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Paul McCarthy and Lilith Stangenberg on performance, drawing and power

Paul McCarthy and Lilith Stangenberg in conversation with Randy Kennedy

On the occasion of the exhibition ‘Paul McCarthy: A&E Sessions – Drawing and Painting with Lilith Stangenberg’ at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, McCarthy and the German actor Lilith Stangenberg, who have collaborated for more than five years on performance, film, and drawing, recently met by Zoom to talk about working together and about plans at pandemic’s end to pick up where they left off. The following transcript is one version of their conversation, edited by both as an exercise in articulating work that pushes at the boundaries of language.

Randy Kennedy: Maybe we could start by talking, Paul, about how you first became aware of Lilith as a performer and how she became part of the thinking about re-imagining the 1974 Liliana Cavani movie ‘The Night Porter.’

Paul McCarthy: I went to Berlin in 2015 because of the Volksbühne Theater, which Lilith was part of, along with other people I know, like the great actor Bernhard Schütz. For a few years I’d been talking with Henning Nass, who was also at the Volksbühne Theater, about doing a piece, a live performance with video projections. And the plan originally was to do a Western, the Western I’d been working on, called ‘CSSC’ [Coach Stage Stage Coach]. But the silicone we were using to cast dummy bodies and prosthetics that we were going to use in that piece turned out to be no good. It was contaminated, so there was just no way to finish it. I had this crazy backup plan, which was to put on stage the set and video projections of ‘Rebel Dabble Babble,’ which is the piece my son Damon and I had done several years before as a video installation in L.A. It was also shown at Hauser & Wirth in New York. [‘Rebel’ loosely focuses on the making of the 1955 movie, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and on its director Nicholas Ray and actress Natalie Wood.] So we put the piece up in Berlin. We also did live performances on the night of the opening with the actors from the theater. There was a bathroom upstairs in the theater where we recreated a bathtub scene from ‘Rebel,’ a performance in a tub filled with gravy. At some point in the performance Lilith was on the floor, nude in the tile bathroom, and I said, ‘Oh, this looks like ‘The Night Porter,’ ’ the flashback concentration camp scene in the movie where Max, played by Dirk Bogarde, is shooting at Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling. And at that point, I think, Lilith said: ‘It’s one of my favorite movies!’

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‘Rebel Dabble Babble’ (2011-2012) by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy at Volksbühne Theater, Berlin, 2015. Photo: Thomas Aurin

Lilith Stangenberg: I didn’t really know Paul’s work at the time. I think one time I saw a catalog of the piece he did with Mike Kelley, ‘Sod and Sodie Sock’ (1998), and I was pretty amazed. But I didn’t know many visual artists. They showed me the scenes that Paul wanted to re-enact from ‘Rebel.’ And I remember thinking at first, ‘Wow, they are so perfect.’ I didn’t think I could add anything to them. It would be like someone showing me a Fassbinder movie and asking me to add something to it, and I thought, ‘I can’t do it.’ But then I remember there was an evening where Paul was painting on a stage that the audience could see through a projection. And I was sitting in the audience watching, and there was just a certain magic in this room, and it made me feel like, ‘Wow, with this guy you can go wherever.’ Something very special happened to me. I was seeing what he was doing. And then I just said, ‘Okay, let’s do it. I’ll be part of this. I’ll do whatever.’ And that’s how I became involved in the ‘Rebel’ performances and then ‘Night Vater’ and ‘A&E.

PM: With ‘The Night Porter,’ we thought then, in 2015, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to redo it?’ Sure, but it’s never going to happen. And then a year later it ended up that we were given money, quite a bit of money, to do it in Vienna, where most of the original movie was filmed, which really was great. But then a year later that fell apart. Our studio had already spent a lot of money working toward it. We were deep into it, and we all wanted to keep doing it. I did, Lilith did, and Damon did. The decision was made that we would shoot it all in L.A. Lilith came to L.A. and stayed at a Marriott Hotel. An idea began to form for the script, in which Lucia would be an actress living in Berlin and would come to L.A. to try out for a part in a movie. And I, as Max, would be a producer living in L.A. Max would be a producer who really isn’t that interested in making movies, but in the manipulation of people. And then, crazily, at about that time, the Harvey Weinstein thing happened and the Me Too movement began.

RK: I was going to ask if Weinstein was part of the formation of this.

PM: I think in the very beginning, it was Bill Cosby, because of the trial, and then it was Weinstein. The idea of this type of character came up when I was making ‘CSSC.’ The drink that the libertines in that piece would give to the innocents was called a ‘Cosby.’ The plot that we conceived is that Lucia flies to L.A., gets picked up at the airport by a character named She Hole, an assistant to Max. She’s taken in a limousine to an office where she is interrogated, abused, and forced to sign a contract. Later that night she goes to a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel and meets Max and a series of events happen there. Max is obsessed with fascism and Nazism, and at one point he kills everybody at the party except Lucia. It becomes very convoluted. He then ends up going to Lucia’s hotel, which is a recreation of the Marriott Hotel room where Lilith had originally stayed in when she first came to L.A. The relationship between Max and Lucia really begins there, as it does in ‘The Night Porter.’ The set was this big structure of rooms about 100 feet by 60 feet. It includes Max’s rooms doubled, and a hallway, and rooms referred to as the Beverly Hills Hotel, and then the Marriott room and hallway. It’s a large set called the Maze. We shot the video in the Maze for 30 days.

‘It was very interesting to make a film about someone who has power and someone who doesn’t have power and how this dynamic changes all the time. For me, it’s like German history. Fascism seems like it was only a second ago, if you think in bigger time dimensions. It’s still so close.’—Lilith Stangenberg

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Lilith Stangenberg in ‘NV, Night Vater’ (2019), inspired by the 1974 drama ‘The Night Porter’ © Paul McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens
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Lilith Stangenberg and Paul McCarthy in ‘NV, Night Vater’ (2019), directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy © Paul McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens

LS: After working with Paul in Berlin, I really fell deep into what he was doing and studied what he had done before, looking into catalogs and videos. And I was completely into the subject of the ‘Night Vater.’ I think I first saw the movie ‘The Night Porter’ when I was 18 and it really meant something to me. For me, it’s like every human being has this possibility to be good or to be evil. And I thought it was very interesting to make a film about someone who has power and someone who doesn’t have power and how this dynamic changes all the time. For me, it’s like German history. Fascism seems like it was only a second ago, if you think in bigger time dimensions. It’s still so close. And I feel this project deals with the subject in a very interesting sense. In the theater, I already was familiar with the writings of Antonin Artaud and the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, but mostly in an intellectual sense, in a theatrical way. But I remember that when we started working—and especially in the drawing sessions, after the ‘Night Vater’ shoot—I began to get the sense that I myself, my intestines, my body, my tongue, could degenerate into language and I could become poetry. I started to understand Bataille, Artaud, de Sade, in a very physical, sensual way, very different from what I’d done before on stage. So, it really opened new spaces or areas in my acting experience. It felt like something I’d never done before. But on the other hand, Paul’s language wasn’t so strange to me. It somehow felt very familiar. When we first started working it felt like we were a pair of 7-year-old children who really liked each other. For me, filming in general, but especially with Paul, is always about hallucinating, an endless process of daydreaming. I really fall into areas of the subconscious where I, myself, am not able to go in my daily life. But a stage or a set is like a canvas, an abstract place, an abstract thing. And it’s easier to go into those emotions through abstraction. Then you don’t have to do it in real life. I figured my only chance is to go into these subjects through art.

‘If you just define, describe what we’re doing as, ‘we’re in character, drawing in character,’ that’s only part of it. It is more of an entanglement of the act of drawing and of the two of us, who are in and out of a persona in an attempt to make art, to enter that zone.’—Paul McCarthy

PM: I think you run into people and something begins to happen—movement. When Lilith did the seduction scene ‘theme song’ from ‘Rebel,’ she dropped into that world with no fear, an open willingness, quite great, intelligent. ‘Night Vater’ was a slow process, but the conversations were already in place from day one. In the movie ‘The Night Porter, Charlotte Rampling’s character goes into a void state, a psychological state further than Max can go. She abandons normality completely. Her husband is no more. Life on the outside of the room is no more. It’s an obsessional masochism leading to a delirium. The film is about a deep, enclosed, destructive, relationship between these two people. Max becomes a kind of caretaker, to help her, and in the end, he realizes they have to commit a form of suicide. They have to go outside where he knows they’ll be shot, and they will die, but before going outside they go back to their origins. She puts on her child dress, and he puts on his Nazi outfit, and they go out on the bridge.

When we were doing ‘NV,’ there were times when I felt that I was a mobster-boss. I was thinking about global politics as organized crime. I looked like a mafioso cliché. It just happened that way, with the mustache and the hair. I was a godfather character, a bastard. There was something real about the situation. There were moments when Lilith would just take it somewhere, and I would have to try to determine then who I was. It wasn’t like I was leading the pack or leading Lilith. We were Max and Lucia, yet we were also Paul and Lilith. And it was about the situation of the male and the female. It’s called ‘Night Vater’ because I’m older. And maybe I’m the father. And we would play, a masochistic father-daughter fantasy of ‘who’s in control?’ In ‘A&E,’ Adolf is the tyrant and the buffoon. Power shifts from Adolf to Eva. They’re both capable of evil, even though it’s obvious that the male baboon is horrific in his repression, his pent-up tic. For the drawing sessions, there is no script, no real planning. Each drawing simply begins. Lilith told me that she didn’t know how to talk about the drawing sessions, and I feel the same way. I think something happens in those sessions. Why does it work? Maybe because we let go of the need to override it and to control it. It’s also important to me that Lilith trusts the process. Then I don’t have to check myself. If you just define, describe what we are doing as ‘we’re in character, drawing in character,’ that’s only part of it. It’s more of an entanglement of the act of drawing and of the two of us, who are in and out of a persona, in an attempt to make art—to enter that zone. It’s often a chaotic, subconscious detachment and distraction. And it takes place on this platform. And the platform, for me, is reminiscent of a stage and a sculptural pedestal. Maybe it has something to do with what sits inside of us. I think it’s also about commitment and the desire to do it. The black liquid, the abject.

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‘The title A&E is an abbreviation of Adolf and Eva and also of Adam and Eve, two cultural cliché polarities,’ explains Paul McCarthy. ‘A&E can also stand for ‘arts and entertainment.’’ Still from ‘A&E Drawing Session, Santa Anita’ (2020) © Paul McCarthy

RK: And the drawings aren’t an end product but just one of the records of what happened?

PM: For me, the drawings are perfect because they can’t be something else. But I don’t mean ‘perfect’ as a celebrated artwork; there was no going back on them. There’s nothing to fix. They’re perfect because the moment was perfect. I don’t mean ‘perfect’ in some sort of art-historical way. I just mean there’s nothing you can add to them, to the event. I was focused on the drawing most of the time—the drawing, the drawing, the drawing. And Lilith was free to do whatever she wanted and to be who she wanted. But there were moments where she was doing something, and I would respond while I was drawing, and at times I would come out of the drawing and it would be a scenario. Something would happen, like a performance. I was, in a way, two or three different characters, two or three different personas. At times I was an asshole. There was a part in the script where I’d written, ‘Adolf draws on Eva’s ass.’ And, ‘Eva draws on Adolf’s ass.’ It’s less like a script than like a list. I did write ‘Adolf’ on Lilith’s/Eva’s ass. Adolf needs to be an asshole, but a buffoon-asshole. I felt like we were trying to see what it felt like to be caricatures of Adolf and Eva in these drawing sessions—the cruelty of Adolf as a caricature. We were planning to shoot the film ‘A&E’ in August of last year, 2020, and then it didn’t happen. COVID killed it. Now we’re trying to make a plan to shoot again this year, and I think both of us have spent a couple of years thinking about these characters, about these historical figures, and fascism in Germany. Fascism and the ultra-right in the world today. I’m not trying to be accurate in a portrayal of Adolf Hitler. I’m not interested in that. I’m an American Adolf. We refer to each other as an American prick or American artist, and a German cunt or a German actor. When I was drawing, Lilith was affecting what I was doing. She was sitting on me, next to me, or talking to me, or talking to herself, or shitting, or reading out loud, repeating actions, gesturing, whatever, and at other times she would just sit and watch. Then she would start up again to affect and to enter a space, a subconscious space. We would go eight or ten or twelve hours a day. But it was never like she was an art model. I rarely tried to accurately draw her. I would draw what was going through me. I often just drifted out. Oddly, I was aware and talking but unaware of time passing and only vaguely aware of what I was drawing. While Lilith was active or sitting, staring or sitting on top of me, or next to me, I would write on the drawings what she said or what I said to her. It was a liquid theater.

‘I’m interested in theater, but I’m not interested in its window. I want to eliminate the line separating the audience from the performance. The stage is viewed through a window, a rectangle. A painting is a window. We look through and at rectangles all the time, whether it’s a page of a book, a film, or TV.’—Paul McCarthy

Lilith Stangenberg as Eva and Paul McCarthy as Adolf in excerpt from ‘A & E Drawing Session,’ Day 1 Take 1 © Paul McCarthy

I’ve been going through images and videos during COVID, and there’s probably 100,000 photographs and 30 hours of video. At times, as I re-watch it I think, ‘I didn’t even know Lilith did that.’ I was looking right at Lilith, and I don’t remember her doing whatever she was doing, but there it is on the video. It is a very particular thing. A delirium involvement. I’m interested in theater, but I’m not interested in its window. I want to eliminate the line separating the audience from the performance. The stage is viewed through a window, a rectangle. A painting is a window. We look through and at rectangles all the time, whether it’s a page of a book or a film or TV. It’s about bringing the action, the performance, into life, to remove it from its flat frame. I’m interested in movies to appropriate, and then to make a new altered abstraction. I’m interested in venturing into theater, and thinking about the building of the theater, using and appropriating theater by using the entire building. To make a piece from the bone—raw expression. Meeting Lilith and Bernhard is about people and who they are, about their brains, deep diving, what kind of connections we can make, what kind of actions can we make. It may be a foul form of poetry.

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‘A&E Drawing Session’ with Lilith Stangenberg and Paul McCarthy © Paul McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens
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Paul McCarthy, A&E, CAT PUSS, Santa Anita session, 2020 © Paul McCarthy

RK: Lilith, what sort of preparation did you have to do every day to get ready for the drawing sessions? And how much of your own history as a German, along with the history of Germany in the 20th century, do you think you brought in?

LS: I didn’t have any kind of ritual or anything to get into the mood for the drawings. When I don’t know what to do, I always just do one thing over and over again in a loop, like a perpetuum mobile, because it will usually lead me into something. But when it comes to the very big, the great human emotions, I feel that they are mostly mute. There aren’t any words for them. It seems to me that sometimes you can talk about them only through images. And so, when I see the drawings that we did, they exert a tremendous power on my emotions. They are very full of something. Of course, we talked a lot and we also tried to plan things, but there was a certain magic about the accident. I really believe that there are small truths in chaos. And the drawings seem to me so much now about losing—losing control, losing a costume or a social disguise, losing power, losing everything. When I watched Paul making those drawings, it was like creation and destruction was always there at the same moment. It was almost religious for me. To your second question, I feel it’s very important to do something with the figures of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. It’s very important to use them up, to take those symbols and ideas and costumes and to wear them out. Because if you put them away, if you are not there to touch them and if you put them behind bullet-proof glass, you kind of conserve them and they can come back. We see it in so many countries now, with right-wing movements. So, it’s really good to keep confronting yourself with those ideas, because then it is harder for them to return.

‘… In art—if the art is any good—you have to put the finger into the wound.’—Lilith Stangenberg

RK: We live in a paradigm right now in which so much communication happens through really reductive forms, like Twitter. And that kind of reduction and oversimplification and reflex reaction can lead to misunderstanding and mob thinking. I’m interested in the way that a body of work like this might be read or misread. Do either of you think about that, about having to try explain more or to be more careful with really complex kinds of art that explore the darker parts of human existence?

LS: The younger generation—people even younger than I am, but my generation, too—are so much right now into the political correctness thing. And I feel like a certain level of political-correctness thinking and cancellation talk will be the end of art, in a way, because in art—if the art is any good—you have to put the finger into the wound. It’s why I really want to shoot ‘A&E.

Lilith Stangenberg as Eva and Paul McCarthy as Adolf in ‘Gun Talk’ excerpt from ‘A & E Drawing Session’ Day 4 Take 1 © Paul McCarthy

PM: I think there is an overriding conservativism within the art world now. The emphasis is on the object. It becomes a commodity, a collectible. It becomes currency. I wanted to make the drawings. I didn’t see them as compromising. But the other parts to the project—the videos, the sets—there’s nowhere for them to go. With the works like ‘NV’ or ‘CSSC’ and ‘DADDA’ [Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure], those big sets and the rubber bodies are just sitting in the studio. They’re difficult to show. I think there was a fear of it, a fear about how they would be received, that they could be misunderstood and offend viewers. With ‘A&E,’ about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, the subject has an immediate push-back and everyone is worried. But since Trump and the rise of the right wing, the subject of fascism has been floating through society. It’s in the air everywhere.

For ‘A&E,’ there’s a possibility of doing it on stage, in Germany, which we really want to do. And how will it be understood? Will the audience understand what we’re trying to do? We’re trying to make something visible, give it a form, and it’s not just giving a form to what fascism is, but we’re trying to show it in layers, to get at sub-levels of human nature. I remember in the ’60s and ’70s, in America, in school, you would see black-and-white films of Nazi Germany, and there were always soldiers, marching and goose-stepping, and Hitler screaming. And then in the ’80s I saw this film footage of a parade in Munich, during the Nazi era, but it was in color, and there were women in pink dresses, and little boys in striped shirts, and men with fedoras, and everybody clapping as a float goes by, and it’s a big gold fish, and there are riders on horses, and it’s all in front of the Haus der Kunst. And it hit me: That could be a Disneyland parade. Those people are the same. Society is vulnerable to manipulation. And maybe in part what we’re doing is trying to get to images of ourselves. It may be misunderstood, but it’s the trajectory we’re in, to try and make a form of what we are as creatures.

Lilith Stangenberg is an actor known for ‘Wild’ (2016), ‘The People Vs. Fritz Bauer’ (2015) and ‘Tatort’ (2018). From 2012 to 2016 she was part of the ensemble of the Volksbühne Berlin.

Paul McCarthy is a celebrated American artist whose multi-faceted artistic practice confronts the complex mechanisms of power, politics, desire, and history. ‘Paul McCarthy. A&E Sessions – Drawing and Painting with Lilith Stangenberg’ includes new drawings, paintings, sculpture and sound work, Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 23 February – 10 April 2021.