MILWAUKEE — When a story, an image of a work of art, or an essay goes viral, it has struck a cultural nerve, somewhere, and people can’t stop passing it on. The work itself becomes freed of the space where it was first realized; it is taken over by global internet culture and social networks, co-opted by BuzzFeed, threaded on Reddit, then picked up by mainstream media outlets.
Such was the case with Milwaukee-based artist Niki Johnson’s portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, a simple portrait of the pope made from 17,000 condoms in a broad spectrum of colors, which made it to The Sun (UK), the New York Daily News and Huffington Post. Johnson’s work was inspired by a scientifically blasphemous, though unsurprising, statement that the former pope made before he embarked on his 2009 Africa tour. He stated that the “distribution of condoms aggravates the AIDS crisis.”
The Roman Catholic Church claims it is on the forefront of the battle against AIDS, advocating sexual abstinence and fidelity within marriage as a way of fighting the disease, reports the Telegraph UK. The same article notes that Africa is “crucial to the Vatican because of its growing number of believers…approximately one-sixth of the world’s Catholics, or 230 million people, are expected to be African.”
Johnson’s “Eggs Benedict” (2013) is pop-y enough to appear on an art reality TV show and perfect for the ecosystem of virality. Describing it as a “labor of love,” the artist plays into notions of traditional women’s work radicalized through her material choice. She worked on it meticulously and laboriously like an embroidery, but threading the condoms through a garden mesh rather than an embroidery mesh. Coincidentally, she finished stitching the work of art the same week that Pope Benedict retired.
Seeing the work in person rather than as a digital file makes for a brighter, more visceral visual experience, of course. After seeing the work online, I traveled to Milwaukee to see the real-life rubbers. The conglomeration of tiny pixels represents a life-sized portrait made from rubber ties, standing nearly six-feet-tall and five-feet-wide. The portrait of the Pope is very much a traditional portrayal on the front; walk around to the other side of the piece though, and see the empty open mouths of the condoms tied tight like the knots of filled balloons.
This is political art lite, much like Paul Perkins’ portrayals of Trayvon Martin and American pop culture, the type that travels the internet and arrives back again in the Midwest, where it was birthed, that battleground in Wisconsin where pro-lifers are bombing abortion clinics, where protestors fought against Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on unions. This is Middle America, a place where real portraits of the Pope are reverently propped up in families’ living rooms. And for the politics of this region, the work itself makes sense. Seeing it in person is an oddly pleasant visual experience; each rubber condom is carefully threaded into its perfect place through the mesh, glowing with varying colors like a work of pointillism.
At the unveiling of Johnson’s Pope portrait at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee last month, a woman asked her husband to photograph her in front of it while she held in front of her a glossy card with Jesus and Mary emblazoned upon it. She smiled, pleased that she would soon have documentation of herself in front of this portrait of the Holy Father. After her husband snapped the photo, she turned to the artist and asked if she was Catholic. Johnson, standing tall next to her portrait, replied no. The woman with the Jesus and Mary card looked confused. In her mind, this was a celebration of the Pope made from a clever and unconventional material; when she realized that the piece had political undertones, she paused, collecting her thoughts for a moment, and then walked away clutching the mother and son of God close to her heart.