Eggs Benedict: Part 2


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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.

GOING VIRAL:

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.

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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.

MOST ASKED QUESTIONS:

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Over the past month I have been asked a number of questions about Eggs Benedict. While most of the key points of my answers have been published, I feel it necessary to take this opportunity to address a few of these questions more fully.

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:

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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.

Eggs Benedict

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.

THE WHY:

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?

Apparently not.

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.

 THE HOW:

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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.

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I finished stitching the week Pope Benedict retired.

THE PIECE:

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!

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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.

QUESTIONS/COMMENTS:

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