Full Exposure: Paul and Damon McCarthy's Pirate Party

Deconstructing Disney

Deconstructing Disney: The Architecture of Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Pirate Party

Nathan Bullock


Abstract: Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Pirate Party (2005) deconstructs the values represented in the Disney-infused architectural fantasy of the ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the American culture that it purports to represent and contributes to inventing. The McCarthys’ playful, disturbing performance of sex and gore takes place in an impermanent architectural stage set comprised of a makeshift pirate’s ship and a rickety town with windows open to bedrooms. This proscenium configuration unsettles while it unmasks the simulacra of the hidden violence of Disneyland in a radical, performative, architectural space that equally requires museums and galleries to transform their own settings into anti-Disney sites.

Figure 1 Photograph no. 10 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 1 Photograph no. 10 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Pirate Party is one in a long line of Paul McCarthy’s performances and installations that address ersatz architectural façades and “consumer icons from the entertainment industry – Hollywood, television, [and] theme parks.”[1] Deconstructing the set of the Disney ride, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Pirate Party derides the ultimate simulacrum of mainstream American architectural fantasies in three distinct ways. First, in recreating a mock theme park experience, the stage set of Pirate Party, comprised as it is of impermanent and unpolished materials, suggests the sham of the Disney façade. Second, the action that occurs within, and in tandem with, the architectural set is one that contradicts and exposes the covert, buried violence of Disney’s ride. Third, through the Pirate Party portfolio of seventy-nine photographs created for the purpose of museum or gallery display, McCarthy inherently manipulates both institutions to become anti-Disney spaces by their very curatorial decision to hang the subversive photographs. Each of these categories of analysis is built on the layered synecdoche of Disneyà Hollywoodà Los Angelesà Californiaà USA. That is to say that as specific as Pirate Party may be to the Disney ride that inspired it, the inherent critiques and responses operate not only on a micro scale but also extend to the whole of mainstream American culture.


The Unpolished Theme Park

Disneyland is uncommonly, or uncannily, clean, planned, and controlled in its architectural design. Disney rides are repetitive and well maintained. The materials used are chosen and designed in a way to create the perfect façade, or camouflage. Whether a castle, Main Street, or the animal kingdom, the attention to detail is key to providing the experience of otherworldliness in the architecture of the polished theme park. The characters have perfectly fitted outfits and costuming departments regulate those who will play which part and when. Each oversized fictional character of, for example, Tigger or of Captain Hook would be banished if ever an actor removed his or her mask or stepped out of character. The timing of musical parades and fireworks are choreographed ad nauseam, repeating the same schedule on a daily basis. Each of these features ensures the reproducibility and familiarity of the Disney experience whether in California, Florida, Paris, or Hong Kong.

Figure 2 Photograph no. 41 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 2 Photograph no. 41 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

McCarthy regularly works to upset the balance of symmetry, expectations, and standard architectural conventions in all of his sets and installations, and this is particularly the case in Pirate Party, which took over a month to perform, lacked a script and a well-defined cast, and took place in an ephemeral architecture, housed in a huge warehouse/studio that can be seen in almost every photograph.[2] In particular, photographs nos. 10, 41 to 45, and 55 offer a “behind the scenes” glimpse at the thin veneer of the set. In photograph no. 10, a pirate character in an uncoordinated costume is hooded by an oversized head mask that faces backwards (Fig. 1). The costume is assembled as a child might when playing make-believe with found objects in the home, or as a last minute Halloween costume might be jumbled together from one’s closet, requiring neither coordination with other characters’ costumes nor internal consistency of color, material, size, or design. Similarly, the architecture featured in the background of this photograph is provisional, lacking the coordination and consistency of a professional set designer or Disney approved architect. Moreover, the backdrop for the pirate in this photograph, the character with the backward looking pirate head who gazes at its equally fake sword, is comprised of the scaffolding for building the Pirate Party sets. At the very top left, the presence of another character visibly indicates that this scene takes place behind the wall of the main action. However, one can also see in the left background the green legs of a platform that serves as the setting of the main image in photograph no. 55 (among others). The discordance and confusion of architectural details makes the set as a whole unreadable and contributes to its stridency. One has the sense of being in the performance, but the characters’ various poses and conflicting visual clues confound the architectural language of exteriors and interiors such that the set itself underscores the dissonance intended by the performance.

Figure 3 Photograph no. 42 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 3 Photograph no. 42 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

The makeshift nature of the architecture and its façade is most apparent in the series of photographs nos. 41 to 45. Beginning in photograph no. 41, McCarthy writes with a black marker on the plywood board that may or may not also be one of the walls from the rest of the series (Fig. 2). Here he sketches out details of the performance on and in the architecture itself in which he is a character. While permanent marker suggests a non-erasable plan, the planning occurs while in costume and in medias res, thereby revealing the ad hoc nature of the action and the construction in which it takes place. Photograph no. 42 shows the main stage of the town where the pirates attack villagers (Fig. 3). The fake village is set against a backdrop of a thin wooden wall, whose surface is uneven, irregular in shape, untreated, and unpainted. The openings cut in for doors on the first floor and the cannons at the mid-level are rough, off-center, and asymmetrical. There is a marked absence of technical precision which leaves the viewer with only an abstract image of this structure being a house. Photograph no. 45 reveals the lack of depth in the architectural construction itself when the “Lady in Red” character dangles her leg over its edge (Fig. 4). Here one sees that the wooden wall is no thicker than her calf muscle and that there is no volume to this structure. Viewers may surmise that she and her fellow characters merely stand on, and are supported by, a tiny scaffolding ledge as is evident in photograph no. 10 (Fig. 1).

Figure 4 Photograph no. 45 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 4 Photograph no. 45 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Directly behind her, the building is revealed to be a void, allowing a clear view of the ceiling of lighting fixtures, as well as the warehouse in which the performance takes place. The empty space of the steel beams is a reminder that a warehouse is an architecture of emptiness with no inherent content, or what Jean Baudrillard described as a “non-place” in his The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1998). The makeshift structure of the foreground and all the other temporary wooden walls are all subservient to the metal box in which they are stored. One must enter the space of the warehouse, itself a permanent structure with a nondescript entrance, in order to view and experience the fantasy land of McCarthy’s performance. Analogously, Disney’s physical architecture is also fantastical, only a more expensive and elaborate version of McCarthy’s set. Disneyland’s false permanence is not truly inhabitable: neither the actors nor the guests reside in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride or any other part of the park. This mirage of Disney’s image is protected by, subservient to, and only accessible through the dominant American culture which houses it. Indeed, this fragility makes evident the precarious nature of the falsity perpetuated by Disney and mainstream American culture vis-à-vis abuse and control in all of its guises, whether political, social, domestic, or sexual, etc. Just as with the building technique, the characters in Pirate Party lack uniformity as noted above. Each character is not easily recognized by the visual cues of his or her costume in the way a Disney character is designed to become familiar to the audience. Furthermore, one cannot view each and every character in Pirate Party and decisively discern what role he or she is meant to play. Some actors change costumes and play multiple roles adding ambiguity to the ability to name their character as in a traditional cast. Several wear masks or make use of prostheses but, again, these accessories are used inconsistently.

Figure 5 Photograph no. 55 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 5 Photograph no. 55 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Instead of perfectly matching props with special effects, McCarthy uses symbolism and meaning is derived by implication and association. This is particularly true in his signature use of margarine and other food products to represent blood and gore, which are not only used for bodies but to enhance his sets. For example, chocolate syrup runs in a line from a hole in the top of a wall directly down the front of another provisional structure in photograph no. 55 (Fig. 5). The chocolate dribble draws the viewer’s eye from the top of the building down to the floor where miscellaneous debris is scattered, including a mop (presumably used to clean up the mess after the action is over). This photograph reveals even more obviously that McCarthy used the cheapest quality of wood for his improvised set, which has the feel of being as precarious as cardboard. This hazardous-appearing environment of oddly slanted shapes augments the impression of the whole architectural apparatus leaning and or being barely supported by a foundation, or existing with none at all. The multiple holes in circular and square shapes are scattered throughout the construction with unclear purposes, except perhaps to convey a ship’s portholes. The ever-present visible platform doubles as the bow of the ship, which is the most convincing structure in the unstable ensemble. Its instability underscores the very content of Pirate Party and its salacious metaphors and metonymic connection to Disneyland itself. The psychic instability of explicit, yet harmless, brutality in the performance feeds off of the physical instability of the architecture. At the height of the structure in the tallest porthole, from which the chocolate drips, an anonymous buttock is clearly visible, “mooning” viewers. This affronting image provides a segue for understanding how the performative actions conform with the brilliantly orchestrated, equally depraved, architecture.


Idyllic vs. Violent

Disney’s Main Street and all the ancillary story lines and adjacent fantasy lands are not only landscaped and manicured to heighten the aesthetic experience, but also to maximize the comfort level of visitors. And while situated in the urban setting in Anaheim, California, its careful, unspoiled architecture and pristine landscape keep Disneyland free from interference in the fantasy, similar to a gambling establishment without clocks and natural light.[3] In this way, visitors’ senses are altered so that they focus solely on Disney’s prepared narratives and performances. This effect minimizes distractions and keeps the audience’s attention unidirectional so that visitors imagine inhabiting this wonderland; believe in its magic far from the quotidian of everyday life; acquiesce to the notion that it is a quintessentially “family-friendly” place; and plan for it to be the perfect vacation destination.

Figure 6 Photograph no. 69 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 6 Photograph no. 69 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Ironically, while Disneyland constructs a socially conditioned world beyond the restrictions of real circumstance, so, too, does Pirate Party. But rather than a dream place, it offers an oppressive, restricting nightmare where social conditioning has gone awry. The repressive constant close up surveillance of the video camera witnesses the suffocating space of the surrounding architecture depicted in photographs nos. 68-73, and especially vivid in photograph no. 69 (Fig. 6). Here women wrestle and struggle with each other underneath a floor in the claustrophobic, enclosed, and threatening space of one of the makeshift structures. Their tussle implies the possibility of constantly risking hitting their heads on the ceiling of the dark space, which is only illuminated by the camera. There are no entrances or exits, just a crawl space to some sort of hellish event. Just as Lisa Philips has commented, “the sense of containment, entrapment, and discomfort caused by confined spaces is another recurring motif experienced throughout McCarthy’s work.”[4] Such spatial captivity is analogous to the hostage taking that Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” masks with waterfalls and villages and a lazy river along which one glides to witness the action. The ride is seemingly the result of Walt Disney’s open-ended creativity but is in fact just one more container to restrict the viewer.[5]

Within the strictures of its malevolent architectural space, McCarthy’s performance contradicts the white-wash of the Disney environment, which glosses over and covers up the very vices, crimes, and scandals that it extols in its theme song “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” 1967, which is played throughout the ride. With music by George Bruns and lyrics by Xavier Atencio, the pirate is represented in the song as one who claims:

to pillage…plunder…rifle and loot…kidnap and ravage and don’t give a hoot…extort and pilfer…filch and sack…maraud and embezzle and even highjack…kindle and char and enflame and ignite [and] burn up the city, [as self-proclaimed] scoundrels…villains and knaves…devils and black sheep [and] really bad eggs…beggars and blighters and ne’er do-well cads….loved by our mommies and dads.[6]

In Pirate Party, McCarthy and crew shrewdly, and with tongue-in-cheek, render vivid the lyrics of the song, bringing to life the vicious elements of a pirate’s life and their repressed implications in the Disney ride, as well as in the celebration of such rogues in American society. The conventional beauty and banal postmodern pastiche of Disney’s architecture effectively veils the brutality of the actions. But McCarthy’s intentionally foul and ugly set design and abject and repulsive actions are no more or less abhorrent than Disney’s fantasies, as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride includes sacking and looting a town, drunken marauding, and human trafficking.

Indeed, when it opened in 1967 the ride’s skeletons were even composed of actual human bones courtesy of the UCLA medical school, which when discovered were removed and replaced with replicas![7] While McCarthy’s industrial warehouse of surplus and discarded architecture is a safe space for him as an artist to create his work, for the viewer, accustomed to Disney façades,  it is an unsafe, unstable, repugnant environment, or what one employee at the Nasher Museum of Art described as “obscene.” But those who take the time to more closely examine the work, and who familiarize themselves with the Disney ride, will find that Pirate Party is a thoughtful exposé that reveals the psychic underbelly of Disney’s environment to be as psychologically and physically unsafe as the physical and psychic space McCarthy constructs and the roles he appropriates to satirize the ride.[8]


Museum vs. Magic Kingdom

Pirate Party brings audiences psychologically into the savagery of “Pirates of the Caribbean” through its photographic and video exposé, yet ostensibly protects viewers in the authoritative shelter of the museum and gallery. While the architecture of a museum may be increasingly as grand and fantastical as Disneyland (think of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain), museums conventionally present art and artifacts as representations of scientific and art historical research, scholarship meant to provide evidence of cultural truth and beauty. The public, therefore, has come to interact habitually with museum objects in a way that assumes their educational mission. To confront the photographs of Pirate Party in a museum exhibition, then, is to encounter them in a space thought to be held to the highest cultural standards. The architecture of the gallery, too, with its white walls, frames, and wall texts that document objects with names, titles, dates, dimensions, materials, accession numbers, provenance, donor, and other pertinent information, provides the singular message that these are items of historical value whose authority has been ratified by the legacy of the buildings that house them.

Figure 7 Photograph no. 77 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 7 Photograph no. 77 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Museums are more easily accessible and available to a broader range of people than is Disneyland. Museums change their displays frequently and one must revisit to continue learning and seeing new works, whereas Disney’s animatronics recur day after day, year after year, on rote repetition. In a museum one can be led by a docent or curator and told what to think and how to interpret, or at least be offered an explanation of an object’s significance. However, in his selection of precise photographic and video documentation of Pirate Party, McCarthy has carefully and consciously curated the performance for the museum or gallery, decisively altering their architectural spaces into anti-Disneyland spaces. For the shock, controversy, and censorship that sometimes anticipates and follows the display of a body of work like Pirate Party is precisely the reaction that McCarthy elicits. Directed at the referent, Disney and mainstream American society, McCarthy radically repurposes the museum and gallery as an architectural site that, in displaying his art, confirms these spaces as corroborating his critique.

Let me consider an example of this point further. Pirate Party may require warning signs to enter an exhibition, which some might find offensive or require adult supervision, as its content may be held to be unfit for children, even though the museum is not primarily a place of fantasy like Disneyland, but a place of fact and history. Among the photographs of Pirate Party that many may find most objectionable are the last five in the series, nos. 74 through 79. These best exemplify Pirate Party’s putative “objectionable content,” an American puritanism not necessarily shared elsewhere in the world.[9] This final series includes the gradual disrobing of the “Lady in Red,” drawing attention away from the set and surrounding architecture and objects: a ladder (in nos. 74, 76, and 77), the ship (in nos. 77 and 79), the townhouse (in nos. 74, 75, 76, 77, and 79), and the scaffolding (in nos. 78).

In this final series of photographs, the female body is displayed nude and in various positions, capturing viewers’ full attention, despite the distractions of the cluttered and changing architecture of the surrounding space. In Photograph no. 77, the camera is set at a low angle and the Lady in Red lies naked on the floor (Fig. 7). Behind her is an empty chair and stool, the very edge of the ship, a ladder that juts out of the frame of the photograph, and the main building, representing the town fading into a black background. Here the lighting most richly illuminates her white skin directing the audience’s attention to her curvaceous body instead of at the massive, looming, built environment.

Figure 8 Photograph no. 8 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Figure 8 Photograph no. 8 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

What is particularly striking about her juxtaposition with the architecture is that the male body has been the basis of ideal architectural proportions since Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of The Vitruvian Man (ca. 1490). But this prone woman with an hourglass figure, a perfect representation of mainstream American standards of the 1950s, highlights the ill-proportioned makeshift architecture of McCarthy’s set. In this way, she equally upsets ideals of architecture. Turning viewers’ eyes from the stage set, McCarthy closes his visual commentary on the content of Pirate Party in the crescendo of the final portfolio, photograph, no. 79, in which the Lady in Red lies on her back, legs, slightly open, facing the camera (Fig. 8). Her right hand covers her crotch alluding to masturbation while her left arm covers her left breast and her left hand covers her face, either as a sign of embarrassment or ecstasy.[10] In this photograph, content triumphs over form and no amount of architectural distraction can mask the scene that some find “obscene.”

Whereas Disneyland is a playground meant to enhance perpetual childhood, the museum is a cultural center meant to expand knowledge. McCarthy’s critique concludes with the complete rejection of the Disneyland aesthetic as a masturbatory apotheosis of American architectural and cultural expression. His call to action includes daring museums and galleries to exhibit Pirate Party and to become critical spaces. McCarthy’s call to audiences is to put an end to the forms of abjection and abuse that he portrays. In opening the public’s eyes to the debauchery and decrepit architecture of his performative actions and places, McCarthy asks that viewers alter their visual and mental perspectives in order to come to terms with such realities in society at large.


All images: Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio, 2005. One of 79 color photographs, edition 5/10, 20 x 13 1/4 inches (50.8 x 33.7 cm) each. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Promised gift of Blake Byrne, T’57. Images courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth, New York, New York. © Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy.

[1] Lisa Phillips, “Paul McCarthy’s Theater of the Body” in Paul McCarthy (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000), 2.

[2] Donatien Grau reminds us that McCarthy has long been fascinated by the history of inversion, see Grau’s “The Sky Is No Limit” in The Box: Paul McCarthy, ed. Joachim Jäger (Berlin: Nationalgaleie, 2012), 123.

[3] For more on this manipulative agency of architecture see, Annabel Wharton, Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[4] Philips, “Paul McCarthy’s Theater of the Body,” 4.

[5] Joachim Jäger has also observed in other work that “McCarthy calls our attention to the inexorability of human existence, to its physical and psychological conditions, as well as to the way in which the individual is inextricably implicated in a socially conditioned everyday culture.” See Jäger’s “The Box in the Box: McCarthy at Mies van der Rohe” in The Box: Paul McCarthy (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2014), 31.

[6] “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” on The Disney Wiki, http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Yo_Ho_%28A_Pirate’s_Life_for_Me%29.

[7] See, Jason Surrell, Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (New York: Disney Editions, 2005).

[8]  See, Dan Miller, “Disney admits boy, 12, lacerated four fingers on Pirates of the Caribbean ride three months before British tourist had two fingers severed,” The Daily Mail (July 21, 2014), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2700320/Disney-admits-boy-12-lacerated-four-fingers-Pirates-Caribbean-ride-three-months-British-tourist-two-fingers-severed.html. See this article for a list of injuries reported only in 2014.

[9] Except maybe in Singapore which has been known to censor its own Art Biennale and ban local filmmakers from screening their own work.

[10] Her pose is also highly reminiscent of the majorly controversial work by Marcel Duchamp, Étant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946-1966), permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969. Discussion of this allusion in Pirate Party deserves another essay.