The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles presents William Pope.L: Trinket, an exhibition of new and recent work by Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, an essential figure in the development of performance and installation art since the 1970s. Installed in the soaring spaces of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the exhibition explores the impact of American history and politics on the social and psychological body in an ensemble grouping of large-scale installations, videos, paintings, photography, and performance works, including a new performance and sculpture work made especially for the exhibition.
“MOCA is thrilled to present this exhibition by William Pope.L,” says Director Philippe Vergne. “In his work, difficult and beautiful questions about politics, history, art, and the self arrive in forms we do not expect. His vision is democratic, radically experimental, and always provocative and original.”
The centerpiece and title work of the show is Trinket (2008/2015), a monumental installation consisting of a custom-made 54 x 16 foot American flag. During the museum’s public hours, the flag is blown continuously by four industrial-grade special effects fans—the type that are used on film sets to simulate rain storms. Over time the forced air will cause the whipping flag to fray, its stripes becoming an unpredictable hydra. Trinket was first realized in 2008, in a moment rived by war, appeals to “enduring freedom,” and news of torture. Today, against discrepancies of justice in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere, the work issues a potent metaphor for the challenge and change democracy must endure if it is to prove its resilience.
“This project is a chance for people to feel the flag,” Pope.L has said. “People need to feel their democracy,not just hear words about it. For me, democracy is active, not passive. With Trinket, I am showing something that’s always been true. The American flag is not a toy. It’s not tame. It’s bright, loud, bristling and alive.”
Other works in the exhibition include Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action (2008/2015), an installation that features thousands of hand-painted onions piled across a grid of large tables. Over time the multi-colored vegetables will sprout green shoots through the nationalistic hues of their skins. A metaphor of growth and natural decay, the work holds up to question the assumption of durability and permanence often attached to the idea of nations.
Some of Pope.L’s best-known works are what he calls “crawls,” durational performances in which the artist, often in costume, traverses public space on his hands and knees. Ritualistic and unnerving—crawling is what babies or the injured do—the works have been hailed for their disruptive reframing of bodily and social propriety. Two such works are included in the exhibition. Migrant (2015), a work presented for the first time at MOCA, features a multi-tiered shelf structure resembling a house sliced in half, on which outlandishly dressed figures periodically emerge and crawl. The video installation Snow Crawl (1992–2001/2015) documents a performance in a quiet, winter neighborhood in Maine, where Pope.L lived for over twenty years. With his large adult frame wrapped into a Superman costume, the artist is seen scuttling, burrowing, and haltingly making his way, on his belly, across snowy fields and yards.
“In Pope.L’s work,” writes Senior Curator Bennett Simpson, “questions ricochet, cohere, and dissipate in the wind. What does it mean to belong to a nation? What does this feel like in one’s body? Is America’s history a substance to be moved through or metabolized? How does this history burden? Pope.L’s exhibition suggests a theater of competing claims, born of fast air, noise, and flux.”
The four-and-a-half hour long video Reenactor (2009/2015), projected in multiple locations throughout the Geffen, takes as a starting point the contemporary phenomenon of Civil War reenactment—a hobby pursued with bewildering attention to detail by a growing community of Americans. But the video does not depict battle scenes or treaty signings in the conventional sense. Instead, it shows a cast of actors, all dressed in Robert E. Lee uniforms, complete with long white beard, pursuing the mundane activities of their actual everyday lives. Pope.L shot parts of Reenactor on the campus of Tennessee State University, a historically black college in Nashville. The vision of the students dressed as Confederate generals, one hundred and fifty years after Emancipation, is haunting—an acknowledgment of this country’s long-running internalization of racial and political strife.
William Pope.L: Trinket is organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Senior Curator Bennett Simpson.
Major support is provided by Galerie Catherine Bastide, Karyn Kohl, Jill and Peter Kraus, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Additional support is provided by Bernard I. Lumpkin and Carmine D. Boccuzzi.
In-kind media support is provided by KCET.