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July 5, 2010

What's That in the Pool? It's Stickier Than Water...


                                                                                                                                                 Mike Rogers
Artist Mike Bouchet takes a dip in the cola-filled swimming pool.

My Fourth of July this year was perhaps the most patriotic Independence Day that I have ever observed, and there wasn't a "Star-Spangled Banner" to be heard. It was spent watching people frolic in a swimming pool filled with cola. What can be more American than that? (Okay, Americans may not have invented cola, but Coca-Cola soon swallowed the market.)

The event I attended wasn't a corporate advertising stunt or the setting of a porn film shoot, although it could easily have suited both. It was an art happening of sorts accompanying an exhibition in Los Angeles by Mike Bouchet, a California-born artist now based in Frankfurt, Germany, who is most widely known for attempting to float a full-scale American suburban home on the Venice canals at last year's Biennale. (Unfortunately, it sank shortly after it was installed).

The gathering took place in the desert near Twentynine Palms, California--home of the world's largest Marine base--at a compound owned by Paul McCarthy, the video art pioneer whose work often creates the effect (thanks to lots of ketchup and prosthetics) of porn and slasher films gone wild. The site, on the edge of a boulder-strewn wasteland, used to have a house, which burned to the ground, leaving intact only the backyard swimming pool. Someone said that McCarthy bought it for a future film production, but in the meantime, it was a perfect setting for Bouchet, who has produced a series of paintings of corporate logos and other works using cola made from his own recipe. Some of the paintings had just been on view at The Box, the gallery in Los Angeles' Chinatown run by McCarthy's daughter, Mara, who organized the cola pool party.

When I drove up through the sandy access road at the 4 p.m. designated start time, the temperature was still hovering around 100 degrees. After parking, I could smell cola in the air, and as I walked up, I saw Bouchet splashing around and diving under the brownish-red water. Soon others joined him, some doing cannonballs, sending streams of the liquid across the pool deck.

Despite Mara's prediction that there might be some skinny-dipping, the event was pretty mellow. By the time I left three hours later, about 100 people had made the two-hour trek out to the desert. Some changed into swimsuits and jumped into the pool for a bit before climbing out and hosing themselves off. Most stood under the shade of the ground's single tree, eating hot dogs and drinking Gatorade, Pepsi, 7UP, and beer, though not Bouchet's concoction. The only excitement developed when someone's sports car got stuck in a rut and the driver made matters worse by gunning the engine until the car sank up to the doors in sand.

Despite the sweet aroma, there was something off-putting about the pool. The liquid reminded me of the oil that's fouling the Gulf of Mexico. Although lighter in consistency than BP's muck, Bouchet's cola, which was not carbonated, even had an oily sheen. The dried grass, charcoal, and other bits of debris that floated to the surface added to the impression of something gone horribly wrong. I think that's the message in a lot of Bouchet's work, which seems to be fun at first, but ends up being disturbing.

Although I could not force myself to even stick a toe in the water, the event itself was refreshing. At most gallery openings, people stay huddled with their friends, and there's little mixing. But at McCarthy's desert retreat, people were happily introducing themselves to each other. And McCarthy, who can seem inscrutable in public, was friendly, even springing to action to try digging out that car. When someone showed up with a bag of fireworks, McCarthy's wife, Karen, told him to put it away. They didn't want to risk a brush fire.

But driving home on the freeway that night, I got to see dozens of backyard and public fireworks shows either right on the sides of the road or in the distance. If you live in a city, that may be the best way to view them. Enhanced by the elevation of the freeway, the fireworks appeared to be a choreographed, streaming spectacle. It's hard not to be thrilled by the colors and sounds of fireworks, but I generally avoid July 4 celebrations. I can't stand the patriotic fervor, especially when we've attended the display at a nearby military base, which features a jingoistic announcer and rousing musical accompaniment. I guess some might call me a grouch, but I much prefer an Independence Day that involves another fine American tradition: the art happening. Even if it involves flat cola.

Guest blogger Mike Rogers, an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of an illustrated novel about the art world, "The Third Eye," published by Edicions 30/kms of Barcelona. He has been a reporter for Fortune magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, among other publications.

July 5, 2010 5:05 PM | | Comments (0)

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