July 19th, 2005


Cubism reaches magazine writing

I'm back in Britain after my one-month stint in the New York art world. I'm riding the tube from Heathrow to New Cross, listening to endless announcements about closures "following the incidents of July 7th..." (half the network is still out of order) and looking around nervously for people carrying backpacks. Dozens are, but they're mostly Australian tourists. One good thing about 7/7, if I might be callous for a moment, is that for once there are empty seats on London-bound planes. You can stretch out on the Red Eye Express across all the seats left empty by American tourists who've gone to Mexico instead.

The Indian food in London is excellent, and the magazines are pretty good too. I buy Wire, Frieze and Modern Painters. Modern Painters has got vastly better recently. There's a really fantastic piece this month by Benjamin Weissman called The Autobiography of Paul McCarthy. Not only is it illustrated by amazingly grotesque photos of McCarthy (like the one on the left) in which he outdoes Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman and Leigh Bowery with the attractive absurdity of his persona, but the article itself, beautifully written, blurs fact and fiction in a similar way, adding prosthetic prose to the plastic appendages McCarthy wears. Is that his real belly, or an invented one? And is the first person narrator speaking throughout this article Weissman or McCarthy? The ambiguity makes the article a kind of artwork in its own right, as provocative as the art it's about.

I've done quite a bit of this kind of "unreliable journalism" myself. In fact, I'd say it's my preferred mode: non-fiction that's also fiction, and leaves it up to the reader to decide where the line runs. The trouble is, it makes editors (and some readers) uneasy. For instance, when I wrote a piece about laptop girls for Vice a year or so ago in the persona of a girl called "Jasmine Cone", the editor sought legal advice and published a disclaimer: "Just so you know and we don't get sued, this piece isn't by some quasi-human conglomeration of multiple women. This was written by Momus and what he's used in this piece is a "literary device." Christ. He even wanted to use a pseudonym. In fact, we'll still let him."

The piece in Modern Painters magazine contains no such disclaimer (though I notice on the website they've added a footnote saying "this is fiction"). My Vice fiction ended "you used to jerk off to a bald Canadian in a labcoat. Now you jerk off to me, naked in a forest." The Modern Painters fiction ends "I think about myself existing in the world, born into the body of Paul David McCarthy with seven natural holes in my face: two nostrils, two ears, a mouth, and, my most valued holes, my eyes. When I hear someone say 'Go fuck yourself' I take a step back and think, you can't invite me into my own hole, my rear door, especially if you don't have a clue what's inside."

What was it Picasso said about "the lie that tells the truth"? It's nice to see Cubism reaching magazine journalism, a mere century after it reached painting.