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#Hashtags: Sweet and Low

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Kara Walker’s massive sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, titled At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant has been recognized mostly for Walker’s hotly debated use of African American stereotypes, and for some hurtful behavior by visitors to the exhibition who Instagrammed obscene reactions to the sexually explicit central figure (no link, Google if you must). Some of this is inevitable. Walker’s work, marked by an oppositional aesthetics and meant to impart a strong reaction, reflects and manifests harsh realities present in the larger world. The experience of her work is raw, and some viewers experience her appropriation of racially exploitative imagery as re-traumatization irrespective of its critical intent. Such an emotional response is certainly valid; however, it is scarcely the main criteria by which the work’s artistic merit should be judged. The disrespectful behavior of some audience members is also an indication that the social codes of nudity versus nakedness of women’s bodies remain more or less intact, over 150 years after Manet’s Olympia brought them center stage. Further complicating responses to the work is the reality of contemporary art and museum attendance (and leadership), which is overwhelmingly white; as well as sponsorship of the installation by Domino Sugar, still linked to profit through the exploitation of black labor; and by the high-rise developer that now owns the site, and whose plans are under challenge from local organizers. As such, Walker’s sphinx represents an anti-slavery political statement that is itself shackled, reliant on entities that actively perpetuate the very exploitation and effacement that her narrative is intended to combat.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Walker’s sphinx is in dialogue with Olympia much as she is with the Great Sphinx of Giza and with the myriad (usually female) sphinxes that appear in Symbolist painting. As she demonstrated with After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, Walker is a student of art history. Her decision to dress the otherwise unclothed central figure in a “Mammy” headwrap relegates the sphinx to nakedness, a woman in a state of partial and thereby knowing undress who has historically been viewed as sinful, while her un-self-conscious, still visually available nude counterpart has been viewed as innocent. Whiteness and blackness are very much a part of this history, best illustrated with respect to the Odalisque tradition in art, which Manet both references and modernizes.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time.

Walker made a conscious choice to keep her sphinx wholly human in form, but her posture maintains the animalistic pose of the original sphinxes. Walker synthesizes the three figures of Manet’s painting—the courtesan, her African maid, and her black cat “in heat”—amalgamating Olympia’s withholding gaze, the maid’s white bonnet of compliance, and the cat’s crouched pose and raised tail. In her affect, Walker’s sphinx is a queenly rejoinder to the wanton, man-eating sphinx of Manet’s contemporaries, the Symbolists—all claws and appetite—though she appears equally antagonistic to the interests of powerful men. Yet the relationship is not so simple. A Subtlety represents the often contradictory interplay of desire and subjugation that drives colonization, a relationship that implicates everyone in a society in which colonial impulses are at work. Like the Sphinx of Giza, Walker’s ultimately stands as a symbol of the powerful men who underwrote it—in this case, the pharaohs of capital.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

The material and spatial qualities of this work far outstrip anything Walker has ever done using her characteristic medium of cut paper. Surrounding the Sphinx are Banana Boys, five-foot-tall cast-sugar sculptures of children who carry bundles of bananas for refining. These amber-colored, massive candies appear to serve the Sphinx like the drones of a queen bee. Over time, their translucent surfaces corrode, but their passive smiles remain. The crystallizing sugar eats away at itself, reflecting the corruption of bondage, which taints slaver and enslaved alike. Some boys hold baskets filled with shiny, sweet fragments. Walker has explained that the “basket boys” were made in resin when the sugar casts were unsuccessful, and that they carry the remains of their shattered brethren. The candy boys are black and brown, their mistress recognizably black but refined, like molasses into sugar, to a pure white. Walker has described how her interest lay in “what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American.” Substitute “artist” for “American” and the work becomes a metaphor for Walker’s own ascent within a contemporary art world dominated by white tastes and biases. Audiences of color who have felt themselves excluded from much of the discussion, and their interests rendered invisible by the white-centric lens of the art establishment, self-organized a recent event to highlight their differing viewpoints on A Subtlety.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

A Subtlety is a monument to intersecting concerns of race, gender, class, and labor that inform the Domino site’s history as well as the canon of art history, legacies with which many visitors were likely unfamiliar. Like any monument, A Subtlety is a large-scale, spectacular public artwork underwritten by the private funds of the ruling class. In this case the donors are Domino Sugar itself, representing the industry whose reliance on unpaid and underpaid labor the work critiques, and also the developers who are invested in demolishing the historic and distinctive Domino site, displacing nearby Latino families to make way for yet another faceless block of riverfront condos. The problems posed by systems of commissioning and funding monumental art have been openly criticized by artists since the 1960s, when expanded field artists abandoned traditional approaches to sculptural scale in favor of phenomenological, temporal, and spatial investigations. As history and taste have conferred canonical status on such dematerialized artworks, enabling the artists to realize ever more ambitious reshapings of space and time, their unmonumentality has ceased to be reliably oppositional to capital interests—requiring ever greater investment and at times closely resembling commercial forms of property development. Walker’s return to the figurative monument form in the context of a site-specific, research-centric public art project represents a completion of the circuit from monument to anti-monument. Neither figurative nor abstract monumental language can any longer be understood as implicitly antithetical to the interests of power.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

For Creative Time, which commissioned the Walker installation, the competing interests of socially progressive contemporary art and of moneyed property development are proving difficult to manage. The developer who controls the Domino site is not only a backer of the Walker project, but the co-chair of Creative Time’s board, charged with helping to fund and steward the organization as a public benefit. One highly visible and positive outcome of Creative Time’s strong relationships with the private sector is the emergence of Creative Time Reports, which sponsors leading artists and writers to travel and research in-depth works of reportage (though the selection of these authors in lieu of experienced journalists seems motivated more by celebrity than by investigative standards). On the other hand, Creative Time has recently weathered a few controversies, including one that erupted during the run of the Walker installation when the organization came under fire from artists aligned with the BDS movement for neglecting to reveal that a traveling version of their exhibition, Living as Form (organized for touring by Independent Curators International), had been mounted at two venues in Israel without the knowledge or consent of the participating artists, several of whom withdrew. Artists’ objections were particularly vehement about the show’s second venue at the Technion in Haifa, a university with close ties to the Israeli military and to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Creative Time’s official response has been that their commitment to freedom of speech prevents them from participating in what they call “cultural boycotts,” which is a defense that positions compliance with a U.S. State Department agenda in Israel to serve as a progressive gloss on the ongoing civil-rights crisis in Palestine as neutrality rather than partisanship. A similar (and increasingly paltry) defense has been claimed by Kasper König, curator of the upcoming Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, Russia, who has come under criticism and weathered numerous artist withdrawals for continuing to maintain the viability of a socially conscious, politically progressive biennial inside an increasingly totalitarian Russian state. In both defenses, “fairness” is doublespeak for complicity with repressive state interests, while accommodation of requests for support from the marginalized are characterized as “self-interest.” The appetites of development, whether represented by Brooklyn condominium developers, Russian oligarchs, or the Israeli Army, trump human values despite the professed commitment to socially engaged artistic practices.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

In an era when splashy blockbuster installations by well-known individual artists are consistently funded in the multi-millions, while nonprofits and alternative spaces supporting countless lesser-known artists struggle to stay open, the consolidation of resources toward a single project like this one should be a reason to pause and ask questions. How does the amplification of Walker’s perspective on this grand scale serve to situate her institutionalized voice as disproportionately representative of the interests of black artists who remain largely invisible in the contemporary art mainstream? How many working artists of color, women, and queer and transgendered artists could have had their practices substantially underwritten had the money allocated for Walker’s project been distributed differently? Is Walker’s work being presented with the intention of engaging new and diverse art audiences or with the goal of making homogenous and affluent art patrons appear inclusive? Whose larger agenda is such a massive investment of capital—so closely held by so few, and labor given so cheaply by so many—truly intended to serve? The elusiveness of social parity as a priority in the arts may require the epochal ponderings of a sphinx to understand.

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant is on view at the Domino Sugar Factory through July 6, 2014.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

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