Maria Gonzalez loves to make a scene in public, but since her divorce, a ready victim has been hard to come by. So imagine her delight when she received a Paco Cao Rent a Body gift certificate for her birthday.
The piece of paper entitled her to one hour with a man named Paco Cao and the right to do with him what she pleased, as long as it didn't involve sex or violence.
Gonzalez's choice? She planted Cao on a teeming Greenwich Village street corner and yelled insults at him. ("Idiot" is the only one that can be printed here.)
Was it art? A spectacle? A philosophical exercise? Wackiness? You decide.
An art historian, Cao came to the United States from Spain to explore the connections between the marketplace and art. Now he has made it a full-time job with help from Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that sponsors public art projects in the city.
"From the end of 1993 until now, I study this," Cao says in the awkward English of a newcomer. "It's a big project."
"Everybody is rented in a sense," he muses. "Everybody is paid for work. We think we are free, but that is not a real truth."
Cao is a diminutive man with round, wide-framed glasses that look too heavy for his head. His resolute countenance and earnest demeanor suggest he takes his weird vocation very seriously.
He doesn't preach to his customers. He wants them to use their imaginations, and, to help them, he has produced a brochure with pertinent information about himself.
Take his body, for example: It's 31 years old, leptosomic (slender) and psychologically stable (if eccentric).
For $35 an hour, Cao can be rented as a prop. Double that fee, and he'll perform tasks and "engage in active and dynamic conversation with the customer." For $150 an hour, the customer gets "total mind function"--say, Cao as a replacement at a business or social engagement.
Cao has placed brochures in libraries, stores and other public places. He gets calls every day, most seeking more information. So far, he has had more than 20 jobs--though none, alas, of the $150 variety.
Cao recently sat on the subway for three hours, holding a sign that said: "This body has been rented to stay in this place for three hours. Please don't disturb the body or talk with it. If you have suggestions, write on paper below."
One person wrote that Cao was a fool. Another said he liked his glasses. Several felt compelled to violate the instructions and offer warnings, such as: "Please, you don't know. You are in the Bronx. . . ."
The subway assignment came from an acquaintance who rented Cao as "an intellectual exercise."
Gonzalez's sidewalk scene, on the other hand, was just for fun.
"I like making public scenes, attracting attention," she says. "I thought that it would be funny to rent a man for an hour and play with him, yell at him. I used to insult my husband."
Cao says it's not for him to question his client's wishes. And anyway, he notes, being humiliated on a street corner "wasn't really hard. I was more like a character than myself. It's my work, so I wasn't embarrassed."
Afterward, the two even had coffee together.
"She's a very nice woman," Cao says.
Then there are Cao's institutional clients.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooklyn wanted to bring more drama to its Holy Week rituals, so Pastor David Anglada hired Cao to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus.
During Good Friday services, Cao entered the church with a cotton sheath around his waist and smeared with pig's blood and dirt, lugging a 5-by-20-foot homemade cross made of splintered wood.
He spent the next hour strapped to the cross, which was attached to a beam in the front of the church. On Sunday, he returned in a white robe, to the applause of the congregation.
Cao reprised the sacrificial theme in a very different setting several weeks later, when he was hired by a sadomasochistic accessories shop in New York's East Village, an anything-goes neighborhood.
His arms chained to the ceiling of a display window ringed with burning candles, occasionally writhing in a show of pain, Cao was again smeared with dirt and pig's blood. His only garments were a white sheath and a black shoulder-length wig. Techno-pop music drifted from the store.
"I think it's fabulous," says store owner Arjan Khiani, whose skull is covered with tattoos. "I love the different emotions it creates in people. Some people don't like it, but they stop and look, and they're stuck here."
Some passersby looked at Cao and kept going. Others were slowed by pure disbelief. "Oh, lovely," one woman said in disgust. And then there were those who looked at Cao, then quickly pretended they hadn't.
The next day Cao was his usual earnest self. He thought his performance was a success, though he was typically reluctant to define what he thought it was about.
"I try to give the customer exactly what they need from me," he says. "It was hard work, but I think I did it."