In these cold weeks before and after New Year presents and festivities – dinners because of Christmas, parties to celebrate the start of another year – seem to be the main thing in life.
An artist who is constantly rebelling against such abundance is Paul McCarthy (Salt Lake City, 1945). Would he go underground during this period? Or would he be a refugee in a country without Christmas, but with higher temperatures?
Personally I am not that big a fan of Christmas. If it wasn’t for being ill, I would certainly know where to spend this time of year.
In Rotterdam, on the Eendrachtsplein square, stands Santa Claus (2001). It took quite a while to find a suitable place for this artwork by McCarthy, but without too much trouble it has been on its current location for over four years now.
The statue causes contradictory feelings and can get people on the wrong track, perhaps that is why it was so hard to find an eligible spot. On the one hand Santa Claus seemed to have lost his characteristic liveliness, because of his casting in bronze. Who recognizes the sentimental and sugary charms of this creature that is so well known for his appearance in the commercial of Coca Cola (The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming. Do you have the tune in your head…)? All that remains on the other hand is a dark, heavy sculpture of someone with a bell in the one hand and a sex toy in the other. And therefore it also is colloquially referred to as ‘Butt Plug Gnome.’ By suggesting promiscuous behavior by a children’s friend as Santa, McCarthy seemed to cross a line.
The artwork Santa Claus is not about his dislike of Christmas, the artist expresses his displeasure about Western society, and it’s values. Through an absurd way he rejects the glamour of Hollywood and Walt Disney. McCarthy rebels against the consumer-driven, manipulative world of advertising, against sensationalism and media power. Behind this provocation, which is an essential part of his work, emerges the sense of human failure.
This means that the existence and meaning of Santa Claus depends on the context in which people look at this sculpture. People might not react surprised or annoyed in a place where Santa isn’t that prominent. The message that this artwork communicates might be misunderstood where (if there even is such a place) people haven’t heard about the story of this bearded, old man.
In other words: McCarthy can seek refugee on a sunny palm beach (he might be drinking from a coconut on a sunny beach), where the locals do not bother him with the shortsighted rituals at the end of a year, but for his Santa there is no other option than this particular square. In other places people might not know – figuratively speaking – how to place him, while others don’t want this statue – literally – to be shown anywhere else than on the current spot.
For those who want to avoid the fuss, but don’t leave for a warm continent, I advise to do a downtown art walk through the streets of Rotterdam. Make sure to dress warmly and say hi to Santa Claus from me.
Until maart 31st 2013 art by Paul McCarthy is part of the exhibition Hans Makart’s ‘Abundantia’ – The Depiction of Abundance and Fertility, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Click here for more information.
You can find information about Santa Claus (2001) here.
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This post is also available in: Dutch