In a 1976 piece for New York magazine entitled ‘The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening’, Tom Wolfe described the 1970s as a time in which modish Americans were abandoning the communitarian hippie dream and embracing an atomized individualism, a perhaps unsurprising shift given the era’s focus on the internal landscape and self-fulfillment through personal pleasure, and its atmosphere of political paranoia. This was the temporal territory explored in Florian Roithmayr’s solo exhibition at MOT International, which began with a photographic restaging of a period advertisement for Sony headphones, Like Plugging In (all works 2012), a work that also gave its title to the show. Here, a man in the last bloom of youth was pictured blindfolded, his hand covering his mouth, his ears awaiting the world-erasing arrival of a pair of heavy hi-fi cans. Beyond this image, viewers encountered another remaking, in which the infamous grotto in soft-porn magnate Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles was summoned up through a series of objects that, at first glance, wouldn’t look out of place at the poolside of a dingy provincial health club.
Designed by Ron Dirsmith at the height of Hefner’s ’70s fame, the Playboy grotto was conceived, according to the architect, as somewhere that ‘evolved from the earth in ancient times like the caves at Lascaux’. It is a place of underground streams, waterfalls and secret caverns, where we might imagine Hef scrawling the image of an auroch on a wall to spur himself on to ever-greater feats of satyromania, or else glancing up at the colourful fused glass panels set into the ceiling and contemplating, as Dirsmith intended, ‘the mysteries of the cosmic universe’ before availing himself of yet another luckless blonde. There, he could turn his back on reality and forget Watergate, or Vietnam, or the rising tide of feminism. He might even forget the sure fact of ageing (he was well into his middle years when his watery playpen was constructed), or of death.
Roithmayer’s grotto was not so forgiving. A sun awning hung with bespoke blue canvas floated over MOT’s main space, throwing a dull shadow over everything therein. Strapped to the wall like a fire extinguisher awaiting an emergency, a length of cardboard painted and studded to resemble anti-slip flooring supported a yellow towel and a plaster cast of an inflatable neck rest. Entitled Warren Beatty, in homage to one of the grotto’s regular guests, the work echoed the form of Take it Back to Me, in which more towels and another cast neck-rest were joined by a pair of orange ear plugs. Elsewhere, Skylight (Derby Stone) took two blue rubber moulds used in the manufacture of textured paving slabs and placed them in circular, white PVC frames, suggesting flotation devices or the great bowl of the heavens glimpsed from a bobbing lilo. Skylight (Ben), a concave slab of wall-mounted concrete, bore the grooved impression of a beach-ball, and was here and there set with fused glass globules, like the roof of Hefner’s pleasure dome.
If Roithmayr’s preoccupation with moulding and casting spoke of the inevitable press of the exterior world into the soft tissue of the brain, and if his labour-intensive simulacra of readymade fabrics felt like a reproach to all kinds of mindless acts of consumption, then the chilly, almost medical feel of his abstracted poolside furnishings seemed to hint at bad times ahead. Today, the Playboy grotto remains in place, and is still populated by young women; there among its timeless stones, it is only Hefner, now in his 80s, who has grown old. How much longer, we must wonder, will this caveman remain plugged into his Hollywood Lascaux?