Kat Murrell

“Eggs Benedict” heats up international debate

Kat Murrell speaks to Niki Johnson, the artist behind the controversial depiction of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in condoms, about her work's purpose: to foster discussion of religion and human sexuality.

By - Mar 26th, 2013 01:21 am
Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict. Unframed size 41 x 51 x 5 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict. Unframed size 41 x 51 x 5 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It has taken less than one week for Milwaukee-based artist Niki Johnson‘s nearly-finished Eggs Benedict to go from relative obscurity in her local studio to worldwide debate. The reason? The portrait, of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, is made of 17,000 brightly colored, meticulously folded, woven and stitched latex condoms.

Since the portrait’s rise to viral fame, Johnson, also an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, has been fielding questions daily from news organizations around the world. She has been quoted by The Huffington Post and New York Daily NewsThe Sun in the UK, and publications in Asia and Africa on Eggs Benedict.

It’s impressive to consider both how necessary the omniscient Internet was for such a meteoric rise in awareness, as well as the short time it took to go viral. In 1517, Martin Luther’s provocative 95 theses, posted on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, questioned practices within the Catholic Church and helped ignite the Protestant Reformation. His ideas spread rapidly due to the relatively new technology of moveable-type presses and skilled printers. This ultimately led to Luther’s excommunication in 1520. But that timeframe is nothing when compared with the speed of today’s digital ideas.

I recently visited Johnson to hear her thoughts and see this piece. Under the glow of incandescent lights, the play of colors and tightly woven surface of Eggs Benedict is quite striking. A cursory glance or online photo without further note might leave the viewer with the impression it is a textile piece. The subtle gradations of color bring to mind the traditions of Byzantine mosaics, the making of luminously grand figures out of glittering tesserae of stone and gold.

Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict, detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict, detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It’s only because of the multicolored rainbow of rubber that there is any controversy at all; this is the detail on which reactionary comments and outrage will center. It is also the point where serious debate must begin. Four years ago, in March 2009, Pope Benedict gave a speech in Africa implying that the use of condoms would only speed the spread of AIDS and other diseases. This was the the real spark that set Johnson on the long, arduous course of making this work.

Johnson says she is not against religion or Catholicism. Rather, this piece is rooted in a concern for issues of public health, poverty, and sexual choice. It is against this conceptual backdrop that the image of the former pope is presented. He is ceremonial, celebratory, and regal in the trappings of his position. Yet, the woven reality is layered, textured, and when extrapolated into real life, suggests the complicated, messy, difficult relationships of humanity and human sexuality.

This is where the message and meaning are centered. They are waypoints in the discussion about pressing issues concerning life, death, disease, procreation, gender, and the bodily realities of life. Is there a disconnect between this image of a glorious figure and the physical utilitarianism of the material, with all of its implications? How do infallible directives relate to the risks concerning health and safety? What role do ecclesiastical rules have in stigmatizing the desire for personal protection and its associated responsibilities? How does the health of the ordinary mortal square against pomp and tradition, especially in the hard light of the 21st century?

Niki Johnson's studio materialsl. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Niki Johnson’s studio materials. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Eggs Benedict makes great copy for news headlines, of course, as the insatiable 24/7 news cycle will attest. Interestingly, Johnson has been witness to various misunderstandings and misquotes which have now been promulgated across the globe. She would like to emphasize that she receives no funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. And she is not 25 years old, as stated in many articles. She is 35 and – as she puts it – she has earned every year.

Once the inflammatory rhetoric is spent, a concentrated assessment of the work will remain. As an artwork, there is no denying Johnson’s skill and commitment to this project. She estimates that about 270 hours were spend on this piece during the various stages of its making.

The allusions to textiles and weaving are not unforeseen. Johnson learned needlepoint in her childhood and was interested in the process as a labor of love. There is a strong association with needlework as a woman’s practice, which is claimed and invoked on a monumental scale.

The combinations of colors are created by a process of layering one condom within another in order to achieve a more subtle variation. As Johnson notes, this is like creating a rainbow within the surface of the piece. Out of the range of available colors,  from black to white, shades of fluorescent green and everything else in between, combinations make for richness of surface hue. On a metaphorical level this effect is not unlike the endless diversity of humanity.

As national and international interest in this piece continues, Johnson hopes it opens a broader dialogue of reasoned consideration. In response to negative reactions, Johnson respectfully acknowledges their discontent, saying, “I consider art as a way of creating thought and discussion.”

Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict, view of the back of the piece. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Niki Johnson, Eggs Benedict, view of the back of the piece. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Milwaukee is a new home, as Johnson just arrived in July, but has found it to be a very welcoming city. She was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but grew up in New Mexico. She counts her experience of living in Memphis, Tennessee, while completing her undergraduate degree as an especially extraordinary and formative time. She earned an MA and MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has made quick inroads in Milwaukee with a number of prominent exhibitions on the horizon.

Eggs Benedict will be shown this April at Portrait Society Gallery, and Johnson will also be part of a group show featuring the work of Martha Wilson beginning in June. In September, the Madison Public Library will exhibit two of her works which are part of their permanent collection. Johnson is currently organizing an exhibition in conjunction with Planned Parenthood. Opening in October, Engendered will explore themes of feminism, gender, and identity, continuing some of the significant questions inherent in her socially aware, probing work.

Categories: Art, Arts & Culture

4 thoughts on ““Eggs Benedict” heats up international debate”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great work on this, Kat. Thanks. — Strini

  2. Anonymous says:

    Did Niki Johnson intend on Eggs Benedict getting a lot of press because it’s made of condoms and not, say, balloons? 2700 hours is a lot of time to spend on a piece, so obviously she’s committed and devoted! Anything with a Pope in it gets publicity (e.g. Sinead O’Connor’s spontaneous comment, in the past). Does she have any plans on making something involving the new Pope Francis?

  3. Anonymous says:

    It will be very interesting to see what happens in Milwaukee when this piece is on display. Portrait Society Gallery couldn’t buy publicity like this. It’s so exciting. Great article. I enjoyed reading it very much.

  4. Anonymous says:

    […] Munker at the German Press Agency broke the story worldwide, while  Mary-Louise Schumacher and Kat Murrell contextualized the artwork within the broader scope of my practice.  Television reporters […]

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