A performer with Pope L.’s Conquest. SCOTT LYNCH/ARTNEWS
The crawlers knew where to go by following the sound of a trumpet.
It was bright and early in New York at Corporal John A. Seravalli playground when a group was congregating to kick off Conquest, artist Pope.L’s performance in which participants drag themselves across a predetermined path. Put on by the Public Art Fund, this was a new work by Pope.L, who was on hand on Saturday to tell the crowd that he hoped to cause a stir with the work.“I just want to introduce some controversy,” he said to the group ahead of the performance. “This is not my crawl. Yeah, I know it’s what it says on the sign. But today, I’m giving it away. I want to share the pain.”The artist first began doing endurance pieces in the form of “crawls” during the late 1970s. Other iterations of these crawls have seen the artist wearing in a business suit, carrying a potted flower, and creeping through a gutter in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, for one work titled Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), and, in another called The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–09), moving across a 22-mile stretch of Broadway on his hands and knees with a skateboard strapped to his back, all while wearing a Superman suit. All of these pieces explore notions about vulnerability, struggle, and privilege.In a time when each of these themes have become buzzwords amid larger debates about identity, Pope.L’s work has become a source of fascination. New York’s institutions are recognizing him accordingly. Having won the Whitney Museum’s $100,000 Bucksbaum Award during the 2017 edition of its Biennial, Pope.L will be the subject of a solo show at that institution starting in October. That same month, the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art will also survey his work.Pope L.’s Conquest (2019). SCOTT LYNCH/ARTNEWS
For Conquest, which was staged in tandem with those exhibitions, the 64 year-old artist let others do the work for him. Some 140 volunteers came out to take their turn crawling along a 1.5-mile-long parade route through Chelsea and Greenwich Village, culminating in Union Square. Each crawler was given a blindfold to wear and a flashlight to carry; elbow pads and knee pads were optional. But, having been given these items for free, Pope.L got to take something from them—one shoe per performer had to be temporarily forfeited in order to participate.Participants had to apply to be part of the performance, and they were selected to reflect the racial and age demographics of New York City. One thing they all had in common, however, was an enthusiasm for taking part in the project.In the audience was Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney, and dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who represents Pope.L. Among those performer were artist Anicka Yi—and this writer. On Saturday morning, I began to feel a sense of apprehension about what I was about to do. “I was practicing the best way to crawl last night,” one fellow crawler said. “I decided the best way is to be on your elbows and on your knees.”One child participating had clearly done his research, as he brought along a skateboard in the style of The Great White Way that he used to push himself along. He even had a lightning bolt shaved into the side of his head, which may have been a nod to Pope.L’s costume in the artist’s prior crawl.Conquest was split into segments that were roughly a block or two long, and in each part there were five crawlers. In my team, which crawled through Chelsea along Gansevoort Street, was artist Coco Fusco, who seemed particularly excited to bring her own story of the crawl to her performance art students at the University of Florida in Gainesville.“I want my students to understand in a more lived way what creating visual metaphors means and what working in public space is like and testing your physical limits,” she explained. “I also wanted to send a message that I do care about my other colleague’s work!”During our crawl, which lasted about 10–15 minutes, Fusco led the team. I trailed behind, overly aware of both potholes in the sidewalk and my own lack of upper body strength. Ahead of Fusco were two workers with the Public Art Fund, one of which was sweeping the street in front of us, the other occasionally spritzing the air in front of us with the scent of tobacco. This scent was meant to pay homage to the land that was once tobacco farms, which housed the slaves and slaveowners who developed the land into Manhattan during the 17th and 18th centuries. (Part of Pope L.’s point, it seemed, was to bring attention to the struggle that led to the city we live in.) For a brief moment, the sickly sweet tobacco scent would mask the stink of the already-pungent New York streets. “Spritz coming in!” the perfumer would announce before a spray.Once the crawl was complete, there was an undeniable feeling of triumph, and spectators applauded as though they were at a sports event. Fusco took off her blindfold and smiled a big toothy grin, doling out high fives to the rest of us.Pope L. gets doused by his own “Flint Water.” ANNIE ARMSTRONG/ARTNEWS
Pope L. himself walked alongside the crawlers for the duration of the performance, offering support and chatting with viewers a relaxed smile. Though he did assert that he was happy to pass over the struggle of the crawl to others, he did lament another concern with the piece that some have voiced to him—that Conquest is insensitive to those who are homeless or unable to walk on two legs.“Over the years, I had developed a fundraising component, but this one doesn’t have it because of its size,” he told ARTnews of a way to deal with the points about homelessness. “I think there’s a legitimate critique there.”The crawl came to a close at Union Square to uproarious applause from an impressively large peanut gallery. A stage was set up by Public Art Fund, and crawlers along with Pope.L basked in the satisfaction of having completed the work—but not for long.“All right, I guess someone’s got to suffer, so that’s your queue,” he said to the crawlers, who were handed water bottles labeled “Flint Water,” in reference to the Michigan city where citizens, many of them black, only have access to drinking water contaminated with lead. (Many have alleged that the local government has not done enough to remedy the issue. Pope.L has made work about the water crisis in response.) The performers doused Pope.L in water, and after shaking himself dry like a dog, he said, “OK, now go home!”
A performer with Pope L.’s Conquest. SCOTT LYNCH/ARTNEWS