White Man on a Pedestal
— Sims gets dissected and DAVE is no longer
White Man on A Pedestal concluded Sunday evening with CENOTAPHIC, a memorial service for Kenya (Robinson’s) #whitemaninmypocket.
Cenotaphic makes use of performance as a tool for inquiry, questioning the life cycle of white male heteronormative patriarchy. “Is our current system of privilege alive, or is it an energetic impulse, abiding by the law of physics?” At 4 o’clock a crowd gathered at the Red Hook Houses for a jazz funeral procession led by (Robinson) and a brass band and marched their way through the quiet streets of Red Hook to Pioneer Works. Kenya’s massive structure had been turned around, with the alter now facing front. The DAVES had been dismantled and buried in an undisclosed location. Accompanied by the brass band, Kenya was first to share words followed by a eulogy delivered by Amanda Werner, an activist known for their viral appearance as the Monopoly Man at the Equifax Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in October 2017. The service was followed by a delicious repass with cornbread, collards, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken. The short version of the DAVE backstory… Some four years ago, a friend gifted Kenya a small pocket-sized figurine—A white male businessman carrying a briefcase. The artist has carried that figure in her pocket every day since, weaving through her work as an artist and brilliant writer. The burial was personal.
When I was a kid my Father used to warn me of some potential doomsday scenario of “them” taking it all back. Who are “they,” and what would they be taking? As the title of Doreen Garner and Kenya (Robinson’s) show at Pioneer Works suggests, “they” are White Men on a Pedestal, along with any other groups or ethnicities who would so closely align themselves with the White Patriarchal order to benefit themselves over the well-being of, for example, Black folks who have been methodically persecuted for no good reason beyond our strength and resilience as a people to continuously overcome ethnic and cultural genocide. Along with the objects on display, WMOAP is performance art. Entering the exhibition, one should keep in mind the show’s programmed culmination is the burial of “Dave Fowler” and his titular Pedestal. (Robinson) will hold this service for Fowler, including a burial of ten thousand terra-cotta DAVES. Fowler is fictitious, representational of an ideology that boasts privilege, deservedness and supposedly-rightful ownership. When one of my older brothers got a subprime mortgage, my father predicted the mortgage crisis, calling it a set-up. Today homeownership among blacks has dropped below where we were at in 1970. They took it back.
Kenya’s focal piece is a story-and-a-half-tall monumental collection of ten thousand white plastic Dave Fowler figures. A wall so tall, one could struggle to see the sunrise. Installed on its backside, in contrasting black, is an altar consisting of hand-cast wax candles, silk flowers, plastic beads, plastic tablecloths, and doilies. It is a memorial, a place for prayers, maybe a place to cast various spells.
Beyond the altar, hanging horizontally high above, is an artificial grass-covered foam statue of Dave, clinging to a briefcase. The disco ball, a “last minute” addition to the piece, hangs below grass-covered Dave. A heavenly globe? The pretense of a party celebrating the death of Dave and his white privilege? The ceremonial burial aspects of (Robinson)’s works suggest this “death” of Dave’s privilege and all of the harm it has done to this world; no more being nice about how we go about getting justice. Dave has so much power and influence, we’ve always negotiated on Dave’s land, on his terms. This burial suggests the artist believes that negotiating with “Dave” has proven not to work.
Dave is the epitome of trouble in disguise: he gets away with white collar crimes and selfish business deals. Dave’s perception of women and relationships is plagued by misogynist tendencies. Dave votes with his money in mind, forgetting about everyone else because Dave earned his net worth. Dave Fowler has been around for a very long time; in fact, he has never died. Living as Great Granddaddy Dave, Daddy Dave, and Dave, Jr.
J. Marion Sims, “father of modern gynecology” and a slave owner, gained his knowledge from horrific exploration on the bodies of enslaved Black women, without anesthesia. It sounds monstrous, and this monster is celebrated in Central Park with a statue. Yet, Sims is part representational, as these instances were not isolated. Medical Apartheid is real: “Half the original articles in the 1836 Southern Medical and Surgical Journal dealt with experiments performed upon blacks” (“Medical Apartheid”– Harriet A. Washington). Poneros, New Testament-speak for evil, is Doreen Garner’s replica of Sims’ statue in Central Park, towering high and painted in blood-tinted polyurethane. For a November performance, Garner performed a vesicovaginal fistula closure on the “Skin” of Poneros, with the help of several black women.
Garner’s work focuses now, more than ever, on creating a context whereby the gruesome is displayed within a framework of value. A surgically mutilated leg laya splayed open on a stainless steel table set atop a carousel platform. It’s a conundrum because the viewer is drawn to its shimmer, staring in bewilderment at the audacity of man, and the artistry of Garner’s skill with pearls, Swarovski crystals, and glass beads. Indeed, her works revolve around a fine line. So, we are in a state of glory over a replica of this poor girl’s leg: Do we become that room full of knowledgeable medical professionals, obsessing over this unnecessarily amputated leg? Would she have wanted any of this? Most certainly not, but here we are, most of us ignorant of the rampant instances of Medical Apartheid.
Garner has to succeed at creating this monumental effect of something terrible. She must succeed at eliciting beauty for the sake of remembrance. And, in this instance, beauty cannot outweigh its graphic nature, it cannot belie the gruesome truth. Unlike the hanging black cadavers and skeletons—the Bessie Wilborn’s—within and on the doors of medical offices, Doreen’s work mustn’t induce fear. By her actions as an artist, Garner evolves the term “resurrectionist” once more. She brings to it a new definition that connotes honoring the dead, vis à vis her artistic representations of human anatomy, unlike prominent medical institutions across the country that dissected stolen (black) bodies long before it was legal in the 19th Century.
(Robinson) over the years has created an effigy of white privilege through the manifestation of a fictitious character. “Dave” is the imbalance of power of which the majority of us are victims. “Dave’s” privilege has, and is, wreaking havoc all over the globe. By diverting the personal to “Dave”, she creates space for an impersonal dialogue, and at the conclusion of this exhibition, the effigy will burn.
CENOTAPHIC: Kenya (Robinson)
Purge: Doreen Garner
Garner performed a vesicovaginal fistula closure on the Skin of Poneros. Several body cast models featured in her work Rack of those Ravaged and Unconsenting will also assist in this procedure. Using dissection as a means to get to the truth, the symbolic mutilation of Sims’s body on a surgical table seeks to undo his historically praised posture.