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Rocky comprises a single monitor video and fourteen related drawings. The video exists in an edition of five, but Tate's version is outside the edition since it is uniquely accompanied by the drawings with which it is always displayed. The video begins with a man, McCarthy himself, waiting before the camera with his back turned and then turning to face it. Wearing shorts and boxing gloves, he begins to address the viewer in muttered sounds which mimic the manner in which actor Sylvester Stallone speaks as the character Rocky in the eponymous 1976 film. He begins occasionally to hit himself on the head, as though to clear his thoughts and to demonstrate his virility, but gradually the number and violence of the blows increases. It appears as though the Rocky character is having an imaginary fight with another person, but as the film develops it turns into a masochistic fight with himself. He also smears tomato ketchup over his genitals, occasionally masturbating. Gradually the character runs out of energy as he reaches a state of exhaustion close to unconsciousness, and towards the end of the film he sinks to the floor unable to stand on his feet. The number of punches diminishes but he continues to pummel himself to senselessness. His frustrated motions, like the repetitious actions and statements in McCarthy's early video works and later performances, appear to lock him into the state of trauma which Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) described as the 'repetition compulsion'. This state can also be linked to McCarthy's admiration for the work of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), whose characters are similarly condemned to a nihilistic zone of meaningless repetition and circularity. The fourteen line drawings which accompany the video each depicts a male figure wearing nothing but a pair of boxing gloves. The figures are rendered schematically - none of the drawings include the figure's feet, for example, which further emphasizes the prominent genitals and frequently erect penis. In each of the drawings the figure adopts slightly different postures, holding his fists aloft in what appear to be pathetic attempts to look threatening. The penultimate drawing has the boxer masturbating, and in the final image he ejaculates while simultaneously punching himself in the face.
The title of the work refers to the blockbuster film Rocky starring Sylvester Stallone which won an Oscar for best picture in 1976. Billed as 'the success of an everyman who triumphs against the odds', this film depicts the rise to fame, self-knowledge and masculine fulfilment of a boxer played by Stallone. In contrast, McCarthy's video reveals a social failure - a man whose behaviour would be described as dysfunctional. Characteristically, McCarthy externalises inward pain and turmoil with dramatic poignancy, yet at the same time his use of humour and horror appears to undercut the values of a society that exalts Stallone's Rocky. Instead we are forced to recognise that for all the kitsch, B-movie horror effects, McCarthy's deviant boxer is the more familiar character from the pages of our newspapers. McCarthy pulls no punches - his Rocky is both unbearable and yet compelling, revolting and also comic. As Ralph Rugoff has suggested, 'the task of art, McCarthy proposes, is not to conceal our cultural aggression against the body, but to desublimate the social mechanisms and congealed images which veil this assault' (Paul McCarthy, 1996, p.36).
Ralph Rugoff, Kristine Stiles, Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Paul McCarthy, London 1996.
Paul McCarthy: 'The Dimensions of the Mind': The Denial and the Desire in the Spectacle, exhibition catalogue, Sammlung Hauser und Wirth, Cologne 2000.
Paul McCarthy, exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2000, p.128.
Revised by Helen Delaney January 2002