William Pope.L
Animal Nationalism

Topsy Turvical: William Pope.L in Kansas City
In a culture that has produced P.T. Barnum, 19th century road shows and freak shows, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (who invented a famous wheel), Coney Island, Wild West City in New Jersey, Holy Land Experience in Florida, Disney extravaganzas, Las Vegas at night rising out of the desert, and Kansas City’s own Worlds of Fun, it may also be possible to speak of an advanced carnival art, which accesses, but also seriously transforms, carnivalesque showmanship, excess, and spectacle. Bruce Nauman springs to mind, with his famous video installation Clown Torture (1987), in which four videos show the performers in various (and excruciating) conditions of frustration, abasement, and punishment, and with his harrowing Carousel (1988), in which steel and aluminum sculptures, cast from taxidermy molds of five wild animals, rotate on a circular steel contraption and sometimes drag across the floor. Vito Acconci has a streak of the coercive, seedy barker, notably in Seedbed (1972), when he repeatedly masturbated under a raised floor while intoning fantasies of the unseen audience above him, while his more recent outlandish architectural projects include Park Up a Building (1996), a public park that isn’t outside a building, but that instead precariously clings to the side of the building, like some death-defying attraction at the amusement park.

In his own eccentric, trailblazing work, William Pope.L has also consistently used and transformed willful buffoonery and carnivalesque spectacle, including sideshows, freak shows, enticing signage, costumes, masks, and marvelous feats of derring-do. When Pope.L’s Black Factory rolls into town (an in flux product design studio/exhibition/think tank/meeting ground in a specially designed truck) it’s his own weird version of a corporate marketing campaign, but you’re also reminded of the small traveling circuses and rattling shows that once crisscrossed America as a matter of course. Instead of offering escapism and entertainment, Pope.L’s homemade road show (and he’s the CEO of this intrepid enterprise) inspires viewers to act as participants and cohorts, donating items which he then fashions into new objects and products, questioning and investigating what blackness is and means, what their own biases and opinions are, who defines the connotations and for what reason. When Pope.L, wearing a business suit, crawled across Tompkins Square Park in New York while pushing a potted flower, and crawled up Broadway wearing a Superman suit with a skateboard strapped to his back, he was a wacky, antic figure, but one evincing real suffering, endurance and resistance. He also confronted and upended a great host of assumptions and power relations predicated on race: a black man inching his way by choice across the dirty ground in a Wall Street costume (typically worn by powerful white men) and in superhero garb (worn by a fantasy figure who’s the most powerful white man of all). These street performances, which despite their seeming nuttiness are carefully constructed and formally precise, are wonderfully multi-layered, and this includes Pope.L’s own position; he’s energetic and courageous undertaking his oddball private voyage through a public sphere, but also exposed, vulnerable isolated, and subject to ridicule and danger. The remarkable thing is how Pope.L’s unflinching works are also gleefully absurdist and richly human, evoking aspirations and frailties, connection to and alienation from others, how difficult and necessary it is to continue with dreams intact as one is inevitably walloped by what the poet Theodore Roethke once memorably called “this kingdom of bang and blab.”

No matter how eccentric, these works start from something so familiar and mundane that under normal conditions we’d hardly give it a second thought: companies go on the road to promote their products all the time, guys in business suits cross urban parks all the time, and people from all over the world constantly stroll up Broadway (also called The Great White Way, which is the title of Pope.L’s work). In fact, Pope.L’s maverick art (which does not square neatly with an art world and raging art market that celebrates commodifiable art objects) depends on a constant exchange between what is routine and what is startling and transformative, and here it is worth considering the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin—whom Pope.L has cited as an influence—and specifically Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, which he applied to literature (especially to Dostoevsky’s novels) but which can also be fruitfully applied to certain kinds of visual art. In Bakhtin’s terms, the “carnivalized moment” or the “carnivalized situation” are those moments when the normal rules, values, hierarchies, and modes of apprehension are temporarily suspended or subverted in favor of a brand new freedom, which can be simultaneously ungainly and exhilarating, bewildering and liberating. Excess, exaggeration, hyperbole, exuberance and parody are intrinsic to these carnival situations, which also scramble distinctions between high and low, sacred and profane, human and animal. Importantly, carnival life does not seek to transcend normal life. Instead, both exist together, and one moves between the two, entering a “topsy turvical” (to borrow a term from Vladimir Nabokov) carnivalized situation in order to experience rampant eccentricity and radical freedom and then returning to one’s normal life—perhaps shaken, perhaps deepened—with some of the wisdom that one gained.

It is, of course, entirely normal to encounter an American flag on a pole outside a municipal building, perhaps on a windy day. It is, however, not normal at all to encounter an extra large flag, buffeted by winds from an elaborate wind-producing apparatus, on a pole and illuminated inside a municipal building, where it becomes a mesmerizing focal point. This work, interestingly called Trinket, is one of Pope.L’s two projects for Grand Arts, and it is, quite simply, wonderful; it is especially apt right now, in this convulsive, anxious, much-questioning era, and it is also a work for the ages.

A great deal of research and effort went into this project. Engineers were consulted, prototypes were constructed, and the finished work is also linked to all sorts of other blatant simulacra and attractions in this entertainment-addled culture: Disneyland’s ersatz Matterhorn, museum dioramas, electrical waterfalls at the upscale mall, ingenious props invented for the movies, Quicktime movies on websites. Pope.L’s big flag gusting in fabricated winds is hilarious; it’s a hyperbole, an exaggeration of a conventional object that becomes a disruptive, wild card force. It is also searing. Illuminated in the darkened hall, this flag is in constant, agitated flux and is eventually ripped to shreds. You also begin to wonder exactly what these blowing winds connote. A controversial war, perhaps, along with grim stories of scandal and wartime torture, which have so shaken the nation. A restless sense of impending threat. Ecological upheaval and economic fear. Enduring racial conflict, and hesitant tries to address conflict and misunderstanding, brought to the forefront by Barack Obama’s unprecedented campaign for the presidency (on January 29, 2008, Obama spoke in the same building where Pope.L’s flag is installed). Stark poverty contrasted with massive wealth, religious strife, the way that ringing endorsements of democracy sometimes conceal much more selfish, and much less noble, motives. An avidity for the future undercut by trepidation about what that future really holds, and an abiding faith in basic democratic values undercut by an awareness that the cards are seriously stacked against very many people in this country. Personally, it is tough for me to imagine a work more apt and welcome in terms of what life feels like right now, in this complicated country. Pope.L’s flag flaps violently, incessantly, unnervingly, and gorgeously, and as it does it channels our raw anxiety and stubborn hope, our intensity and confusion, our adoration for and alienation from what Walt Whitman termed these “democratic vistas.”
Pope.L and the Grand Arts team chose the site well for his flag. The Municipal Auditorium is a landmark in the heart of Kansas City. Kansas City is in the heart of the country, and like so much else in America it is a city divided, between black and white, immigrants and native-born, poor and wealthy. It is likely that Pope.L’s agitated flag will invite a frank
discussion of civic issues, and of what democracy really means to us, and it is very likely that this flag will signify very different things to different people, for instance to school groups from the Westside or from Blue Valley. This sculpture doubles as a cathartic force, asking difficult and necessary questions of who we are, what our democracy is, what rives our communities and what we share.

Pope.L’s Trinket, in which a famous symbol discloses all sorts of complex possibilities, is linked to his video and performance Small Cup, shown at Grand Arts. The video was shot on two days, a sunny summer day and an overcast and snowy winter day, in and around an empty factory in Lewiston, Maine, and this site perfectly suggests a national sense of loss and worry, in a time when many factories have closed, jobs have been outsourced, and the promise of a better future seems not all that promising. The title refers to architectural cupolas invented in Italy, which have long since been adopted in America as symbols and projections of durable power and pride: the U.S. Capitol sports a famous one, and cupolas adorn many other government buildings across the land. Using a variety of stationary and tracking shots, which result in drastic and disruptive shifts between images, along with audio, Pope.L’s video masterfully voyages through the empty factory, which seems at once bereft and suffused with palpable memory and history. You see a painted theater backdrop, and hear banging, footsteps, and spoken words from behind it, but you can’t really discern what’s going on. There are mysteries here that elude one’s comprehension.

Slowly, incrementally, the camera ventures behind the backdrop to disclose an architectural structure, which is a goofy, homemade version of the U.S. Capitol’s cupola dome. Disrupted from its familiar position on high, this lumpy cupola now rests on the floor. Atop it are a column and a Barbie doll, instead of the statue in Washington sometimes called the “pregnant squaw.” Pope.L has cut a famous architectural structure down to size; he’s miniaturized it, made it fragile and preposterous. Ritual (and humorous) acts of debasing what is powerful are crucial for the carnival and have been so for centuries; they feed into its spirit of radical freedom and equality. Hilariously, animals appear, in the form of several chickens and goats, and while there is something dear about these creatures, there is also something eerie, as if they’ve inherited a place that we once owned and thought would last forever. They peck at the structure, lick it, butt against it, wriggle inside, following their appetites and instincts. As they do, they slowly undo it, topple it, lay it low, accompanied by metallic screeching sounds. At Grand Arts, a trumpeter plays a variation on Taps at the end of each day’s screenings: a military song typically played at sunset, but also at the funerals of fallen soldiers. Pope.L’s video becomes a powerful meditation on pride and privilege, how both are soluble in time, how cherished symbols of our mastery are themselves fragile and ephemeral, and how nature will trump us and our accomplishments in due time. It is also functions as a ritual act fusing destruction and creation. As with so many of Pope.L’s works, this video is comical and ridiculous—the high and mighty undermined by cute goats and nervous chickens—and also extraordinarily large-minded, dealing with both personal and civilization-wide cycles of hubris and comeuppance, achievement and eclipse.
Gregory Volk
August 2008

Grand Arts would like to thank the following for their generous support of this project: L. Scott Miller, Vista Productions, Giuliano Fiumani and Full Scale Effects, Richard S. Robinson, Stanton Kessler and Al Pearson.

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