This is the first part of a two-part post about my thoughts and reactions to artist Kara Walker's "A Subtlety", which recently finished it's run at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.
Before I could even enter the Domino Sugar Factory building that houses Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" (or "The Marvelous Sugar Baby"), I stood in a line that ran almost 1.5 miles long, stretching along Kent Ave. in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Although the air did not hang as heavy with heat and moisture as it had the past week, the sun blazed high in the sky and fell hard on our shoulders. But it was the last day to view the exhibit, so we waited patiently for our chance as sweat escaped from our skin.
I had gone to the exhibit by myself. I had plenty of time while waiting in line to think about the various reactions that critics and lay persons have had to it and wonder how I would react to it. Would I cry? Would I be bored? Would I not "get it"? Would I wish there was more? Would I think she had gone too far? I tried not to speculate too much or else I would bias myself into a corner, and this was clearly an exhibit that demanded an open mind and appreciation of context.
But there was one article in particular--Nicholas Powers's "Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit"--I couldn't shake. If you haven't already read it (and I recommend that you do), Powers describes the upsetting and disrespectful behavior of some attendees while viewing the Sphinx. I won't go into detail here because I can't do it the justice that only Powers' first hand account and reflection can give, but he bravely and correctly chastised other exhibit-goers who neither showed respect nor any appreciation of what the piece represented/could represent. Of course, artwork is subject to a variety of interpretations and reactions. However, what angered Powers was not something he viewed as a misinterpretation or differing opinion of the art, but rather a lack of effort or sincerity in trying to appreciate Walker's work as laid out in the curatorial statement or understood through Walker's comments in the numerous interviews she's done with the media. He also brings up the responsibility of the artist and the exhibit's curators to provide a historical context and informed space to assist viewers in understanding the nuance of the piece. It's very difficult (if not impossible) to defend, "a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest 'gangsta' style as the mother took a photo" as thoughtful awareness or reflection of "A Subtlety"'s existence.
So I prepared myself for the possibility of witnessing the same behavior, but I left all other expectations about the exhibit behind me at the end of that 1.5 mile long line.
As I walked from the main gate to the entrance of the exhibit (which I would estimate to be about 20 or 30 yards in distance), I could smell a distinct sweetness in the air. It was not the type of sweetness that radiates from an oven filled with fresh-baked chocolate cookies, nor was it a floral fragrance wafting through the air like that of jasmine in the summer--it was a sweetness in which, if breathed long enough, you could detect something foul and rotten just underneath it. It brought to mind a half eaten caramel apple with flesh that had begun it's decomposition in the hot August sun.
I had not even entered the exhibition space, and I was nauseous.
The smell only intensified upon entering the factory building, but the prospect of viewing the Sphinx-turned-Mammy up close and in person pushed aside my minor physical discomfort. The entrance is at the far opposite end from the Sphinx's location, but you could plainly see how large the piece was, even from across the gigantic room. As you look up and around the factory, you realize how massive the pieces of machinery it once housed must have been, cranking and turning and churning out the refined white commodity for decades. The factory workers must have felt like ants, scurrying and moving around the sweet piles of sugar surrounding them. The exhibit was dimly lit by artifical light (although that may have changed if I had attended later in the day as the sun fell), relying primarily on the natural light that filtered through skylights and windows located on the upper-parts of the wall, practically connected to the roof. This must have been a particularly cruel part of working at the factory: to work only hundreds of feet away from the shimmering waters of the East River with Manhattan sitting just across the way, but only seeing the idyllic view when clocking in and out for the day. Even the discolored, paned windows high above their heads couldn't provide a clear view of the blue sky.
The head of the Sphinx was positioned underneath one of the skylights, creating a very dramatic illumination of her face and breasts at high noon.
As I walked along, I saw that Walker had dotted the floor space with the life-sized sugar/molasses sculptures of slave children carrying baskets, all of them with a heartbreaking smile on their lips, as if the unbearable and literally back-breaking work that their real-life counterparts had endured could be smiled through. Looking at these sculptures, dripping with the sticky liquid of melting caramelized sugar, I felt a pang of sadness move through me. I took a photo and looked through my viewfinder. The photo staring back at me just made it all worse.
The miracle of the camera lens is that it can reveal to us the details in color, shape, and form that the naked eye can often miss or is incapable of processing. As I looked at the photo of this sugar-child, I made an instant connection to photos I've seen before, photos of children suffering through adult-conjured conflict, unfairly enveloped by rains of wrath and fire so maliciously dropped upon them from the skies.
The sugar sculptures looked like the burn victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, burn victims across Vietnam during the conflict that scorched their countryside. Walker explains that, "[t]he thought process had to do with molasses and the byproducts of the sugar refining process, and molasses as the byproduct of slavery." Atomic Bombs, Napalm, Sugar--in this context, all involved in the dominance and destruction of the "other" with no reprieve even for innocent children...
...smiling at us. As attendees took pictures, some smiled back.
Part Two of "The Unsettling Nature of 'A Subtlety' by Kara Walker" soon to follow, focusing on the Sphinx. Make sure to view my gallery of photos from the exhibit here.