Pope.L: Hospital

South London Gallery, Nov-23/Feb-24

William Pope.L, better known as Pope.L, was an artist and educator who confronted and changed the mainstream contemporary art scene through his provocative, often absurdist works that explored issues of race, gender, and class in the United States. Over the past 50 years, he developed an extensive and multidisciplinary body of work spanning painting, performance, installation, and writing, among other mediums. While his famous crawl performance pieces were rooted in a physical challenge of endurance – in which the artist crawled over long distances through busy city streets – they ultimately revealed his deep vulnerability, radical political presence, and activism.

 

I had the chance to hear him discuss his practice at the opening of Pope.L: Hospital, currently on view at South London Gallery until February 11. His first solo show in the UK features a series of sculptures and installations that allude to earlier performance pieces. It evokes reflections on complex themes surrounding contemporary culture and society. A large wreck of what looks like an old and abandoned ship opens the main gallery, where three wooden towers are barely standing, rehearsing an imminent collapse. The work references the 2000 performance Eating the Wall Street Journal, where Pope.L sat on a toilet atop a throne, read the newspaper and later chewed the strips, staging a ritual in response to the paper’s capitalist ideals of consumption and advertisement.

Though the exhibition does not include live or recorded performances, Pope.L delves into the performative actions of materials and substances. Bottles, liquids, and flowers occupy the exhibition space at SLG’s Fire Station, and their natural decaying conditions navigate between different states and forms. Small Cup (2008), a video work filmed in an abandoned textile mill in Maine, shows chickens and goats trampling over an architectural model of the US Capitol.

Born in 1955 in Newark, New Jersey, Pope.L lived amid major social and economic crises in the US, which were clearly evidenced in his work through the use of highly conceptual, metaphorical symbolism. The question of uncertainty is perhaps one of the main threads connecting all his pieces, as he seems to hinder their possible outcomes and meanings, avoiding easy explanations that would feed the audience’s expectations.

A similar but very different feeling of uncertainty struck me when I learned about his recent passing in December at the age of 68. After seeing him talk enthusiastically about the main ideas behind this new exhibition in London just a month earlier, it was hard to process such unexpected news. The absence of live performance at the show at SLG suddenly gains a new undertone. The displayed works, originally created as vivid reformulations of his previous production, now resemble a deserted stage where the artist once inhabited. However, it is not because the artist is no longer among us that his works lose any of their strength. As he consistently did throughout his artistic trajectory, Pope.L’s powerful legacy will continue to invite us to question the present moment, especially during trying times.

Caroline Fucci to London Art Walk
January 2024