THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Lacking for Pope.L

 

member: Pope.L, 1978–2001 invites a retrospective examination of several decades’ worth of performance work from one of our most inventive and socially conscious contemporary artists. In this case, MoMA’s catalogue for its eponymous Pope.L retrospective invites a re-examination of several decades’ worth of performance work from one of our most inventive and socially conscious contemporary artists. The thirteen performances it examines call into question the prerequisites and stakes of “membership,” poking at the knotty fabric of capitalism, race, and gender. From his crawl endurance pieces to absurdist body-driven power ploys with white-colored everyday objects like milk or mayonnaise turned into props for race play, Pope.L’s ruses and situations alternatively expose and provoke. Who is below? Who is without?

Performance, whose medium is disappearance, poses a problem for retrospectives. How are we to remember without what was live?—video clips, props, costumes, sketches, or other traces of the ephemeral? —or, a step removed, contemporary viewers’ testimony or critics’ recollections? The archival gesture confronts the very problem of “not-having-ness” that Pope.L performances circle around; yet while Pope.L’s arte povera makes “the lack in black” a mother of invention, MoMA’s approach comes up short of the artist’s high mark.

Curator Stuart Comer attempts to locate a consistent, underlying theme in Pope.L’s body of work. His introduction suggests the exhibition catalogue might establish “a lexicon of actions and gestures that lay bare structures and behaviors that regulate difference in our society.” But such a rubric fails to apprehend the aporias inherent in Pope.L’s oeuvre, let alone the interruptions and interpolations.

An interview between the curators and Pope.L is revealing on this front. Throughout, Pope.L comes across wary, on the defensive. To paraphrase: “Welllllllll—I know that the curatorial head feels these thirteen works mean something key—for example, that they highlight core concerns. I’m not sure I have core concerns. But let’s say I do—let’s say I do, then it’s all projection, perambulation, and performance anywho, which is HOW it should be. I mean, how could it be otherwise? The seam of the puzzle is the core of the puzzle and so on…”

The book’s structure echoes Pope.L’s puzzle metaphor with short critical essays commissioned to respond to the thirteen featured performances. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Pope.L,” if you would. But despite the notable cast of artists, scholars, and curators enlisted, including Malik Gaines, Naomi Beckwith, Martha Wilson, Andre Lepecki, Martine Syms, and EJ Hill, a strict space cap confines each of the essays to two pages apiece, hardly enough room for the sustained critical attention these pieces deserve. While occasional glimmers of insight penetrate through, for the most part, these essays can only scratch the surface.

Emerging performance artist EJ Hill makes the most of this condensed space in “Human with a Capital B,” an exhumation of Pope.L’s Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece. Where other writers in the book register Pope.L’s debased horizontality strictly on the level of the symbolic, Hill connects the physical aspect of Pope.L’s crawls with the history of slave labor: “The relationship between our [Black] bodies and this land is not lost on someone like Pope.L, whose signature Crawl works anchor him sweating and purposeful onto the very grounds upon which our ancestors toiled.” History crawls into the present, exposing buried roots of systemic oppression. In the piece Sweet Desire, Pope.L lies in the ground buried for eight hours, with vanilla ice cream tantalizingly placed inches away from his face above ground. It’s hardly a stretch to reckon with this scene as the death of the American dream, forever out of reach. Yet even at this site of death, EJ Hill finds a compelling counter-thread: “There are the obvious associations with death for Sweet Desire, but I also think of the promise of life—one that is intertwined with an endless chain of desires. As Pope.L has noted, bodies do stuff. But above all, bodies desire.” Desire is a function of lack; its underbelly—fantasy—suggests its potentiality.

 

Installation view of "member: Pope.L, 1978–2001." © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck.

 

When one has nothing, or very little for that matter, it can be startling to realize the radical choices still at one’s disposal. After all, one can always renounce more, descend even lower. In his most canonical crawl performances, Pope.L strategically “gives up verticality.” Drop to the ground in a punishing, serpentine bodily position. An artist’s toolbox made of lean prepositions: under, athwart, despite, without... As Martha Wilson, an early champion of Pope.L’s work at Brooklyn artist-run space Franklin Furnace in the ‘70s, explains, crawling “takes him out of the upright posture representing power and places him in the position of the destitute, forcing the audience to directly engage with a disenfranchised black body that mirrors those others that have been rendered invisible.”

I want to be careful as I relate Pope.L’s work not to reduce the layered multivalence of his art and writing. When MoMA curatorial assistant Danielle A. Johnson asks him about symbolism, he shuts her down: “SYMBOLISM? HMMM. I prefer to think LANGUAGE and REFERENCE. COWARDLY? I am not comfortable with the popular usage of the word symbolism, a usage WHICH suggests, for many, a one-to-one strict protective meaning relation such that one thing must mean or equal ONE thing. I’m not comfortable with DAT.” Pope.L is a trickster artist, versed in poststructuralism’s strategies of deconstruction and capacious signification (a critical position further grounded in Marxism, Afro-pessimism, and queer theory). Symbolism doesn’t do justice to Pope.L’s carefully considered eccentric worlds.

Let’s probe a single prop—say, the book and exhibit’s titular “member”: the euphemistic long, white cardboard tube Pope.L carried on a stroll through Harlem in Member a.k.a. Schlong Journey (1996). More than a suggestion of a white phallus (in and of itself, a chain of signifiers inches long: an instrument of pornocapitalist power, a spewing source of virile “creative genius,” a weapon of phallogocentrism, a peeping white voyeur “slumming” in Harlem, an inversion of the fetishization of black cocks, a pants-down exposure, a vertical display, a sexual invitation (“I’ll show you mine…”)), it is an upending of deeply entangled racial and sexual orders. Pope.L’s member is materially fungible and substitutable, a transgressive undoing of psychoanalytic fantasy. “I have a COCK which is a pussy and it’s filled with DOUBT.” Parading in the heart of Harlem, Pope.L invokes an involuntary involution—a convoluting chase for America’s impossible originary “father’s vagina.” Who wants to be/who gets to be a member of US (“we the people” = a disturbed interracial family romance)? It’s all the above and more.

Then there are interruptions—yet another way Pope.L performances resist closure. So serial they almost seem plotted, or at least predictable: the noseying interference of security guards and policemen. Even when permissions are procured in advance, a number of performances end prematurely, just as they are getting underway. Pope.L comes to a head with authority figures as a black man acting out of the norm. See ATM Piece (1997), for which Pope.L, clad in a skirt made of detachable dollar bills, tied himself to the doors of Chase Bank with a link of sausages, with the intent of giving away his cash to passerby until he was physically exposed. But a security guard cuts short Pope.L’s intended “reverse panhandling”-cum-striptease performance within the first minute, reporting “I got an EDP [emotionally disturbed person] over here.”

These unmistakably racially-charged clashes with authority become part of the performances. Pope.L’s imaginative acts of worldmaking cannot escape the law’s Althusserian hail. (“Hey, you there!”) It seems to me, however, that Pope.L anticipates such responses within the frame of his own piece’s script of exposure: his own acts of deviance predict the puppet response of a white supremacist surveillance state. So, a lack of completion is not necessarily a failure, since it has still reveled in the potentiality of rupture as a system or language. “A police semantics is revealed,” writes André Lepecki in response to the interrupted The Great White Way, “one that articulates that even with a permit, even with proper paperwork, even under the guise of art, on Liberty Island a black man cannot and will not perform an ‘aberrant movement.’” The repetitive stress of Lepecki’s “even with” clauses (preconditional hurdles jumped) draws attention to a fundamental unevenness, a lack of horizontal equivalence for the black subject under the law.

As I consider these acts of interference, I am realizing parallels with gate-keeping in the art world. A retrospective at the MoMA risks sanitizing the raunchy edges of Pope.L’s antisocial black performance. I am thinking about the systems of control, surveillance, and commodification at play in the upholding of an institution necessitated with pleasing its moneyed members. Yes, the very type of Ideological State Apparatus a street theater guerilla artist like Pope.L gives the slip…

Complicit in this project of curtailment is the curator, a regulating authority who closes the escape hatch of Pope.L’s variable signification. Even in this supplemental catalogue, Comer cites the language of “lexicon” to foreclose the artist's oeuvre as a system of one-to-one meaning. I’ll flag a few ways the curator’s work to institutionalize reels in and cordons Pope.L’s trickster meaning-making:

 

•   Misunderstanding iterations: Rather than engaging with the implications of iterability itself, curators try to frame multiple performances of the “same” work as evolving drafts toward a final version that can be pinned down and claimed as the authorized form. In contrast, Pope.L emphasizes his own fungibility, adapting a continuous theme in a work to each performance’s specificity of site and context. In prioritizing linearity in place of non-linear, process-oriented, or cyclical understandings, the curator constructs a false regime of order.

•   Insistent placing in lineages: The curators’ taxonomizing urge to relate the artist’s work to existing lineages and thereby establish significance in an art history context (e.g.: Viennese actionism + Fluxus + black). Here, it comes across as reductionist attempt to pigeon-hole, as they disregard the artist’s own stated influences and intentions. In the interview, Pope.L rejects most of the curators’ reference points and dismisses their assumption of degree of “autobiography” in work. By embracing “out of placeness,” Pope.L resists the normative closure of canonizing gestures.

•   Commodifying the non-material: making an archive/exhibit of an ephemeral art form. Pope.L eats The Wall Street Journal in performances about the absurdity of capitalist fetishism. Commercial galleries and museums eat up (and commodify) the art produced by alternative spaces, such as Pope.L’s performance art, which was created precisely to evade the manic capitalist logic of the art market.

 

These are but a few ways the exhibition’s companion book misfires. In sum, the project fails to add up to more than its parts. This is astoundingly disappointing, given the arresting figure at the book’s center. What could have been an indispensable authoritative sourcebook for Pope.L enthusiasts and scholars is instead a puzzle box of tantalizing but partial glimpses. There’s enough here to get curious about, but not enough depth to look closer. It is telling that the most engaging parts were Pope.L’s own words, though his voice wasn’t nearly as present as I would have liked. Pope.L’s contributions constitute a serious intervention in performance art and merit deeper engagement.

 

Noa/h Fields

 

Noa/h Fields is a nonbinary poet and teaching artist living in Chicago. Their chapbook WITH is out from Ghost City Press, and they are writing a book on the poetics of queer nightlife.

 

member: Pope.L, 1978-2001, edited by Stuart Comer, MoMA Publications, 144 pp., $40.00

Installation view of "member: Pope.L, 1978–2001." © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck.

Installation view of "member: Pope.L, 1978–2001." © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck.

 

 

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