content warning: racism, death, gore
I will tell my story as truthfully as possible. I can in no way justify my actions, but hope that through this detailed account I might better unpack their implications.
It is the story of a seemingly empty absurdist gesture taking on unforeseen political weight. It is the story of art as splurge, art as cargo, and art as burden.
The story of things taken (about 3,037 miles) too far.
Part 1: The Set-Up
R stuffed another Taki into his mouth, a tiny crunch registering through my laptop speakers.
“So you’re serious about this clown thing, huh?”
R was multitasking, he was driving, eating, and video chatting with his computer balanced precariously on the dashboard of his car. On the other side of the call, I was tugging at the eye-holes of my sky-blue balaclava, fabric itchy and damp with breath. Bodily comfort had to be compromised to maintain anonymity, in this situation.
“Yes, I’m serious, I think. I mean, I can’t think of anything I would rather have.”
“And what would you do with it?”
“Like, art stuff. I would put it on display. I would make a name for myself.”
Earlier in the conversation, R had given me a digital tour of his Los Angeles residence, whirling his laptop around to show me school photos, thematic wall hangings, family pets, etc. I was surprised by how much I liked him, given that prior to our Skype call, I saw him as something of a cyberbully. He’d heard of me through a mutual friend, and in his summer idyll, started spamming me deadpan post-ironic insults over Facebook. I noticed his post about a scary clown and in an effort to turn his own aesthetics against him, I offered a punk ultimatum: “Buy me this $769, full-size ‘Clown Autopsy’ Halloween prop, or never talk to me again.”
The clown had been in my purview for a few months at that point, since I spotted it in Ghost Ride Productions’ “New for 2016” product gallery. Ghost Ride is one of the biggest names in monstrosities, elevating morbid simulacra to the level of Renaissance artistry. In the ingenuity of their humanoid animatronic rigs (“Kickers,” “Wall Crawlers”), the sheer diversity of customizable finishes (“Acid,” “Frozen,” “Rotten,” et al.), and inventiveness of their product lines (“Butcher Shop,”) Ghost Ride is peerless. With a few clicks, any one of these grotesqueries can be yours.
I purchased “Sons of Wilbur,” my well-loved pile of polyurethane pig entrails, from the site in summer 2015. “Sons” quickly became a fallback for my video work and provocative fashion styling. It was shot by a friend on 16mm analog film in a dorm shower; another time, strapped to my chest and worn to John Waters’ standup comedy show as a gesture of solidarity. Depending on the context, it could toggle between anthropomorphism and base materiality, trompe l’oeil realism, and unconvincing camp.
The clown was a different matter. While “Sons of Wilbur” exists on the intimate scale of the commodity, the clown was confrontational, human-size. I could imagine him among the morbid dolls, horror props, medical models and automata in Mike Kelley’s 1993 exhibition “The Uncanny.” Kelley describes how, due to their large scale, “the objects displayed maintain their physical presence, (..) hold[ing] their own power in relation to the viewer.” Nothing I fabricated with my own hands had ever tapped into this power. Due to my petite frame, hypochondria and chemical sensitivities, I had thus far avoided producing large-scale work. Instead my ‘art’ was detailed, anemic in its use of materials, with very limited appeal to the fine arts gallery scene. The dead clown could change all that. At the tender age of 20, I might enter the same pantheon as Jeff Koons’ sculptures, decoupling labor from artistic production.
This was, of course, a joke and a fantasy. Ordering a pre-made large-scale art piece was obscenely wasteful, impossible, given my financial situation, and unprecedented even in a privileged environment like Brown. And unlike a Koons, designed by the artist and actualized by assistants, the piece wasn’t even built to my specifications—authorship issues abounded.
And, plus, it’s no longer 1993, and the uncanny perversion of childhood memories is a dead-on-arrival cliché. It was a joke.
But, when I made the punk joke to cyberbully R, the punk joke that only buying a dead clown would excuse his rudeness—his answer was uncanny in a different sense.
“Here is my offer...”
(At the frothing estuary of truth and fiction, the essence of punk lies in actualization).
Part 2: Clown Contract
1. Ghost Ride Productions’ Autopsy Clown ($769 plus shipping and handling) will be purchased for Mitsy Albumen by R before the end of the summer break (September 1).
A photograph of Mitsy with the clown will be sent to R to certify that it has arrived.
2. In return, once the clown is received Mitsy agrees to:
A. House R for up to 3 nights in Providence after the clown has arrived. He will sleep on the floor, obey dorm policy and make no physical contact with Mitsy. She cannot be expected to entertain him 24/7. He cannot interfere with her schoolwork. If they are seen together, she will say he is her friend from tumblr.
B. Draw one portrait of R based on a photo he provides (8x11 ½, graphite).
C. Shoot an original video, dancing in Times Square to the song “Salad Days” by
Mac Demarco. Video will be shot in a single take, and all other creative decisions will be Mitsy’s own. Video length will be the duration of the song. Costume will be humorous and original.
3. No further favors, conditions or stipulations can be tacked onto the contract once it is signed. Parties will treat one another with geniality and human decency throughout the course of the transaction.
And so, with a little bit of pestering, and a few allusions to ‘greatness’ (i.e. clown patronage) as something ‘so rarely thrust upon us,’ I secured a deal with R. I promised him the purchase was just an investment, and that when I was a famous artist, the clown would sell for at least five times his initial contribution. The story of my acquisition soon became invaluable as a conversation starter, helping me cultivate a reputation of no-holds-barred fuckery. I was bragging to everyone I knew that, "I actually made a ton of money this summer, just a lot of it is in clown capital.”
When I described the specifics of the contract to my childhood friend—and worse, that I was meeting R in L.A. to complete the transaction—she said she’d have bought me the clown herself, to save me the debasement. The first thought in my head: “Two clowns…” (And a later thought—Clown Forest).
Part 3: The Arrival
My visit with R was delightful, and along with loading clown funds onto Paypal cards, he had given me a scenic tour of LA and a place to stay overnight.
I could have just made away with his money. In this position, Dear Reader—with your pronounced indifference to matters clownish—I’m sure you would have. But I couldn’t betray R’s trust. The plot was already in motion, and I would have to fulfill my end of the deal.
In the process of placing the order with Ghost Ride, I ran into an overwhelming series of bureaucratic obstacles—missing invoices, extensive cyber-security measures, decalibrated PIN numbers and shipping miscommunications among them.
Throughout this process, I began to question the ethics of my scheme. I wondered what would happen when I unveiled said clown before an audience of peers—would they be physically repulsed? Was shock value alive today? (According to John Waters, it was impossible for my generation to be shocking. When he told the audience this, I heaved with anger behind my pile of pig guts).
But it wasn’t until December, when the clown was shipped out of Washington state—making a cross-country funerary procession like Abraham Lincoln—that I gave the matter any serious thought. Many saw the the election as a dark consequence of our collective hunger for sensationalism, and I was acting as just another decadent. In a new age of collective action, it seemed irresponsible to leverage so much capital into a self-promotional prank.
The clown was dead weight.
Over winter break I told my friends I would return him. I would ship him back, albeit at great ecological expense, and wash my hands of the whole affair. This was the dream.
Back on campus, I would face a stark reality. A six foot five cardboard box was wheeled out from the back of the mail room by an (unknowingly) uncanny valet. The clown was officially a real object in my possession, among other objects like my desk lamp, my swamp-moss jacket and my S’well bottle.
It was my responsibility, now, to marshal disgust to progressive ends. Working with this imagery would be bit like maneuvering a clown car: too loaded to completely control. But the title and exhibition venue would bear greatly on its perceived meaning—plus I might make modifications, like shrouding the clown or changing his clothes.
I was hopeful. But soon my research opened onto new dimensions of horror—an implicit history of violence inscribed in this explicitly violent piece of kitsch.
Could this clown succeed as a critically-engaged work that testified to the abjection of our current political regime, all without becoming ‘part of the problem’? An answer began to take shape. And the answer was no.
Part 4: Clownalysis
A contemporary artwork is always in dialogue with its predecessors, so I began thinking about works which bore immediate thematic relation to my piece.
Perhaps the most salient example of clowning in performance work is “Clown Torture” by Bruce Nauman—a 1987 four channel video that shows clowns flailing, mewling, throwing fits and taking shits on surveillance footage. The humor of the looping actions is quickly overtaken by horror. The piece serves as a thinly veiled commentary on the artist’s affective labor, living under constant public scrutiny as a contemporary jester figure. If art has been dematerialized, bleeding into life, then the artist is never offstage. They must exhaust themselves, like the manic clown figure, producing novelty after novelty for their bemused audience.
But I hesitate to position the clown as a surrogate figure for myself, given the associations with groups like the Insane Clown Posse and the “Scary Clown Sighting” video craze. Starting around August 2016, reports of evil clowns lurking near parks, schools and other communal spaces began to proliferate. The phenomenon blew up on social media, sweeping across every state in the US, and leading to an international surge in clown scares. If a clown is now nothing but an anonymous, conformist bully, I bear no personal claim on clowndom.
The clown might read as a martyr, but his cause would be unclear. In a TV procedural, investigators would conclude that his own stupidity, rather than external forces, was the probable cause of death. Until now I have spared you a detailed description of the body, but I will offer you one with a red-alert content warning for gore. The clown is d-e-a-d, with one end of a handkerchief chain coming out of its mouth and the other emerging from a bloody abdominal cavity. In the real-life performance of the trick, the clown gives the illusion of an endless scarf coming from his or her mouth when really the cloth is being pulled from a clenched fist. Ghost Ride’s literalized depiction of the trick as a cloth linkage that the clown both consumes and excretes testifies to the production house’s own politics. They see a simple binary between illusion and fatality. The clown choked trying to do his trick without ‘faking it.’
It almost goes without saying that when there is a body, there is a body politic. With all the shades of uncanny at one’s disposal, there must be a good reason to choose such a direct mode of address as the corpse.
So what are the politics of this clown?
A bit of research into the history of clown aesthetics yielded a horrifying discovery. I had already gleaned that the patches and 5:00 shadow of many clowns mocked the working classes. But I now discovered that the iconic painted mouth and curly wig actually trace back to the racist minstrel show of the 19th century. Confronted with my own ignorance, I was sick to my stomach. Like a plastic cadaver, the horrors of history never dematerialize—often they just keep their form and lose their context. I can learn this lesson many, many times, but the shock is never lessened. It’s awe-inducing how much of the imagery we encounter daily can be traced back to the imposition of oppressive and dehumanizing social hierarchies. How could I acknowledge this painful history and do justice to identity politics when a clown, in any context, reads as parodic? It would be evident that my own critique was mounted after-the fact—a white artist’s save-face, as surface-level as a clown’s makeup.
The clown, who I had once felt affection for, was shaping up to be a bloated effigy of intolerance. Perhaps it could be repurposed for a Trump rally—carried through the streets rather than positioned in the patriarchal austerity of the gallery space.
I was continuously led back to the question: Can we learn to avoid depravity by studying its image? Or are we too captivated—as I was—by the pleasures of the grotesque?
I say all of this having never seen the clown with my own two eyes, having stored it, in an unopened box, in a janitor’s closet on campus, thereby deferring the entire conceptual dilemma.
Part 5: A Parting Note
The clown is kind of funny, from an art critic’s standpoint.
In the mistaken conflation of found object art and hyperrealism, I might have created the most allegorical sculpture of all time. It speaks to the clownish pointlessness of artwork in general, and the circus-like nonstop absurdism of art-as-life.
Since I promised R a return on investment, it is a body bound by debt—the missing pound of flesh. The clown demonstrates its own metacriticality. Problematics of form and content, of inside becoming outside, are often figured by theorists as an open wound.
But to frame the clown as wholly metaphoric ignores the fact that death is not just a metaphor. Cruelty, and the history of cruelty is not just a metaphor.
The monster in the closet is very real.
MITSY ALBUMEN '18 invites you to Clownspringa.