Stocks and bondage

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Stocks and bondage

Dear Ace: I was walking on the Downtown Mall the other day and I saw a guy in stocks in front of Zocalo. What’s the deal?—Thor Churr

Thor: What, you’ve never been to Busch Gardens? Everyone knows that the stocks are an ancient device invented so that tourists can pay six bucks to have their pictures taken by apathetic theme park workers. But just in case Ace’s definition was a little faulty, he went out to investigate. Shockingly, Ace’s definition was indeed off the mark, and the real answer is a good deal more interesting.


James Sham goes to great lengths on the Downtown Mall to “bring the moral question back to society."

First of all, it turns out that the “guy in stocks” was in fact the “guy in the pillory,” the difference being that stocks bind the feet primarily, while the pillory binds the head and arms. A minor point to those of us who don’t attend Renaissance fairs, but the two evidently carried different connotations back in the day, and Ace certainly doesn’t want the guy to have been pilloried in vain.

The guy was James Sham, an artist based out of Richmond. Sham was pilloried from February 26 to March 5, night and day, rain or shine. Why all the suffering for his art? Sham enlightened Ace: “It’s an action of memorializing parts of history that are neglected, but it’s also to bring the moral question back to society.” Sham continued, explaining that the pillory was something of a misdemeanor punishment that was used to shame offenders rather than physically hurt them—sort of the community service sentence of its day. Unlike putting on an orange vest and poking at roadside garbage with a pointy stick, however, pillories were “icons for a community coming together to decide on a common morality.” Shackling himself in Charlottesville’s equivalent of a town square was Sham’s way of trying to make spectators think about that.

One question remains: How the hell did James Sham endure a whole week in the pillory?  Anyone walking by could take Sham’s place for any length of time, and by Sham’s own admission, this was as much about letting him stretch his legs and use the bathroom as it was about addressing communal morality. But Sham’s self-inflicted ordeal is now over, and if you missed it, you can still see the Sham-less pillory on display through March 24 as part of “The Commonwealth Bricoleurs,” a sculpture exhibit put on by Sham and his fellow VCU sculpture grad students at the UVA Off-Grounds Gallery.

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