Asheville Art Talk: Severn Eaton rides the escalator at Trump Tower

THE DESCENT: A security officer stands behind Severn Eaton as he rides down the escalator at Trump Tower.
THE DESCENT: A security officer stands behind Severn Eaton as he rides down the escalator at Trump Tower. Photo courtesy of Eaton

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.

YOUR UNDERWEAR IS SHOWING: Eaton says his use of underwear in "White Shame," is to link his own sense of embarrassment of the segment of the country that embraces racist ideology.
YOUR UNDERWEAR IS SHOWING: Severn Eaton says his use of underwear in White Shame explores the fear of exposure. Photo by Steve Mann

“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

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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7 thoughts on “Asheville Art Talk: Severn Eaton rides the escalator at Trump Tower

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    “Secret Service agents told him his act wasn’t going to get anything across to the public”

    I strongly disagree. I am confident that this will trigger some to red-pill out of the matrix of leftist identity politics that is so divorced from reality. Got to hand it to the artist, though, to have the courage to make such a fool of himself for the sake of garnering attention. Is his 15 minutes up yet?

  2. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    This phoyo really could be a funny visual for an Onion news article about Senator Byrd’s ghost showing up at Trump Tower after reading in Salon that Trump and Bannon are white nationalists. But he left disconsolate after finding out it was just fake news. Photoshop Pepe the Frog’s head on the security guy escorting him out the door.

    While he was in NYC, Severn Eaton should have worn that costume at Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” joke. Now THAT would have been funny!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfvqKP5ajFc

  3. Deplorable Infidel

    yep, that took lots of hutzpuh for sure! very clever and bold! wish he’d wear it to city council and county commission meeting for
    a big surprise!

  4. Sara Baird

    Yes! We all need more of this type of courage, bravery and truth right now. Keep going!

  5. Sara LeDonne

    YES, ART !! of the highest performance art standards… thought provoking , disorienting, jarring the daily routine……

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