Art critics noted the stink as soon as the elevator opened. Indeed, the morning of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial preview, Pope L.’s contribution smelled like rotten lunch. For good reason: Claim, on view through June 11, consists of 2,755 bologna slices nailed in grid formation on the walls of a small, freestanding room within the exhibition.
Plastic basins catch the grease run-off along the museum floor. By early April, nearly a month later, the stench had faded considerably and in May, it seemed gone, as the bologna dried—or “cured” per ArtNews—into something probably more akin to beef jerky now. Claim considers the usefulness of race as a social category: Affixed to each piece of meat is a photocopy of someone who may or may not be Jewish. According to the Whitney’s label, the number of slices reflects 1 percent of the Jewish population in New York. Or not. The math, we’re told, is a “bit off”— a deliberate misrepresentation that doesn’t actually correspond to census data, the pictures taken at random. What, the artist is asking, makes us think we can recognize Jews—or any other identity—with certainty? On June 2, Pope L. received the Whitney’s prestigious Bucksbaum Award, which grants one Biennial participant— whose work demonstrates a “singular combination of talent and imagination”— a future museum exhibition.
But among the questions it presents, Claim, more than other artwork in the Biennial, stresses the unique problems museums and collectors face as contemporary art grows more ambitious in its materials: how to conserve works made of substances meant to last for several days or weeks. After all, it’s difficult to imagine bologna portraits transcending millennia like a classical marble bust or centuries like a Rembrandt. Getting a sculpture made of deli meat to survive the decade could even be a stretch. While Claim may be an extreme case of perishable art, Pope L. is far from alone. Today’s art world is filled with artists using seemingly banal, yet wacky household items— from a miniature Algerian town made of couscous to a huge Styrofoam cup cloud— elaborate, significant work that challenges not only what art is, but how exactly, future generations will be able to experience it.