By weaving 17,000 colorful latex condoms together, over four years time, artist Niki Johnson constructed a colorful, unconventional portrait of Pope Benedict XVI. Now, Eggs Benedict has sparked national controversy from Catholic leaders who are opposed to its inclusion in the Milwaukee Art Museum's permanent collection.
Earlier today, The Creators Project spoke with Johnson about the politics of the piece. Johnson says the idea for her artwork was sparked by a radio segment aired in 2009, of then-Pope Benedict XVI's divisive statements about the use of condoms. Johnson says Eggs Benedict is about, “the role of world leaders and their responsibility to public health," at its core: "The pope piece was made in protest.”
Art with religious iconography is not new. The artist Maurizio Cattelan cast a fallen pope titled, Ninth Hour, in 2001. Artist Andres Serrano received numerous threats over the years for his 1987 Immersion (Piss Christ) photograph. Indeed, many are unhappy about the Milwaukee Art Museum's inclusion of the work. Calling it a "piece of anti-Catholic bigotry and hate speech," according to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, local attorneys Michael Bowen and Sara Armbruster Bowen withdrew their memberships to the museum.
Johnson, however, says she was mindful of her artistic critique: “There were aspects of the project that I was hesitant about. I wanted to make sure that the intention of the work was valid and worthy of the potential controversy or the type of dialogue that I wanted to talk about.”
This is not the first time the artist has considered the political ramifications of her work and its allure to the media. Johnson’s work as an artist grapples with issues of identity and questions “who we are as Americans.” In the past, she made an embroidered canvas of Paris Hilton’s face, an Amy Winehouse portrait made of plastic bags, entitled Corner Drug, as well as a sculpture of the Michelle Obama’s arms titled A Vision in White that speaks of the “white gaze on a black body.”
Yet, despite the controversy, Johnson hopes Eggs Benedict can help educate people to make choices to live healthy, productive lives. She says, “The piece is woven, a latex embroidery. It’s within the vein of women’s a traditional craft and women and children are the poorest of the poor. The idea of denying aspects of family planning or preventing disease or further stigmatizing a material that already carries its own level of taboo just seemed irresponsible. It’s one thing to have a doctrine within a religion. It’s another thing to say things that are untrue about condoms.”
Johnson’s process as an artist is tied to the exploration of materials and extending the notion of a canvas. It took Johnson 300 hours to unwrap and unroll all of the condoms. She then laid a grid over a photo of the pope with smiling face. “I wanted to create a sacred object that the Church has funded through the ages and I wanted to make something that was beautiful, exquisite even, to see in person. So it took 300 hours to unwrap and unroll and it took another 300 hours to triple fold them so I could weave them through the half-inch mesh.”
The artwork was purchased by Joseph Pabst, an LGBT funder and activist for $20,000 and donated it to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Come November, Eggs Benedict is scheduled to hang next to Chuck Close’s Nancy.
Niki Johnson is an artist and curator. Her most recent group show is titled Preservatif.