A s last Friday's twilight drew to a close, and the scratchy, lilting tune of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" started up again, I swallowed my aversion to dancing in public and fumbled with the mechanics of dancing with another man, who was covered head to toe in chocolate, wearing a milkman's uniform, and had two broken bones in his foot. To the right of us, on the sidewalk that lay between our star-spangled stage and the courthouse prison, a homeless man stopped his cart to shout something indecipherable and throw a few shadow punches before moving on.
The setting was Candy Mountain, a debut public performance by William Pope.L held in conjunction with eRacism, his solo show at PICA, and timed to coincide with the Rose Festival, whose fairgrounds were only two blocks away. Candy Mountain was billed as "a dance for/on democracy." For eight hours a night, two nights running, Pope.L foxtrotted with all comers and conversed on democracy, pausing every hour to get coated by a bucket of chocolate syrup. For each dance, Pope.L donated ten dollars from his own pocket to Outside In, an agency who helps homeless youth in Portland.
While we discussed alcoholism and the relative democratic/socialist nature of 12-step programs, the sticky and sweet-smelling artist made me feel like I was the most interesting person he had talked to in years. I walked away from our dance feeling curiously satisfied, momentarily buoyed by my contribution to a local charity. Soon I realized that I hadn't done a thing for homeless youth except to participate in a bizarre, discomforting public spectacle.
The vicarious humiliation of watching gallons of chocolate wash over Pope.L was spiritually murderous, like we were witnessing a man about to be tarred and feathered. While the artist took breaks for foot rubs, the audience chatted about upcoming shows and fundraisers, but when the record started up again, fairgoers with enormous stuffed animals and sailors with soiled white uniforms paused to see this man on a chocolate-splattered patriotic stage, dancing to a song their grandparents might have danced to seventy years ago. "I'm headed for a land that's far away, beside the crystal fountain. I'll see you all this coming fall, in the Big Rock Candy Mountain." CHAS BOWIE