Pope.L: Hospital | South London Gallery

William Pope.L died in December 2023: after this London exhibition opened, but before it closed. Visitors to the show therefore bear witness to an artistic inflection point. Pope.L himself helped plan out what we see, but he won’t be here to put together any future exhibitions. He can’t influence his posthumous reputation. He won’t be able to capture any more moments in time.

Things are particularly uncertain - beyond that one, central, terminal certainty - for Pope.L, considering so much of his previous work was based on live performance. He made his name in the 1970s through his “crawls”, making his way through the streets of New York City on hands and knees, forcing passers-by to look down on him.

Pope.L ‘Eating The Wall Street Journal (Mother Version)’ (2000-23)

What will be left behind of the artist Pope.L, then? Videos of the performances, certainly, and also his installations, in which, suitably enough, he focuses on the effects of the passing of time.

I don’t know if Pope.L knew his end was near when he installed Eating The Wall Street Journal (Mother Version), in the main gallery and pictured above. But its state of collapse and decay lends an eerie atmosphere that I think all visitors must feel. We passed a book of condolence to the artist on the way in, after all.

Pope.L used to perform this piece, sat on a wooden tower, eating a copy of America’s premier financial newspaper, washed down with ketchup and milk. But now, the towers (there are three) are in various states of collapse, covered in dust. Visitors are encouraged to add more still, from dusty wall-mounted bowls.

Look closely, and there are copies of the Wall Street Journal, scattered among the debris, among other detritus, including fishing rods and a toilet. One headline stood out: Startups Struggle To Stay in Business As Funds Dry Up. (Pope.L’s original performance of the work, back in 2000, was inspired by an ad claiming that a person could increase their wealth just by buying a copy of the paper.) Companies, wealth, the day’s paper: new once, but eventually, all buried under dust.

Nothing lasts forever - including this installation, and its creator.

Pope.L: Hospital is at South London Gallery (London). 21 November 2023 - 11 February 2024