To begin this I should start with a confession:
I believe in sex. It is an integral part of being human. Healthy sex makes for strong communities and happy people. Love in all of its colors, partners and kinky curiosities is to be enjoyed by those who are in it. Understanding the self and expressing personal identity are interwoven in our sexual experiences. As it is our bodies that create each successive generation, healthy sexual choices are at the root of creating a healthy nation.
I was eating a bowl of cereal when a radio news story perked my interest. It was March of 2009. A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his recent trip to Africa:
“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spirtual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self-denial, to be alongside the suffering.”
Wait, did the Pope just say that prophylactics will increase the AIDS epidemic in Africa and offer self-denial as the remedy?
Why yes, he did.
A few days later the Lancet called upon the Pope to retract his comments, saying that anything less would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates fighting to contain the disease. No retraction was given.
In 2010 the Pope engaged the condom debate again, this time stating that encouraging condom use amongst prostitutes, with the intention of reducing the risk of HIV infection, may be an indication that the prostitute is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity.
Now the Pope was conflating being a prostitute who practices safe sex with encouraging a moral deficit. Had he any compassion for their position in life; their poverty, their plight?
Over the next few years Benedict’s fervent embrace of a more “traditional” Catholic doctrine continued to make me wonder what time-machine he had fallen out of. Homosexuality as a moral disease… Same sex-marriage as a threat to world peace… Gender as clearly definable… Each time a new message from the Pope hit the airwaves I became frustratingly perplexed. I felt I had to do something.
Eggs Benedict exists because I believe it is my responsibility as an able bodied person living in our current cultural climate to incite further discussion about the direction our leaders point us in. As an artist, my thoughts manifest in my artwork best. It’s a pretty simple relationship. During the production of this piece I made many intentional choices; from selecting a cheerful moment from the Pope’s earlier years to reproduce, to going with a festive color palette, to putting great care into the making of the portrait to ensure that both the subject matter and the materials were on some level being celebrated in the midst of the questions that their combination raises. I made these choices because it is important to me that this piece opens more doors than it closes, by remaining both glorious and irreverent at the same time, if that’s possible. Like other portraits I have made, I see Eggs Benedict conceptually existing in a grey space between the black/white nature of political statements- creating room for a nuanced experience that has an added degree of complexity.
In May of 2009 I made a donation to a health advocacy group in exchange for 6,000 condoms. The piece was intended to be quite a bit smaller than it is now, as I had chosen a 1/4″ mesh to weave the condoms through. The focus of the image was limited mainly to the Pope’s face. It was while creating the tonal range by inter-stuffing the condoms that I ran into my first hurdle. The small grid wouldn’t allow for the thickness of 3-4 condoms that some of the tones required. I needed to scale up.
I also began to notice that the latex was breaking down, and that several of the first condoms woven in the grid were beginning to become ashy, losing their vibrancy. I was presented with the second hurdle; learning more about latex degradation. In order to do that I needed to spend some time experimenting with different preservation techniques and essentially put constructing the piece on the back burner.
Over the next year and a half I laid condoms in window sills, on top of book shelves under fluorescent and incandescent lights, dipped them in castor oil, Astroglide, sprayed them with WD-40 and Armorall, as well as dusted them with talc. The results were pretty clear. First and most importantly, the condoms needed to be non-lubricated in order to inter-stuff them in an expedient fashion. Secondly, condoms treated with spermicidal lubricant, Armorall, WD-40, and castor oil crumbled or became more prone to snapping within 12-18 months. Talc, though effective in sealing the latex dulled the colors. Sunlight, fluorescents and heat also were a detriment to the material.
These findings led me back to the design board, this time drawing up an airtight case with plexiglass sides on the front and back that I could then flood with argon gas. Filing it with a silicone based lubricant was also a preservation option I played with (and the idea of putting a bubbler in could be fun) but the cost and weight of the piece would increase greatly. Gas being more cost effective and less gimmicky won.
I also decided to include more of the Pope’s body in the image, including the gesture of his hands and more papal garb. The stitching surface had trippled by 2012, which brought me to the third hurdle: Finding more condoms.
By the fall of 2012 I had relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin over 1,000 miles from my first condom connection in Memphis, Tennessee. My second search began similarly to how I had conducted it before. I began by calling and visiting AIDS testing centers and calling health advocacy groups in search of a helpful person who might be interested trading donations for condoms.
Trying to create a connection this way was tenuous to say the least. First off, the organizations that supply testing and sexual health information have been under fire for a number of years, and more recently following several conservative referendums are walking both political and financial tight ropes. The last thing I wanted to do was in anyway jeopardize the crucial services they provide by involving them in a project that could potentially be politically inflammatory. I found myself skirting the exact content of the piece until the last minute with the first two organizations I spoke with, as if the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule might make it easier for both of us. I felt like I was seeking contraband, goofy as it may sound. My request for 14,000 condoms in specific color quantities inevitably brought the conversation around to the goals of the project. Thankfully it was embraced by each person I spoke with.
While waiting to hear back from a these contacts I was encouraged to try and secure the condoms by creating my own account with a national sexual education group. As luck would have it, my new job teaching at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design had the added benefit of affiliating me with a 501c3 non-profit institution… and apparently that’s all it takes.
In mid-November 2012 the cases of condoms arrived. I began unwrapping, unrolling, stuffing, configuring and stitching the portrait. During those months I sat on the couch at night, exacto blade within reach, methodically slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group. (New fact to wow your friends at the next cocktail party: You can fit 500 unrolled condoms in a gallon bag; just give yourself 4 hours to do so.) For those of you who are curious as to how long this has taken, I began to time myself during the middle of the project to see exactly how long each row took to decipher color, inter-stuff condoms, triple fold (yes, all of the condoms are folded) and stitch through the mesh. The answer: 1 hour and 20 minutes per horizontal line. As there are 101 horizontal rows, the stitching the portrait took roughly 135 hours. Unwrapping, unrolling and bagging took nearly the same amount of time.
I finished stitching the week Pope Benedict retired.
The images that follow are of the completed stitch-work for Eggs Benedict. I am currently building the frame that will hold the stitch-work as well as a plexiglass aquarium that will encase the both the frame and the stitching. More images will be posted when it’s ready!
Dimensions: The stitching area measures 41″x 51″x 5″. The frame and case will increase the size to 48″x 72″x 12″. When seen in person the case will be attached to a short weighted pedestal that will ensure the piece doesn’t tip over. The stitch-work contains approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms.
I’d love to hear what you think. Please feel free to send any questions or comments my way and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you! More updates to follow soon.
To visit the online auction of Eggs Benedict click on this link: eggsbenedictproject.com