Paul McCarthy’s ‘tree’ sculpture may be gone, but it lives on in memes

The controversial, inflatable sculpture "Tree" by L.A. artist Paul McCarthy sits deflated in Paris on Saturday, after vandals tampered with the cables securing it and the pump keeping it inflated.
(Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images)

Since the middle of last week, it’s been the sculpture that so many have been talking about: L.A. artist Paul McCarthy’s “Tree,” an 80-foot inflatable that towered over the Place Vendôme in Paris for just a couple of days before being unceremoniously deflated by vandals on Saturday.

“Tree” bears a striking resemblance to an abstracted Christmas tree. It also bears a striking resemblance to a sex toy (a motif that the notorious McCarthy has explored quite regularly in the past). Since its installation Oct. 16, in advance of the FIAC art fair, scheduled to open on Oct. 23, some Parisians had expressed dismay over the piece on social media, with a tweeter for a right wing group exclaiming, “Place Vendôme #disfigured! Paris humiliated!”

Moreover, during installation last week, McCarthy was attacked by a man who struck him in the face repeatedly as he screamed at him, an exchange that was witnessed by a reporter from the French daily Le Monde. (The paper has a worthwhile video of the installation, featuring an interview with McCarthy in English, but it does not include footage of the attack.)


All of this led up to Saturday, when vandals cut cords that supported the sculpture and then tampered with the machine that kept it inflated. The work quickly became a puddle of green.

McCarthy, whose last museum solo show in Los Angeles was at the Hammer Museum in 2011, will not reinstall the piece. But just because it’s gone, doesn’t mean that it will be forgotten. For one, it will now join a prominent list of works that have been vandalized: the smashed Ai Weiwei vase, the beheaded Margaret Thatcher statue and the spray-paint vandalism of Picasso’s “Guernica” back in 1974.

More significantly, it’s well on its way to becoming a popular Internet art meme, with mash-ups of the sculpture popping up all over social media. This includes a hilarious collage produced by San Diego arts aficionado Zach Alan (embedded in this post), which replaces the mysterious black plinth in “2001: A Space Odyssey” with McCarthy’s naughty tree. The arts website Hyperallergic has an excellent round-up of additional mash-ups, one of which features the Hollywood sign.

In the meantime, all of this certainly serves as good PR for McCarthy’s upcoming show at the Paris Mint, which opens on Saturday.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.