A translator relayed this quote from Pope Benedict during his trip to Africa in 2009:
“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.”
In 2009 I began working on a portrait of emeritus Pope Benedict, a latex embroidery made out of approximately 17,000 non-lubricated condoms. I completed the stitching just as Pope Benedict entered retirement in March of 2013. Eggs Benedict is currently on display at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This post covers my experience of having Eggs Benedict go viral, riding a wild media wave (or two), and engaging global conversations about the importance of interventionist artwork. I also discuss how the events of the past month have inspired me to auction off the piece in a relatively unconventional manner, in hopes of raising money to benefit AIDS advocacy worldwide.
It has been just over a month since I posted Eggs Benedict on WordPress, and four weeks since I gave my first interview. In this time I have talked to numerous print reporters in person and on the phone and I just completed my third televised interview. News coverage has crossed the oceans. My thoughts have been translated into languages I cannot speak. Story lines (factual and otherwise) have caught like wildfire giving rise to an onslaught of activity on comment boards worldwide.
When the first articles hit the internet the portrait began to take on a new life; one that was relatively indifferent to my practice and completely within the context of the daily grind. Due to the unusual nature of the story, it found shelter in an array of news sections from Arts & Entertainment to “Weird News,” and from Religion to the front page of various publications. Bloggers began blogging about it.
My age was misquoted by one source, which then was piggybacked by numerous other news agencies, making me 10 years younger in only 24 hours. While such a shot at rejuvenation might be a welcome chance for some, I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks emphasizing the full 35 years of my life, while being ever amazed at the laxness of fact checking that can take place at the high speed of modern journalism.
With that said, I have been very pleased with the type of coverage given by the reporters who have interviewed me. It is through their interest and skill that this story has gained traction. Barbara Munker at the German Press Agency broke the story worldwide, while Mary-Louise Schumacher and Kat Murrell contextualized the artwork within the broader scope of my practice. Television reporters Stephanie Brown and Angelica Duria did an incredible job crafting as much depth as possible into two-minute stories for their respective news programs. The list goes on, but in an effort to not laundry list I can say that all of the reporters I spoke with were careful not to stir additional conflict in this story or sensationalize the piece.
Not surprisingly, some factual fabrication has surfaced. A few conservative publications claimed that Eggs Benedict was proof that federal funding for the arts should be cut entirely, which I found ridiculous. No federal funds were spent on this project. I paid for it all out of pocket, like most artists do. However, I see no reason why this piece or any other piece of artwork gives reason to condone censorship, or the removal of federal funding for the arts. Good art often makes people uncomfortable as it asks viewers to reconsider aspects of their lives that are often accepted, denied, or just plain taboo.
The online comments have been incredible. From the anonymity of their computer armchairs, commenters have both celebrated and condemned the artwork. Some have celebrated or condemned me as a person. From what I have seen (and yes, I have peered into the small infernos of disagreement) the majority of response to Eggs Benedict has been overwhelmingly positive. While admitting this may dampen the cry of controversy from the media, I believe it makes room for the greater conversation that is at stake concerning the accountability world leaders must face when their statements put the greater good of all at risk. Over the past five weeks I have witnessed a global conversation about safe sex, scientific fact and the place of public health in relation to moral platitudes. Further, I have witnessed how important and necessary art is in creating room for these difficult conversations to happen.
What do you think of all of the attention Eggs Benedict has generated? Was it expected? Was this piece a media grab?
I think the global response to Eggs Benedict signifies that people are ready to engage in a conversation about the issues the work brings up. No single person could craft the level of media interest that this artwork has received. It is a welcome surprise to me. As an artist I have very little control over how far the story of a particular artwork will travel. I simply make art because I need to. I write about it because that is part of my process. My contribution to this experience has been making artwork, writing a blog and granting interviews. If there was any media grab at all it was the media grabbing my story.
What do you say to people who think this work is disgusting or disrespectful?
I can respect that not everyone will embrace this artwork. There are also communities of people who see Eggs Benedict as a necessary and brave statement. We all may have differing opinions and ways of looking at the world, but the freedom of expression is central to who we are as a people. Respecting someone else’s perspective is civilized, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue (even if it’s heated) is healthy.
I dedicated a great deal of time crafting this portrait in a way that it is immaculate in its presentation. I encourage all of the people who have taken offense to see it in person. My guess is that you might just be surprised by what you see.
Who is your next condom portrait going to be of? Any other spiritual leaders on your list?
I would like to encourage everyone who has wondered this to visit my website. Perhaps it’s natural to think that condoms are my specialty with the amount of coverage this piece has gotten, but if you take a look at my other bodies of work you will see that I work in a wide array of materials. Each project I begin usually demands learning how to use materials I have little experience with. Material choice plays a central role in each artwork I make and is necessary in helping create the total meaning of each piece.
While looking at my other bodies of work you will also begin to notice that the people I have chosen to depict are from popular culture. I am not particularly interested in taking on spiritual leaders nor do I have issues with Catholics or people from any denomination. What I am interested in is bringing focus to a number of public figures whose statements, life decisions, or personas are reflected in the personal challenges we face as participants in our current cultural climate.
If there was one thing you could say about this Eggs Benedict what would it be?
Art starts multiple conversations at a glance. Eggs Benedict encourages dialogue about our world leaders and their responsibility to public health. It also presents condoms in a festive and positive way. Further, Eggs Benedict incorporates the plight of the poorest of the poor; women and children, in that the portrait itself is made through embroidery, which is a form of women’s traditional craft. Family planning and sexuality are woven into the very way the artwork was made. AIDS prevention and advocacy are the central to concepts to Eggs Benedict, but included in it’s message are notions of sacred sculpture, ritual and reverence.
ART FOR A BETTER WORLD:
The events of the past month have brought me to make an unconventional decision concerning the sale of Eggs Benedict. I have decided to open the sale of this work to the world through an online auction. My hope is this will continue the global conversation this artwork has generated. I have also decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to help fund AIDS advocacy and relief.
Eggs Benedict, which began as an intervention will now to evolve into action. Through the power of contemporary art and philanthropy this artwork will bring positive change to the world. The more generous the bid, the more good will be done. My hope is that Eggs Benedict will be purchased by an institution or collector who envisions this work on public display with the possibility of seeing it travel.
The percentage of the sale that to be donated and the organizations to be awarded funds will be decided in collaboration with the highest bidder. Once the piece is purchased the details will be made public.
I look forward to reporting back on the results of this auction! Thank you all for your interest. Without all of you, this would not be happening.