William Pope.L: Trinket at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), opened shortly after thousands took to the streets in protest of the Staten Island grand jury’s failure to convict the New York Police Department officer charged with Eric Garner’s death. While heightened media coverage of this and other social injustices resulting from racially motivated aggressions may have weighed heavily on those visiting the exhibition, it is unlikely that viewers would find aesthetic comfort in Pope.L’s recent works. Indeed, when the exhibition’s namesake—Trinket (2008/2015), a sixteen-foot-tall American flag writhing in the wind of four intimidating industrial fans—was first shown in 2008, this monument to hollow American patriotism related more directly to sensational coverage of candidates’ lapel pins (Barack Obama was memorably chastised in the press for not donning one) and the decidedly larger-stake tragedies U.S. interventionist policies had wreaked at home and abroad. That this work had another context in 2008 did not render it mute in 2015; precisely the opposite, as the show, astutely curated by Bennett Simpson, evidenced.
Pope.L—whose thirty-year practice is deeply and inextricably bound to America’s fraught and complex history of race relations—may produce works that intersect with mass media topicality, but his engagement with questions of media and representation were presented at MOCA without attempting to picture “blackness” or claim its iconographic specificity as a form of activism—either by way of criticizing stereotypes or offering paragon. Instead, he offers a deeper understanding of how the means and modes of visual communication continue to shape our cultural, racial, and national identities by pitting the inexplicable (and non-representational) aspects of subjective experience against more tangible and imaged expressions of a public self. Throughout the videos, paintings, photographs, performances, and installations on view, Pope.L insists that our bodies remain the performative and phenomenological register by which to enact and experience both the social and political.
While only nine pieces were identified in the exhibition’s works list, Pope.L has effectively filled the colossal Geffen Contemporary space—once an industrial warehouse and Los Angeles Police Department parking garage—with both physical and psychic gravity. While Trinket formally anchors the space, a less conspicuous (and unattributed) gesture located in the Geffen Contemporary’s tangential reading room makes clear that the show operated at a variety of scales. Here the artist installed the only “work” that directly references current events coinciding with the exhibition. Opposite the library’s small collection of artist monographs and exhibition catalogues, Pope.L prominently displayed multiple copies of the controversial February 2015 issue of Artforum, the cover of which featured a photograph of the artist suffocating himself with a plastic bag (from the performance Foraging [Asphyxia Version] [1993–95/2008]) as a prelude to an essay by David Joselit on the role of visual evidence in the Eric Garner verdict. The cover was not disclosed to Pope.L before publication, leading some to believe that the magazine’s desire to announce its political topicality came ahead of consideration for the artist.
Also on display were multiple copies of an artist publication bearing the same photo on its cover; a second Pope.L catalogue of drawings emblazoned with the title Black People Are Cropped; paperback copies of Samuel Beckett’s How It Is; and lastly, several black t-shirts neatly folded into rectangles that displayed phrases like: “I AM BLACK HISTORY” and “WE CAN’T BREATHE” or overly simplified illustrations picturing police violence and men in hooded sweatshirts. By displaying these flattened garments in the company of mass-market paperbacks and contemporary art publications, Pope.L seems to relegate both the cultural context and content of each object to the status of surface or image. This, in turn, calls out the convoluted economies and forms of media that perform social and political activism in the wake of late capitalism. If the commodification of racial politics—either in the form of t-shirts or magazine covers—conflates activism with consumer desire, perhaps the more troubling proposition is that certain market forces attempt to neatly reduce otherwise complex social relations to a singular image or potent catch-phrase.
One finds equivalence in the example of the American flag. Pope.L has written that, “It’s an object that rifts. It’s a division of—. It’s a dissection of—. It cleaves desire into a design that masquerades as rationality” (“William Pope.L Discusses His Upcoming Exhibition at LA MoCA,” Artforum, February 20, 2015: http://artforum.com/words/id=50371). If the American flag is this country’s most iconic and instantly legible manifestation of national identity, it also exists as the image par excellence—a visual signifier that is two-dimensional, fluid, scalable, and at once everywhere and nowhere. In Trinket, the artist has rendered it too close: heavy, excessive, and overly material, not only in its massive size and spatial proximity but also in its composition. An extra star appends the canton’s fifty collected ones; but like all flags, this one is coming apart, fraying at its edges. Lit by undulating Klieg lights, the already impressive swell of the immense flag is further exaggerated by frenzied shadows, permeating the main gallery with fullness, simultaneously heavy and buoyant. Adding to this choreography of light and dark was the incessant, almost deafening sound of flapping cotton-poly fabric and electric-powered wind, transforming the flag into an event relative to the viewer’s body.
The colors of the flag extended further into the adjacent Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action (1998/2015), a work consisting of hundreds of onions covered in red, white, blue, but also green, paint. Assembled atop white tables and individually placed into punctured holes that form rows of provisional seats for each bulb, the neatly arranged onions underwent a range of effects over the course of the exhibition. From the momentary growth of green sprouts to the appearance of sticky brown decay, the once smooth surfaces of these perishables shriveled in tandem with the underlying bulb; the deeply visceral outcome of this collective expiration eventually disrupts any semblance of cheerful nationalism or order their bold colors and placement might have first suggested. It is through this metaphor of incongruity—between organic interiors and painted exteriors—that Pope.L frames the porous yet irreconcilable relationship that skin and visual representation maintain with interiority and notions of subjectivity, particularly within a social landscape. Moreover, he underscores the individual viewer’s body as both the site in which the sound of swarming insects and smell of rotting onions are made physically afferent, but also the surface where selfhood is most tangibly and visibly constituted.
In other works it becomes clear that Pope.L means to disrupt vision as the dominant mode of aesthetic reception. In Migrant (2015), social communication is displaced by compulsory blindness. In scheduled intervals blindfolded figures adorned in white puffy coats, blond wigs, and black gloves crawled slowly through white and dark-blue scaffolding located at the gallery’s perimeter. Characters occasionally collided, and their interactions were slow and extended (the languorous movements may convey caution and pain but also perhaps seduction and pleasure). In Blind (2015), what initially appears as a small black painting in an empty gallery, upon closer inspection turns out to be a punctured rectangle in the wall—a vent blowing wind onto the viewer and into the room. Painted on a wall located just outside the entrance of the space is the text “qua qua” (Latin for “as as”). Here void parades as surface, as painting, as image. Blind is a monochrome that appeals to the sense of touch rather than vision. In the same room one might have overlooked a hazy five by seven-inch photograph unceremoniously adhered to an irregular wall in the gallery. The image is one of thirty-four photographs dispersed throughout the museum making up the work Looking for the Sun (2015). Aside from their cryptic placement, the individual snapshots taken with the artist’s cell phone are formally unremarkable; the flimsy prints—which picture shadows, muddled colors, and indistinct forms—speak to visual impairment but also photographic blockage. Museumgoers are told that the pictures depict fleeting moments with the artist’s son, yet whatever personal valence these images hold remains inaccessible. The title, Looking for the Sun, reveals a self-reflexivity that harkens to an almost modernist project. Within this paternal play on words, Pope.L seems to confront the very history of photography itself—particularly the ongoing tension between the medium’s documentary versus aesthetic functions. One is looking for the “sun”—a source of light and a means to better expose the photos, but also Pope.L’s son, who is depicted as a blur of shadows, colors, and shapes rather than an expressive picture invoking tenderness or sentimentality.
By the time one leaves the exhibition, the once-aggressive force of Trinket’s artificial wind seems abated without having actually changed in intensity. It is the viewer who has changed. One’s hearing eventually inures to the relentless noise, as will one’s sight to the show’s most shadowed spaces. It is at this extreme, when the body’s physical tolerances have quietly recalibrated, that one notices the ways in which psychological limits also have a certain elasticity and resilience. Thus, the visitor slowly adjusts to recurring stimuli—whether pain or pleasure—without any awareness that such habituation is taking place. This is not unlike the darkness and din of Pope.L’s exhibition, which seems to materialize only after stepping out of the museum and confronting a blinding, white silence.
MA candidate, Department of Art History, University of California Los Angeles
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