By Sara McCool
William Pope L. is a performance artist. Even when he creates art objects that hold the possibility of fitting into the machinery of the museum, he refuses to idealize them as such, stating that, “There is no such thing as one drawing. No drawing is an island.” As a result, when he is not performing, his works still are. He interferes with the way we regularly understand fine art by creating drawings that contain purposeful damages, by trying to paint the walls of a museum with peanut butter and by placing manure within the establishment of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Tell me about this show.
I think the most interesting thing about working on this show was having to meet with about 120 staff here. The reason for that ostensibly, was the content of some of the work. That being the Martin Luther King work, “Rebuilding the Monument.” I’ve been here before and I did notice that most of the people who wait on people are black or Hispanic. I was thinking this would be a good place to show this work, because of Martin’s experiences when he came to Chicago, he wasn’t as successful as he had been in the South. So in terms of being a great personage, in terms of being a man, in terms of being a black man, in terms of the history of the civil rights movement and its leadership history it was an interesting focal point or matrix.
The work that was originally going to be here instead of the MLK work also used organic material but, instead of soil, used peanut butter to draw on the wall. The reason we couldn’t do it was because the organic material was considered dangerous for the environment of the museum in terms of it being very difficult to control. That’s partly why I am interested in organic material, it’s probably the closest thing to doing a performance because with organic material like the body, it’s difficult to say how it is going to react over stress or over time. Organic material by its very nature breaths, and so like the body, that material will give and take in ways sometimes you can’t predict similar to flesh.
Tell me about drawing.
For some people you plan when you draw, some people you dream when you draw, some people you act out when you draw, you perform. Drawings are really about time, about marking time. It’s about also the unreliability of drawing. How many drawings do you have to do to find the truth; if you make one drawing and another drawing what is the relationship between two drawings? How do you quantify the gap between those two drawings? It’s very untenable.
What is your title “Friendliest Black Artist in America” about?
I was thinking of the confluence of black and artist. Black artists for a long time were seen as servant figures and I think historically that is the case, in our time it would be great to see a black artist that has the stature of Warhol or Jeff Koons, those people set the table for the others. And you possibly get a seat at that table. But usually black people have literally set that table or serve at that table. You have to perform this friendliness to make your way, you have to hide your feelings to get on in the world.
Can art resolve political issues?
I am not interested in the fashion of people’s fears if people are doubting the efficacy of change for the sake of the common good, that is up to them. You could also say it is a market inclination if you will, producing objects for sale and the production of activism for the sake of others are in a sense opposed. I think that is where the thing is: the art market is doing very well these days, my curiosity is that this criticism of the efficacy of art and of culture to make change or to improve peoples lives or that artists have a responsibility to their neighbor, what does that do in terms of its influence on the market? Does that mean you are not paying as much attention to the market if you did do that? Yes. Does it mean that you might not make products that could be sold maybe because you might be more involved in activities that cannot be easily packaged? You could videotape them, but it’s very difficult unless you stage it. It’s difficult to make a work about an activity such as a discussion about how to make changes in your neighborhood, it’s more interesting to be there and do it than it is to watch it on a videotape. Anyone who makes it their duty to create wealth only for the sake of themselves or a coterie of others and ignores others is not participating fully in the human condition.
William Pope L., “Drawings, Dreaming, Drowning,” shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, (312)443-3600, through January 21.