Asheville-based artist Severn Eaton understands there will be those who dismiss his latest project, White Shame, as distasteful dissent. Eaton describes the piece — a reimagined Ku Klux Klan robe made from underwear — as a commentary on our country’s ongoing struggles with racial tension and hatred. The underwear is meant to evoke that childhood fear of having your undergarments seen. Eaton says exposing the robe connects it to this juvenile preoccupation, offering an implicit critique of both the shameful persistence of racist ideology in our modern day culture, as well as the white supremacist’s own unfounded and childish obsession with racial superiority.
Eaton notes conversations he’s had with individuals who suggest that any action highlighting racism simply perpetuates it. “That’s a key part of the debate,” he says. “I don’t agree with it. I think just ignoring it and pretending there is no racial tension — nothing changes that way.”
In December, Eaton took White Shame on the road, in conjunction with a holiday visit with family in New York. He wanted to use the city streets as a backdrop for an impromptu photo shoot. As he scouted for locations, he realized that Trump Tower was around the corner. “My original thought was to get some shots out on the street with [the tower] in the background,” Eaton says. But as he searched for the right angle, a new idea occurred to him: Why not take a picture inside the building?
Eaton, who works primarily in painting and sculpture, had no previous experience in performance art. White Shame, he says, was never intended to be anything other than an investigation into “the embarrassment and shame of the existence of [white supremacy groups] in society.” But the potential for social and political commentary that Trump Tower offered was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“In my mind, it raised questions about the continued presence of racial tension and hatred in our society,” he says. “I think a big part of that has been stirred up by things that Donald Trump has said and done. There’s been a lot of hateful acts perpetrated … and he’s not doing anything to quell that or denounce it.”
On entering the tower, Eaton quickly settled on the escalator for his shot. “It’s infamous,” he says. “It’s where [Trump] descended to announce that he was running [for president].”
Eaton changed into the robe in a less trafficked area of the tower, but kept the mask in hand. He stepped toward the main lobby and looked around. “Half the people who worked there are minorities,” he says. He worried that the inherent subtlety of the design might lead to misinterpretations and that people would not see the costume as something made of underwear, but as an actual Klansman’s outfit.
“I realized it might be upsetting to people in a way that I wasn’t intending,” Eaton says. He returned to his impromptu changing room and removed the robe, prepared to drop the whole thing. But indecision left him lingering inside the building. “I realized I wasn’t doing anything illegal, and I also realized if I or any artist ever didn’t do something because it might rub someone the wrong way, or it might be offensive to somebody, then nothing would ever get done.”
Eaton re-donned the robe and rode down the escalator. Within seconds, a security guard appeared behind him. He removed Eaton’s mask and told him that he needed to leave. By the time the escalator reached the ground floor, however, Secret Service agents were waiting for him.
“They escorted me down a hallway and held me for a while and questioned me,” Eaton says. His bag was searched, and the items in his wallet were photographed. “They were concerned something else was going on. They wanted to know if there were other people about to do something.”
Eaton managed to assure them it was an art project. Within 15 minutes, he was released. “They were upset about it,” he says. According to Eaton, Secret Service agents told him his act wasn’t going to get anything across to the public. Eaton says he understands their point of view: “I’m sure they have to put up with a lot, day to day.”
He does not, however, consider his project an exercise in futility. “It’s a voice in an ongoing discussion,” Eaton says. It’s also a medium he intends to explore further. “I’m learning through acting, through doing things like this. It’s an arena that I’m excited to be a part of,” he says. “The idea of not taking action and just going with the flow and seeing what happens … that’s way more frightening to me.”
For more on Eaton’s work, visit severneaton.com