Photo by Molly Ricketts
Pope L, the acclaimed American visual artist, celebrated for his provocative performance art, brings his works to the South London Gallery. Pope L is renowned for his performance piece ‘Eating the Wall Street Journal’ a work performed differently across various gallery locations. This performance sees Pope L sitting on a toilet atop a rickety wooden tower, eating, chewing, and spitting out pages of the Wall Street Journal. Pope L washes these pages down with milk and ketchup. When performing this at the Museum of Modern Art, Pope L also covered himself in flour temporarily turning his skin white. This piece seeks to challenge ideals of American capitalism, over-consumption, and glorification of whiteness.
In his exhibit at the South London Gallery this work is reimagined, removing the performance from this work. Since this is usually his whole shtick, removing this vital aspect of his art presents a unique change and challenge. The central work of the exhibit is housed in the SLG’s main gallery space, with additional works being displayed in the Fire Station Gallery across the road. The main gallery displays the tower structure from ‘Eating the Wall Street Journal’ toppled and in three different stages of decay. This piece is surrounded by copied of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times; the work acts as a powerful statement on the collapse of Western Capitalism.
In the absence of performance, Pope L invites the audience to interact directly with the piece by taking dust out of the various bowls around the room to ‘sprinkle at will’ over the piece. In this the viewer is an active participant mimicking Pope L’s actions when covering himself in flour in his acts.
Prior to attending I was dubious how the artist’s work would translate without his performance, the central aspect he was renowned for, as surely the room was set for a performance that is never going to happen - like an empty stage. However, having the viewer's active participation wonderfully bridges this gap, as we take Pope L’s place.
Active participation in the works continues in the Fire Station Gallery in “Space between the letter drawings”. The viewer enters a dark room and is invited to take a small torch in to explore and illuminate the works. The art is backed by a wall of aluminium which reflects back under the torch lights, so the space between the art becomes art itself. The absence is equally as valuable as the presence. The dark room paired with the mixed audio emitting from the adjacent exhibits creates an intentionally unsettling viewing environment challenging traditional interaction between viewer and art.
This exhibit is a successful reimagination of Pope L’s past works, carefully developed to suit the current climate in which they occupy. While the exhibit was incredibly powerful and forced me to challenge my own interactions with artwork, the nature of the exhibit does require the viewer to have a degree of prior familiarity with Pope L’s work. How successfully it has managed to transfer performance art into exhibition art is, therefore, up for debate, but it seamlessly, uncomfortably moves the focus onto us viewers.
Pope L.'s 'Hospital' is on at the South London Gallery until 11 February. Free admission.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn.