheaded during the 1982 filming of the Twilight Zone movie-- as Injun Joe) and Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima performing seppuku – ritual self-disembowelment/suicide – from Paul Schrader’s 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters . [The rest of the lengthy loop appeared black, but was in fact extracted from a separate S8 film False Leader -- an extended shot of the early B&W version of the geometric white-on-black Windows Mystify screen saver.] Superimposed, this vertical gesture of concealment and horizontal gesture of revelation (both of which procedures entail – through layering and eruption respectively -- transformation from a 2- to a 3-dimensional system) combine to form an axis mundi, a set of 2-dimensional polar coordinates whose 3-dimensional axis – the projection beam – is collapsed by the presence of the viewer; a sort of inverse Schrödinger’s Cat.

St. Sebastian was a 3rd century Frenchman who moved to Milan and joined the Praetorian guard. He converted to Christianity and secretly helped imprisoned Christians, but was outed and sentenced to death. It is not generally understood that Sebastian didn’t die in the most often depicted event from his life – tied to a pillar and used for archery practice – but survived and was nursed back to health by the widow Irene. Having blown his chance at a spectacular exit, he went and confronted the Emperor Diocletian (who had sentenced him to death in the first place) who immediately had him clubbed to death and thrown into the Cloaca Maximus, Rome’s main sewer. Sebastian is the patron saint of tapestry weavers and Rio de Janeiro, whose role as capital of Brazil was usurped by the failed +-shaped Modernist utopia of Brasília in 1960, which was originally designed with no traffic lights. Sebastian is also patron saint of traffic cops.


Standing guard at the entranceway is Mishima Bear , an earlier sculpture/installation turned inside out and dressed with a replica of the headband Mishima wore in his failed attempt to rally the troops (if only Tom Cruise had been there!). The earlier sculpture, entitled Casualty/Causality was a bit of a piss-take on several then-current art world fads, including the glut of post-Mike Kelley uncanny-stuffed-animal-as-surrogate artworks bursting forth. In its outside-incarnation the bear was seated in a corner, a kitchen knife in its paw, its belly sliced open and its guts – a cascade of Styrofoam beads – spilling out on the floor. The title was displayed backwards on the wall overhead. Its transformation into Mishima Bear entailed emptying the skin, turning it inside out by the stomach wound, refilling it with more structurally rigid materials and attaching a plume of ectoplasmic spray-foam so as to appear to be pouring out and upward from the opened belly. The foam plume was studded with about 15 small, round, red-rimmed electronic music buttons (designed for dolly backs) which played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when depressed. A sign to the left of the figure encouraged the viewer to activate the buttons with the word “Please” and a detail of Doubting Thomas’ finger entering the wound in Christ’s side from Caravaggio’s painting of that encounter. (This signage was xeroxed from an earlier work in the St. Sebastian series, which consisted of a bepedestalled female torso mannequin inlaid with buttons that played “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music). To the right, a set of appropriated signage from a gallery show by Paul McCarthy and Benjamin Weisman was reconfigured to spell out “ Mishima Bear ” backwards. The leftover letters were anagrammatically arranged into the phrase “J. Camelycunt ‘n’ Pawn.” At Mishima Bear ’s feet lay a discarded toy sword painted “flesh tint” pink and sprouting hairs. Ew.


The most controversial work in the show was a piece called Curtains , a clear vinyl shower curtain equipped with pockets so that the owner might customize their bathroom experience with visual artifacts of their choosing. I suspended the curtain from an abandoned dumpster-diver pole – a rod with a sharpened hook on the end that can also be used as a weapon – and inserted images of the mutilated corpses of female murder victims into the pockets. The images were originally intended to be printed on flat sheets of bubblegum, but I was unable to find an appropriate fabricator, so they were printed on pink construction paper and lightly sprayed with bubblegum-scented air freshener. The women were Sharon Tate (Manson Family victim), Bernice Worden (Ed Gein victim – eviscerated and beheaded), Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia – bisected), and Mary Jane Kelly (Jack the Ripper victim). The fifth image was one I had come across in the mid-80’s in the original French edition of Bataille’s Tears of Eros, depicting what I assumed to be a woman (due largely to the conspicuous absence of breasts) being executed in China at the turn of the century by lingchi – death by carving. It is now accepted that the victim was a man named Wang Weiqin, although Bataille appears to have misidentified him as one Fou Tchou Li. It is interesting that this gender inversion occurs in the pivotal image of the series, about which Bataille wrote:

This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable… in 1938, a friend initiated me into the practice of yoga. It was on this occasion that I discerned, in the violence of this image, an infinite capacity for reversal… what I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.

At around the same time I made Curtains Chicago art historian James Elkins was writing about the Chinese torture photos in The Object Stares Back (I just discovered this book in 2006)

…If an artist attempts to put one of these images in a larger composition, it will poison whatever is around it. The sheer visceral power of images like these is too much for any modulated, well-considered composition, no matter what its subject might be. So I like to think of this as a problem of relative energy rather than as a question of revulsion against some specific subject matter. In order for us to be able to stand in front of an image and experience the kind of richness of feelings that we associate with art, the image must be able to speak in several registers. These images shout all other images down: they are harsh and importunate, so they are not only hard to see; they also make everything else hard to see.

On the floor in the Northeast corner of the gallery lay Cig-Dome ’97, an intentionally collapsed geodesic dome constructed from filter cigarettes and pipe cleaners. The early 70s saw the beginning of anti-smoking hysteria, a movement with ostensible roots in countercultural politics and health concerns, but whose tactics and, ultimately motives, were highly questionable. I later codified some of my ideas about this trend and the symbolic import of cigarettes:

The cigarette carves and frames experience with innumerable small, perfectly orchestrated rituals marked by the sacrificial burning of sacred herb, the absorption and alchemical taming of fire into the body, and the elegantly scripted immolation of the phallic totem…. Cigarettes are structural units of a deep language, defining discrete parcels of experience as consumable artifacts, establishing a parallel time stream from which the resulting narrative sequence of life may be observed. Addiction imposes a rhythm, an oscillation between sacred and mundane realities, a pulse that flattens the heretofore-undifferentiated parcels of phenomena into aesthetic, contemplative units. It’s no wonder that tobacco and standardized timekeeping were introduced to the West within a few years of one another, around the middle of the 17hth century. With its coming-of age through mass production after the industrial revolution, the cigarette began to open a contrary model of time—a contained fictional dynamic that undermines the monolithic measured simultaneity of Greenwich Standard Reality. As Grandpa Samuel Reaches, the Oglala Sioux medicine man in Michael Apted’s 1992 film Thunderheart comments to FBI agent Ray Levoi while trying to trade a crumpled smoke for Levoi’s Rolex wristwatch “You need to go on Indian time. White man time will give you stomach cancer.”

from The Aesthetic of the Cigarette (or, Smoke for Smoke’s Sake)
version printed in Art issues March 2000

1948 at Black Mountain College was one of the seminal years of late Modernism, bringing together the nascent talents of Willem DeKooning, Arthur Penn, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and others in a Bauhaus-rooted environment seething with possibility. That same summer Buckmister Fuller – with help from Elaine deKooning, Ray Johnson, and others – built his first geodesic dome out of venetian blind strips on the campus, but it couldn’t stand under the strength of its tensegrity, collapsed, and was thereafter known at “The Supine Dome”


The north wall was given over entirely to a mural – envisioned as a mid-70’s middle school cafeteria supergraphic – entitled Saturn Devouring His Children after the famous wall-painting by Goya. My version depicted the 1976 burning of the Expo 67 Fuller Dome in acidic turquoise and orange, with a massive plume of copper-colored smoke billowing from the rupture in its outer skin. After the end of the World’s Fair, the Expo 67 site was kept open to the public as “Man and His World” but gradually fell into disrepair. By the time the dome burnt in 1976, much of the Fair had fallen into ruin. In 1977, Robert Altman filmed his post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction film Quintet in the pre-distressed retro-futurist architecture of Notre Dame Island. The movie described a fatalistically decadent society clinging to a sense of sophistication through a culture-permeating 5-sided board game whose arbitrary mathematical determinations over life and death have replaced both deity and human ethics.

When Cronus (Saturn) learned that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, he swallowed his god-children Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon as soon as they were born. Finally, when a sixth child was about to be born, Rhea secretly gave birth to Zeus in Crete, and handed Cronus the Omphalos Stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he swallowed, thinking that it is his son. Once he had grown up, Zeus gave an emetic to Cronus who vomited up the contents of his stomach in reverse order: first the stone, which was set down at Pytho under the glens of Mount Parnassus to be a sign to mortal men, followed by Zeus’ two brothers and three sisters. The Omphalos (or navel) Stone survived as a hollowed-out dome-shaped rock carved with an intricate geometric surface pattern resembling a knotted net, and was regarded as a sacred world navel or axis by ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Astrologically, Saturn has been referred to as “the taskmaster of the universe” and represents responsibility, structure, form, self-control and limitation. It is the traditional planetary ruler of Aquarius, therefore playing a crucial role in the coming Age of Aquarius.

When the man-god appears and dies both as rottenness and as the redemption of the supreme person, revealing that life will answer avidity only on condition that it be lived as the me that dies, he nonetheless eludes the pure imperative of this me: he subjects it to the applied (moral) imperative of God and thus gives the me as existence for others, for God, and morality alone as existence for itself.

In an ideally brilliant and empty infinity, chaos to the point of revealing the absence of chaos, the anxious loss of life opens, but life only loses itself – at the limit of the last breath – for this empty infinity. The me raises itself to the pure imperative, living-dying for an abyss without walls or floor… It abandons all applications in the world.

-Georges Bataille
Sacrifices 1933


Descending in tandem from the rafters was the gender-corrected biorchid soft kinetic sculpture Disc®otu m’, a sack of mirror-encrusted fabric containing two motorized vibrating wads of material. I’ve always been puzzled by Duchamp scholars insistence that the title of his last painting Tu m' was an abbreviation of the French expression “Tu m'emmerdes” or “you’re shitting on (bugging) me.” As far as I can tell, it’s just a guess – it could be completed with any French verb starting with a vowel. Why not “Tu m’blank” as in “You blank me,” which, rather than sealing the tomb on painting because of some specific affect (irritation, beshitment, boredom), emphasizes (and probably expresses doubt in the validity of) the very hierarchical subject/object binary model of communication (and by extension reality itself) by which it achieves its agency. Disc®otu m’ in addition to presenting a disembodied teabag of Damocles that visually mimics the geometry-bound domes, was intended to expand Duchamp’s contraction, doubling it with mirrors and subjecting it to seizure. Lazarus, Come forth!

The botched reanimation of the corpse of Western Culture in general -- and Modernism in particular – has resulted in a landscape dotted with lurching Frankenstein monsters, half-constructed cyborg zombies, utopian poppets trimmed of their unexplainable or otherwise troublesome bits, turned inside out and stuffed with new improved structures and mechanisms geared to the most efficient (effort divided by persuasive effect) simulation – just convincing enough to sell sneakers. Can robots be programmed for uncanny agony and uncanny ecstasy, or do androids dream of electric sheep?

"To find a form to accommodate the mess, that is the job of the artist now."
-Samuel Beckett