MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Through February 1, $14-$25 (sixteen and under free)
The first thing you must do when you go to MoMA is check out whether there is a backpack hanging on the wall at the end of the “member: Pope.L 1978–2001” exhibition; if it’s not there, it means that Newark-born Conceptual artist William Pope.L is somewhere in the galleries, either performing on a yellow square near the front, doodling on the walls, or interacting with visitors. Since the late 1970s, Pope.L has been holding interventions and live performances that expose racism, classism, poverty, homelessness, and other societal ills. “I am a fisherman of social absurdity, if you will,” he has said. “I am more provocateur than activist. My focus is to politicize disenfranchisement, to make it neut, to reinvent what’s beneath us, to remind us where we all come from.” The show, which continues through February 1, features photographs, film footage, and paraphernalia from many of his Crawls and acts of resistance, in which he takes to the streets in unusual ways as a form of protest.
In Thunderbird Immolation, he doused himself with cheap wine and surrounded himself with matches, evoking the Buddhist ritual of self-immolation but here calling into question the marketing of cheap alcohol in poor minority communities. For The Great White Way and Snow Crawl, Pope.L put on a Superman suit. For Member a.k.a. Schlong Journey, he donned business attire and had a long white cardboard tube with a stuffed white bunny on the end protruding from his crotch, as if it were an enormous phallus, as he walked around Harlem, revealing issues of black masculinity and white supremacy. For Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece, he buried himself in the ground standing up, only his shoulders and head visible, and looked at a melting bowl of ice cream that he could not bend his head over and eat, emphasizing “have-not-ness.” And for Eating the Wall Street Journal, Pope.L built a tall toilet throne which he climbed up to and then, while sitting on the bowl, read, then tore up, chewed, and spat out pages of the newspaper because of its promise of individual wealth.
In a back room, you can watch several of his experimental performances, including Eracism, Aunt Jenny Chronicles, and Egg Eating Contest; be sure to look behind the screen for a bonus. The Black Factory Archive consists of items donated by people from around the country that they consider black objects. “The Black Factory is an industry that runs on our prejudices,” Pope.L wrote of the project. “We harvest all your confusions, questions, and conundrums, and transform them into the greatest gift of all: possibility!” And in ATM Piece, he chained himself to the front door of a midtown bank, wearing only a skirt made out of bills. Throughout the galleries, you’ll also see small rectangles cut out of the wall; “Typically what cannot be seen is what we most like to see,” he says of the work, Hole Theory. On January 26 at 2:00, MoMA’s Creativity Lab will host a discussion on Pope.L with Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison and MoMA curatorial assistant Danielle Jackson that examines Pope.L’s influence.
Member is part of “Pope.L: Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration,” a collaboration between MoMA, the Public Art Fund, and the Whitney. On September 21, PAF staged Conquest, in which blindfolded volunteers from across the diversity spectrum crawled from the West Village through Washington Square Park and ultimately to Union Square Park. Groups of five, from people in wheelchairs to pregnant women, from the elderly to the blind and deaf and men and women with prosthetic limbs, as well as able-bodied participants, crawled one block each, raising ideas of physical privilege. And Pope.L’s Choir is on view at the Whitney through March 8 in the free main-floor space, a thousand-gallon tank surrounded by microphones that fills up with water sourced from the Hudson after he poured in some water from Flint, Michigan, then empties out via a pipe system as snippets of gospel music and other sounds can be heard. Around the gallery are such phrases as “NGGR WATER,” “HLLOW WTR,” and “NDVSBL WTR,” evoking Jim Crow, segregated drinking fountains, and the lead crisis in Flint. “I think there’s a kind of arrogance in using this kind of material in this quantity,” he says on the audioguide to Choir. ”I think that in some ways, I’m expressing a kind of privilege in being able to do this. There’s a kind of edge to that in the work.” That statement applies directly to member at MoMA and Pope.L’s entire career as well.