This Meme: Ancient Graffiti, Pepe the Frog and Mary Miss on Ohio State Campus

If you search Google Image for “Mary Miss” “Ohio State” you come up with the following kind of image of the artist’s interactive work This Artwork on the OSU campus:

Beyond this kind of front-on image, there is little online presence that gives a sense of the depth and interactive quality to the work. Here is the description of the work on the artist’s website:

A corner of a building on campus changes daily: it appears that the wall can be penetrated although there is not really a doorway. The openings are sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. Mirrored surfaces reflect the surroundings or at other times disappear as a bright red interior is revealed.

Evans Laboratory, housing the chemistry and astronomy departments, is located on one of the main campus roads and is a busy crossing point for pedestrians. The new structure, which abuts an existing blank façade, provides a small gathering place for students.

Inside the shallow structure made of butting aluminum channels there are three walls of sliding panels. The first layer allows the whole structure to be nearly closed, providing only a glimpse of the interior. These panels have a mirrored surface on their reverse side. The next walls are blackboards with two movable ladders in front to make it possible to use the surfaces; the back side of these panels is red. The last set of movable panels is mirrored and the back wall is also made up of red enameled panels. Looking into this structure it is not clear where the boundaries are as reflected colors and patterns bounce back and forth.

This corner stopping place becomes notable for its constant change. It is a place which can be interacted with, used as a backdrop or observed from a distance.

I visited This Artwork today and took some photographs of some of ways that OSU students have interacted with Miss’ artwork. Here are a few examples:

In one corner tucked inside Miss’ sculpture, I came across the following drawing of Pepe the Frog.

As you probably know Pepe was recently killed off by its creator – Matt Furie – on account of its appropriation last year by Trump supporting white supremacists,  racists and anti-Semites, leading the Anti-Defamation League to designate the frog’s likeness a hate symbol. In his book on meme culture, The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media, Ryan Milner notes how such online image-making and dissemination has its roots in the ancient world:

Images have long been employed for public commentary and public conversation. Caricature was used to ridicule Egyptian pharaohs of the 1300s BCE. Sexually explicit graffiti was found in the first-century ruins of Pompeii. Roman barracks in the third century contained visual mockery of early Christians. Martin Kemp observes that “like us, the later Romans appear to have been image junkies. Temples, public buildings, homes, and brothels all purveys fine-tuned messages in the pictorial mode.”

While Milner’s quotation from Kemp focuses on the continuity of such images across time, in Kemp’s original article he reflects on the ubiquity of both images and words. What about do the words around Pepe tell us about the company he is keeping? First of all, beyond the graffiti tags, the words written below the image of Pepe the Frog – MEE MEE – offers us an immediate insight. MEE MEE is a punning way of signaling an image as a meme as  it is spelling out a way of saying the word by enunciating each of its tow syllabus (meme = me-me). Furthermore, this verbal/visual pun also gestures towards the intrinsic narcissism of meme creation – everybody, look at me! Grounded in this explicit gloss, surrounding Pepe we find other phrases associated with memes: Dat Boi (a phrase said by a frog on a mono-cycle, who unlike Pepe was invented not appropriated) and a reference to Harambe (the gorilla killed at Cincinnati zoo, who, like Pepe, became a rallying cry against progressive ‘snowflakes’). Finally, above these we have the phrase: Jason Christ..Its Jesus Bourne which is a re-worded meme that came from a scene in the Jason Bourne movies. While Pepe the Frog and Harambe can be directly identified with hate speech through his explicit appropriation by white supremacist groups, what is telling is how the other ‘verbal’ memes referenced in this section of the Mary Miss work – Dat Boi and Jesus Christ its Jason Bourne – have all become part of the Pepe meme. For example, the Pepe the Frog version of Jesus Christ its Jason Bourne.

In this past day, following Pepe’s ‘death’, Dat Boi and Pepe have been united as Christ-figure and his mourners in a new meme:

Here we can trace a direct line back to the types of ancient graffiti that Milner references, specifically examples of attacks on early Christianity. The most famous example of which is probably the so-called “Alexamenos graffito”, which you can see in the Palatine Museum in Rome and which depicts a man beneath a donkey-headed figure on a cross and which has the words beneath saying: ‘Alexamenos worships his god’:

Given this precedent, perhaps the constellation of memes surrounding Pepe the Frog in Mary Miss’ This Artwork could be conjectured to evoke a certain version of contemporary Christianity and a reliance on Christian values that underpin much of the accusations of racism and antisemitism directed at the appropriation of Furie’s character. Other graffiti on the artwork reference a Christian context, such as a direct advertisement for the New Life Church:

While such a hypothesis cannot be proved, it does point to religion as the connecting link between ancient graffiti practices and contemporary meme culture, specifically from 2016 and the run up to Trump’s election. For ancient critics of Christianity and contemporary defenders of the religion, the words and images of graffiti and memes generate as well as dividing communities. This post is not a simplistic call for the removal of this Pepe the Frog from campus (there have been other protests on campus surrounding this meme). At the same time, however, I do want to make a suggestion that public art at OSU, funded by the state, needs to reflect our inclusive and diverse community at OSU.  So, if you believe in such a community, students, get out your chalk and head over to College and 18th and get making new memes, because, and Mary Miss would surely agree, This Artwork is your artwork.

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