William Pope.L

Invited to lecture or exhibit at Le Corbusier’s only building in North America, artists devise surprising strategies to confront the modernist architect’s legacy. Rabble-rousing performance artist William Pope.L was no exception: While inaugurating his installation and performance Corbu Pops, 2009, with a peripatetic address, Pope.L childishly tossed pieces of paper (presumably his notes) onto the auditorium floor.

In seeking to unsettle the relations of power that inevitably frame any interface between master and interloping apprentice, Pope.L not only infantilized himself but repeatedly reduced “Pops” to puerility. In the ensuing performance, for example, Harvard students dressed in black and donning Corbu baby masks (with chubby cheeks, a blond tuft of hair, and signature owl-eye glasses) poked their heads through a puppet stage while ululating, grunting, and squealing a chorus of nonsense at times disrupted by the clearly enunciated N-word. As the bedlam unfolded, Pope.L sat on a nearby bench and watched, apparently unperturbed, letting his privileged minions enact the redistribution of authority.

This anarchic tack continued with a gallery installation, where on a floor covered in light red paper held in place with black gaffer’s tape stood a table loaded with a bevy of questionable offerings. The foremost attraction were Hydrocal casts of the Carpenter Center mounted on wooden prostheses. Resembling at once hatchets and Popsicles, these hazardous confections spilled out of Bayou Classic steel cooking pots and were covered by a discharge of gooey petroleum jelly and black paint. Vaseline oozed over some texts placed on the table, which included seminal statements like Fred Koetter and Colin Rowe’s Collage City, 1978 (a denunciation of modernist urban planning), and excerpts from the artist’s contract with the Carpenter Center. All were subjected to Pope.L’s scribbles and annotations, including doodles of testicles and reflections on how to “possess” Corbu’s building. Amid these allusions to sexual desire—which also incorporated insinuations of Freud’s theories on child development through oral, anal, and phallic psychosexual stages—was a photo of Le Corbusier clothed like a female domestic laborer (upon which Pope.L drew an arrow pointing from the picture’s caption, DRESSED AS A CLEANING WOMAN, ON HOLIDAY AT LE PIQUEY, CA. 1930, to the architect’s scribbled name).

A video on view reminded us that Corbu wasn’t the only modernist who liked to dress up in drag. Intertitles quoting critical texts on modernism note that the Dadaists would mask themselves in various forms of primitivism (“Negro-ness, African-ness, Insane-ness, Childish-ness, and Femaleness”). These passages are woven together with footage of Pope.L rehearsing the performance and segments from an interview with Sheldon Cheek, curatorial associate at Harvard’s Image of the Black in Western Art Research Project and Photo Archive. With the artist as instigator, we witness a theatrical exercise in which he encourages students to turn their healthy bodies into microbe machines through raucous coughing and discover that the Caucasian Cheek (who had an African-American maid in his childhood) often imagines himself in the guise of the African and African-American subjects he documents. Crucial to this fracturing of hierarchies is Pope.L’s deployment of gratification, discomfort, and humor as tools that reveal the “suppressed longings” coursing through the lived body, the aesthetic language of modernism, and a scholar’s affinity to his archival project. Such tactics also brought Corbu down from his untouchable Modulor throne to a world of base matter.

Yet if blasphemous hilarity can short-circuit power, it can also reterritorialize it. In his lecture Pope.L conceded that “we must always be aware of who is being laughed at and who gets to laugh,” but he made sure the distinction remained unclear in the topsy-turvy world of Corbu Pops.

Nuit Banai