Engaging a Discussion of Blackness

William Pope.L’s latest performance piece hit Chelsea, but with artist absent, it sputtered

Self-described as “America’s friendliest black artist,” William Pope.L is also one of most mordantly insightful artists practicing in America today. His work fuses the chance aesthetics of Fluxus with a gloriously loose manufacture of personal mythology. Pope.L’s interrogations into the trifecta of American identity—race, class and gender—often take the form of hilarious, messy, street-based performances. Walking down 125th Street sporting a 12-foot white cardboard phallus, eating and regurgitating the Wall Street Journal and crawling up the Bowery wearing a business suit, are but a few of the works which reveal Pope.L’s imperative of using the artist’s own body as the site of inquiry.

Chelsea—specifically 525 West 26th Street—was only the second stop on the Summer 2005 “Black Factory Tour.” The project, dedicated to “bringing blackness wherever it is needed” and looking like a sloppy, one-trick circus, consists of three components—library, workshop and gift shop—that create an interactive public environment. Standing about 10-feet tall and crowned by a drippy black graphic, a large inflatable housed the library. The domed structure was punctured by small windows through which viewers can peek at an archive of donated “cultural materials which reference blackness,” collected and tagged by the artist. The inflatable hut was haphazardly connected to the backside of a panel truck by an enormous red hose. Inside the truck, a tiny gift shop displayed an array of souvenirs: tarred bunnies, rubber duckies, “twice-sold” canned goods such as pork ‘n beans, evaporated milk, collard greens, signed and authenticated by the artist.

Pope.L was unable to be present for the New York City stop on the tour. In his stead, three earnest, young white performance artists “workshopped” on the sidewalk in front of the truck, cajoling passers-by to stop and engage in conversation about race and politics. Unfortunately, it was a beautiful summer day and the crowd was sparse. A few gallery-goers paused briefly, perhaps to appreciate the cartoonish, jalopy aesthetics of the colorful set-up and take in the tangle of pipes and chimneys that sprouted the truck. The performers dutifully engaged in rhetorical hectoring, only to be met with blank or guarded responses from the passersby.

Given the evangelical fervor gripping this country, a delicious irony could have easily been evoked by watching three well-scrubbed, white art “missionaries” fervently proselytizing in the name of racial and political inquiry. Questions on authorship, authenticity and authority could have been raised.

Alas, none of these young artists possessed the performance chops, edginess or insight to give the project its necessary weight. Hopefully you will have the chance to see the artist known as William Pope.L in person some day. It could make you a believer.

To find out more about the Black Factory 2005 Tour, log onto theblackfactory.com.

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