The centerpiece of artist William Pope.L’s exhibition at MOCA’s massive Geffen building is a 45-foot-long American flag with 51 stars that whips around in wind created by a cadre of industrial-sized fans. The flag, called Trinket, has been tearing slowly since the show opened, and it casts an unexpected spell on people. If you go to the Geffen, especially on a slow day, you’ll probably see other visitors wander in and then stop somewhere near the flag and stare, as if they don’t quite know how to get past it.
Curator Bennett Simpson says that he first heard the idea for the show in 2013 at a symposium in Chicago. He was standing outside and the artist, who's based in the city, came up to him. “Do you work at the Geffen?” Pope.L asked. “Yes,” Simpson said, or, rather, he works at MOCA, which occupies the Geffen building, a former police car repair garage, in addition to its Grand Avenue headquarters. “I have an idea for you,” said Pope.L, who has described himself as “the friendliest black artist in America” on his business cards. It's a poke at a lot of things, including the downplayed racism of the still largely white art world in which the 60-year-old New Jersey native has found success but never has become the high-grossing kind of art star.
The idea he had for the flag installation, a version of which he'd done at Kansas City's Grand Arts in 2008, grew into an exhibition that fills the Geffen more effectively than most shows do. This is in large part because Pope.L included very few artworks, only nine, letting each take up a lot of space. Only one other work is in the big main room where the flag whips around, a wooden, three-level, white and green structure that's big enough to climb on. Some days it’s empty, but at other times, at least three blindfolded figures in padded winter coats and long white wigs feel their way around the different levels. When the figures are there, this installation, called Migrant, can be even more transfixing than Trinket.
Pope.L decided to put Migrant in this gallery late in the installation process. “I thought the flag was too isolated,” he says. So now a fraying symbol of American power coexists with an installation that, to Pope.L, resembles a housing project. “I was thinking of Cabrini-Green,” he says, referring to the notoriously dangerous public housing high-rise in Chicago, “basically, shaving away slices of the building.”
Cabrini-Green, the place Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved in 1981 to show her commitment to public safety but brought bodyguards and stayed just three weeks, was gradually demolished between 2006 and 2011. If you rode by on the train or saw photos taken during the demolition process, you’d have seen the tall white buildings cut open, floors exposed. In Pope.L’s structure, the floors are exposed, too, though the white bars connecting levels make it look more like jail cells than building infrastructure.
He found his performers for Migrant mostly by word of mouth, getting in touch with former students based in L.A. and asking for recommendations. (The artist has taught for years, previously at Bates College in Maine now at University at Chicago.) He auditioned seven people, and chose four, some of whom have dance backgrounds. “I knew I needed people that had a strong sense of movement and could do something endurance based,” he says. Each performance lasts three hours and Pope.L only figured out how to work a water break into it right before the exhibition opened (performers disappear through a trap door then reappear moments later).
Migrant starts with the performers, already dressed in gloves, white tights, high black socks and black sneakers, going to hooks on a nearby wall and putting on the heavy jackets and the long white wigs and tying black bands across their eyes. Once the costume is on, very little skin remains visible. “I wanted to make the bodies less apprehensible as black or white, so you ask ‘What is that?’” says Pope.L. It’s hard to gauge a performer’s gender too, after she or he has dressed up and started moving, blindfolded, toward the structure then climbing up into it.
There were two rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the show, and Pope.L told his performers to move “as if the nature of this world is unknown to you.” At one point during the press preview, a performer leaned out, holding on to one white bar while grasping at the air beyond the structure. “You need to constantly check the environment to see that it’s okay. You can’t assume you can stand up,” Pope.L instructed. The performers crawl the whole time, even when on the top level, which doesn’t have a four-foot-high ceiling like the others do.
Crawling has been a part of Pope.L’s work for the past two decades. It’s probably what he’s best known for. Usually, in press accounts and even his Wikipedia page, these crawls are described as if he does them alone: dragging himself by the elbows along New York City’s Broadway while wearing a superman costume, like he did for his performance The Great White Way. There are fewer descriptions of, say, the time he and a group in Portland, Maine crawled to the state’s oldest African-American meetinghouse. “I’ve been working with other people since the beginning. It’s just that no one mentions that,” he says. “The star must crawl,” he joked during a talk he gave a few years ago, describing how disappointed a group of event organizers were when he told them he wasn’t up for the physical strain and would let his collaborators go on without him.
Migrant has no star. You can’t see any of the performer’s features. Their names aren’t mentioned in the exhibition guide. The anonymity, the ambiguous race and gender, plus the jail-like white bars and the flag blowing overhead all feel intensely political. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what kind of political intensity you’re experiencing, however: A critique of patriotism? Of the isolation of being marginalized, like people living in a housing project often are? Of the disconnect between power structures and the people living in them?
Along the middle floor of the structure, Pope.L installed a screen where a version of his film Reenactor plays. In one scene, a black man in a Robert E. Lee uniform and a fake Santa Claus-style beard wanders around in a still town. Sometimes, the performers crawl past this screen, but of course, they can’t watch.
“I realized this was this interesting world of darkness,” PopeL says, of the world his performers inhabit. “On the other hand, this is a work for sighted people. You really only exist if someone is looking.”
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