THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
November New York City, partly cloudy and drizzling; misted in fine water particles, not entirely wet, not entirely dry, just enough for me to change my plan with friends and headed to the Whitney early. When I entered the museum, I immediately heard the dripping sound. It was calming, soothing without the actual water damping my vision: delightful. I went upstairs—Rachel Harrison—but I wasn’t here for Harrison. Back to the first floor, where the glass door to the gallery was half opened. A torn-out sheet of drawing paper with one corner missing was halfheartedly taped to the door. It said:
If I hadn’t known Pope.L, I would have had so many questions: who was so frustrated to have to put up a makeshift sign, and who was the intended audience? The custodian team? Did a worker accidentally vacuum an art piece? Why wouldn’t the museum just address the issue in an internal meeting? But I recognized that it was Pope.L’s handwriting. The room was dark, the walls were painted black, bits of blue taped and blocks of black color poetic riddles camouflaged on the wall. “NGGR WATER…,” A copper pipe came down from the exposed ceiling, extended parallel to the wall. It bent upwards at the corner of the room to draw a door about 7–8 feet high, then it led straight to a thousand-gallon milky white tank that sat solemnly on a grey pedestal. An upside down drinking fountain was suspended directly above the tank, gushing water into the tank. Illuminated by spotlights on the center stage, actor tank was wired with mics, well hydrated, ready as ever.
The tank was a third of the way filled when I came in. The gushing water took up the prominent auditory space in the room. Inside the translucent tank, the water bounced around freely like a shadow puppet show. The speakers played a muffled song mixed with the recycled water sound in the background. Together, the performance of the Choir gave off a gripping religious ambience, which made me briefly consider appreciating the sound of the mundane, like filling a bathtub or puking or pissing. Then my phone rang. It was my friend asking me about the dinner hotpot — fondue for the lactose intolerance.
Soon I was waiting in the lobby to see the ending of the Choir that I just missed. I started wondering about the worth of a Rachel Harrison; I had just witnessed a visitor casually walk into one of her sculptures upstairs, knocking it down and shattering it into pieces. The conclusion was—a lot, but still, a plastic basin, but still.
I remembered my first class with Pope.L. We were asked to each perform a version of George Brecht’s Drip Music based on the interpretation of another student’s written prompt. Fluxus artists cared more about the process than the finished product. As I tilted my head to reminisce. I saw, above my eye level, multiple shelves high on the wall. Each held up a glass of water.
Fifteen minutes later, I returned to the gallery. I noticed the lucky museum staff member who sat on a tall stool, not nervously guarding the Harrisons. Finally, the drinking fountain slowed down and stopped pouring. After the tank was filled, the pump turned on, quickly draining the tank. The segregated water fountain, the racially implied color palette, the singing, the exposed building structure, the endless performance cycle during the museum’s opening hour, and the Flint water crisis. I felt the force of water and thought about the rivers that countless civilizations had sprouted next to: the Indus Valley, the Yellow River, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the Nile. To me, the Choir was a celebration of life that also called attention to the underlying structures of institutional racism and power.
The day after, I got a free ticket to "member: Pope.L, 1978-2001" from a friend’s friend who worked at the newly expanded MoMA. At the coat check, the staff asked me if I had an American phone number. That was before I opened my mouth. I got passed off all the time because I had an accent coach for acting. My obviously Polish friend who didn’t have an accent coach didn’t get asked the same question. I realized that despite the US-China trade, MoMA remained a popular destination for Chinese tourists; I felt the daily frustration the staff must have been facing regarding the visitors who obviously have no ability to comply with the museum management’s curious new rule.
The name "member" was an example of Pope.L’s fancy for word play and language abstraction: member as member, a constituent of a group; member as remember, a retrospective exhibition; member as penis, male sexuality. The show mainly featured the documentations of performances and props: a superman costume with a skateboard, a plastic cow, a blue suit, a bra, a dress, a white jumpsuit with the crotch lit up by an incandescent light bulb from the inside, two drawings of penises, big and small, a stuffed animal rabbit with long tube attached to its rear end, a toilet bowl, and more. A backpack with Pope.L’s name embroidered on the front was hung by the exit door. The label said if the backpack was missing that meant that Pope.L was in the room haunting the exhibition. The tiny drawings of ghosts were peppered throughout the room chatting and commenting on the exhibitions. “—What is an exhibition?” “—It's a bunch of things that talk to each other.” On the walls, there were janky openings here and there, reveling the backstage of the museum—piping, electrical wiring, studs, and security cameras.
Pope.L is a great teacher to many, but Pope.L’s works aren’t just here to teach. They do things to the viewer; they drop the viewer into unfamiliar situations. The viewer then has to independently confront the harshness of the human condition, the strangeness of human interaction, and the absurdity of human existence.
To sum up the spirit of Pope.L’s trio exhibitions, using his own performance titled ATM Piece (1997): A half-naked black man wearing a skirt made out of dollar bills, chained himself to a bank’s door at midday with sausages and then performed a reverse panhandling by giving out money to passersby. My last time seeing holes in MoMA was for Robert Gober’s retrospective, and they were much better looking holes.
Chichan Kwong is an artist and a writer, currently lives in Chicago, thinking about moving to Los Angeles.
Pope.L is an artist and a professor at the University of Chicago. “Pope.L: Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration” is a trio of complementary exhibitions of Pope.L’s work in New York organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Public Art Fund to occur concurrently in the fall of 2019. The three-part exhibition features a retrospective, “member Pope.L, 1978-2001,” at MoMA (through February 1, 2020), a brand new installation, “Pope.L: Choir,” at the Whitney (through March 8, 2020), and a public group crawl performance, Conquest, which took place on September 21. More than a hundred and forty volunteers participated in Conquest, crawling 1.5 miles through downtown Manhattan from Greenwich Village to Union Square.
Pope.L, Pope.L: Choir, 2019, Installation. Photo by Chichan Kwong
Pope.L souvenirs, MoMA gift shop. Photo by Chichan Kwong.
Pope.L, Tiny Ghosts Drawing. Photo by Chichan Kwong.
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