In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re republishing this 2010 Public Art Review article about artist William Pope.L, whose work addresses racism and social inequities.
Best known for his street performances, William Pope.L has worked for decades across a broad array of media including public interventions, stage performances, installations, painting, and found objects. Often collectively referred to as the eRacism series, these works are unified around the artist’s insertion of his own body as an abject signifier of blackness/poverty/homelessness into the public domain. Pope.L does this through a series of seemingly ritualistic actions that combine extreme physical duress with mental discipline. “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air,” he has said, “I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”
Pope.L’s formative years were profoundly marked by the proximity of working poverty, the incarceration of family members, and the intermittent threat of homelessness. These concerns largely defined the terms upon which Pope.L identified and honed his potent artistic and intellectual tools. It also informed his performance pieces, which explore physical and social abjection, the potential for transformation, and critique ideologies around the American Dream.
This is evident in Burial Piece (a.k.a. Sweet Desire) (1996), in which Pope.L was buried up to his chest, immobilized and suffering for eight hours under the hot New York sun, while a large bowl of white ice cream lay just beyond reach of his parched mouth. Likewise, his notorious Member (a.k.a. Schlong Journey) of 1996, involved a stroll down 125th Street in Harlem while wearing a white suit and what was described by The New York Times as a “14-foot-long white cardboard penis” suspended at its tip by a wheeled support to keep it erect. Cited as a significant reason for the revocation of his $42,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2001, Member brought public notoriety to Pope.L’s practice during the controversy. (Ultimately, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts awarded $50,000 to fund the major retrospective that the NEA’s grant was initially intended to support: William Pope.L: eRacism.) But it is his innovative and poignant utilization of crawling that has punctuated his life’s work.
Horizontal and Vertical
Times Square Crawl (1978) was the first iteration of his career-spanning Crawl pieces. It involved a painful and slow journey across the not-yet-revitalized center known for adult theaters, shops, and prostitution. Wearing a business suit and moving along the filthy ground on his hands and knees, Pope.L became unassimilable, unsightly, a visual offense to the public sphere. His blackness redoubled this, creating a multilayered critique intersecting at issues of race, class, and privilege—all executed in New York, the epicenter of American financial systems.
Tompkins Square Park Crawl (1991), in which he again donned a business suit and crawled New York’s Tompkins Square Park while gripping a small potted plant in one hand, fully realized the artist’s intention “to act out and wallow in signification,” as he once described it. With his particularly exaggerated, awkward military-style crawl, dragging his body in such a manner as to ensure the most mortifying effect, the artist and his white videographer drew the ire of an upset black onlooker who verbally accosted Pope.L for “crawling up to the white man.” In these works, homelessness and privilege are respectively signified through the public horizontality versus verticality of the body. In a prone position, the artist dramatically inserted his body as an interruption to the bustling vertical bodies moving about city, and indeed the urban space itself with its vertical buildings that suggest power and progress.
In Pope.L’s epic The Great White Way, a nine-year performance, the artist traversed a distance of 22 miles from the Statue of Liberty to the University Heights Bridge that connects Manhattan and the Bronx. Begun in 2001, the crawl was executed in a Superman suit padded with unconvincing-looking pectoral and abdominal muscles—giving the impression of a sad-sack, capeless, impotent superhero. A red skateboard emblazoned with a yellow “S” was strapped to his back facing wheels-up, pointing to a far less glorious form of transportation than flying. A masochistic, grueling exercise in endurance, the performance capitalized on the dual character of Superman as a prominent symbol of white male dominance and moral superiority and Clark Kent as the weak, socially impotent alter ego. Crawling along a path that symbolically connected Ellis Island to his mother’s home, Pope.L made a public intervention into the silent pervasiveness of race and its ideological translation into the everyday.
Like Tompkins Square Park Crawl, it also explored the tension between vertical and horizontal. As Pope.L once said, “the act of crawling, which is based on horizontality, refers to those who ‘have-not.’ In Western society, we are given examples of the vertical: the rocket, the skyscraper, Reagan’s and Bush’s Star-Wars system…it’s all about up. I want to contest and challenge that. In the crawl pieces, like The Great White Way, I’m suggesting that just because a person is lying on the sidewalk doesn’t mean they’ve given up their humanity. That verticality isn’t what it’s pumped up to be.”
This vertical/horizontal theme was particularly significant in a post-9/11 New York, pointing as it did to the annihilation of the ultimate symbols of verticality—namely, the toppling of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. But, as in other works by Pope.L, The Great White Way also explored the play between the hero and the homeless invisible everyman, the possessors of influence versus the impotent, the vertical thrust of progress versus the horizontal drag of failure. All these themes grate against each other in his work, upsetting the normalcy and order that permits such tropes to persist.
Stereotypes, Exceptionalism, and the Ethics of Activist Art
In Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), media and cultural analysis scholar Michael Pickering writes of the reification of stereotypes that they function “in relation to what is culturally ambivalent and thematically contrary within everyday life, and [do] so as a common-sense rhetorical strategy of naturalizing order and control. Stereotypes operate socially as exorcistic rituals in maintaining the boundaries of normality and legitimacy.” William Pope.L’s work pushes forward the contrary, the ambivalent, the abject, the irrational in another form of exorcistic ritual that functions—from the perspective of those subject to the pressures of normality and legitimacy—to make visible the brutality of those demands.
At the same time, Pope.L’s public performances potentially elicit a type of jouissance for the viewer, a painful and somewhat forbidden pleasure, tinged with feelings of guilt, or perhaps indictment. There is something decidedly cringe-worthy about these iconic public works that border on the sadomasochistic—particularly in their spectatorial intentionality. In many respects the effectiveness of Pope.L’s interventions lies in the ideological violence directed toward the spectator. However, the artist also plays with the visualization of the abject (as a spectacle of suffering) that serves up a vision of debased black masculinity that is simultaneously pleasing and painful. The vision pleases because the representation of black suffering (in the public sphere) is an image that, at least within American society, affirms the status quo and confirms an acceptable power dynamic that often goes unchallenged. It affirms, as Pickering has stated, the norm. Nevertheless, tensions emerge if the artist’s playful jouissance is perceived as a game whereby the minority artist is charged with offering up otherness (in a sadomasochistic fashion) as both a site of pleasurable viewing and an indicator of social inequities.
Activist artworks engaged with racial polemics are often accused of being only vaguely transgressive (if not disingenuously so) and functioning as conductors of liberal guilt, and the liberal spectator of these public interventions is accused of overidentifying with the underclass—if not also of masochistically and uncritically devouring these politicized artworks despite the indicting nature of their intent. These misgivings may have little or no worth, but they endure nonetheless, and inform our understanding of how the presence of difference signifies in the public realm.
While Pope.L’s work entertains and provokes on multiple levels, it also encourages inquiries into the conceptual validity of minority art on the grounds that its self-conscious politicizations are potentially insincere—and that the artist presents himself (and the culture he represents) as uniquely abused and victimized. One could charge Pope.L with taking advantage of his viewer, so to speak, by cleverly capitalizing on this jouissance by envisioning an embodiment of blackness that affirms some of the ugliest stereotypes.
If the perception is that Pope.L is indeed engaged in a type of fashionable rebellion, then would he ultimately be guilty of a type of performative exceptionalism? Meaning: His work on the public face of intolerance is engaged in a cultural politics that positions the history of racial oppression as greater—or more exceptional—than other expressions of inequality. This notion of exceptionalism is important in that it highlights the problem of essentialism and ultimately asks us to consider the ethical limits of activist art.
Black / Post-Black
Pope.L’s endurance-based crawls remain visually powerful and stark reminders of just how problematic the black male body is in public space. They are a fitting metaphor for the seemingly Sisyphean-like nature of racial progress in the United States. As a series of interventions, eRacism underscores the antinomies of individuality versus collectivity—and the manner in which racism undermines one’s citizenship (and humanity) within the body politic. It makes starkly visible the reality that racialized bodies are rendered devoid of individuality and made to exist almost entirely as figments of a public imagination. It is difficult to consider these works in the present tense without also pondering the success of Barack Obama and the rhetoric that he heralds a new “post-racial” era—that is, one in which race no longer drives outcomes and judgments. Even in the midst of this supposedly utopian turn where such post-racial fantasies abound, the black male as a signifying presence in the public sphere (including our 44th president) has never been more embattled.
Pope.L’s work is never discussed as post-black. The notion of post-black—a highly contested terminology coined in the art world by curator Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon—suggests not a total rejection of blackness itself, but of the typical signifiers of blackness that have operated as a form of ethnocentric pride. More specifically, post-black emerges from black-queer and black-feminist critiques of normative racial blackness as it was constructed during the civil rights and Black Power eras. Within these counter-discourses, blackness was characterized as a hetero-normative, masculine-defined brand of resistance that was hostile to women and intolerant toward sexual difference. During the identity debates of the 1980s and 1990s, black queer and feminist voices emerged that were often virulent in their effacement of blackness.
In terms of content, Pope.L’s public performances appear to fall neatly under the dictates of post-black, as they engage the problem of African-American identity while simultaneously gesturing aggressively toward something new. There is something violently unconventional in his work, a quality that is certainly disinterested in creating salable commodities for the art market, but also in terms of an undercurrent or ethos of universality or antiessentialism that seems to define its intended efficacy. Post-black has been described as a gesture toward an aesthetic of healthy self-esteem. However, we must consider whether this aesthetic necessitates a distancing from the realities of the black social condition. At least on the surface, Pope.L’s work is overtly concerned with these realities—but for the sake of polemics, its commitment could be contested on the grounds that the artist is perhaps merely creating an abject public spectacle that affirms, rather than contests, intolerances.
There should indeed be skepticism if post-black is merely the art market elite’s version of the neoconservative, post-multicultural, post-racial society rhetoric that champions capitalism’s rugged individualism while turning a blind eye to oppression. It does appear that this current generation of post-black artists seems less socially engaged than their predecessors of the 1980s. William Pope.L could never be accused of disengaging from the political, historical, and cultural ramifications of visualizing the black and/or homeless body in public space. But is the general public in on the joke, or are they simply consuming abject otherness uncritically and without awareness of the work’s intellectual imperatives? In either case, the ritualized interchange enacted between Pope.L and his sometimes-unwitting audience opens a vital space of critical dialogue within the public sphere.