Viral Image to Real Rubbers: Pop Pope

Detail of Niki Johnson’s “Eggs Benedict” (2013) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

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