Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" was a large scale public project inside of Brooklyn's old Domino Sugar Factory. The show took place from May 10th through July 6th, and was presented by Creative Time. We asked artist Coby Kennedy to write about it.
It struck me all at once on the 3rd visit. "Ooooooo... I get it."
If I had not have borne witness to the evolving stages of Kara Walkers "A Subtlety", then I would not have "gotten it". "The Subtlety" being a polarizing installation consisting of the colossal sugar Sphinx Mammy figure surrounded by molasses and resin slave children all slowly decomposing in the cavernous remains of a molasses coated sugar factory. The ambitious months long exhibition, in the beginning, was seen by many as massive sculptural indulgence but soon revealed itself to be, among many other layers, a much more complex and unexpected exercise in viewer involved social practice.
When I arrived at the Domino Sugar Factory on that opening weekend I felt "The Fear". I rarely feel "The Fear" in New York, it usually rears its ugly head when I'm well south of the Mason Dixon Line; or on those unexpected occasions that I find myself in "America Proper" alone in a privileged suburban Abercrombie drenched mythical Stepford-wives-ian Wasp-ish purgatory of "Beckys"and "Chads".
The Fear starts as a foreboding sense of dread, a loss of agency, embarrassment and imminent danger, punctuated by an instinctual shock in the chest upon realizing that you're currently surrounded by an alien culture that consistently proves itself defensively hostile, subversively judgmental and aggressively ignorant. And on this weekend in Brooklyn, as one of the only Black viewers, surrounded by over-excited throngs of the white art viewing public cavorting and running amok around the face, ass and labia of a 30 foot tall gargantuan nude prostrated Black Mammy Sphinx made of white sugar, I found myself surrounded by White folks that just didn't get it... and the fear set in.
The depth of the piece and the sugar plantation slavery history it was referencing was in stark contrast to the perceived frolicking madness of the crowd. But then again isn't that mix of dire serious theme and darkly humorous, almost slapstick visual aesthetic, a consistent through line of Kara's work? Regardless, getting out of there felt like escaping a mob, or Auschwitz, or a Mississippi plantation in the 1800's. The overriding sense of racial them-against-us was palpable. Right then and there I laid it out to a friend, "...Any exhibit that can freak me out that hard has GOT to be a win!". But the question remained, what the hell really just happened?
The debate among a swath of the Black artist community of, "do the artist and curator of 'A Subtlety' have a responsibility to provide written or spoken context to an exhibition", is arguable. But if so where does the art cease and the didactic history lesson start? Why must intentionally polarizing art be prescribed? Doesn't that attempt at political correctness simply neuter the multifaceted potential of the work? Since when has a prerequisite of art been that it has to teach? I found it was that vagueness that made my experience with the exhibit so intense that I had to come back a second time. The critique of the piece and the way it was being engaged from a deluge of Black voices that ensued online and in person was so intense, at times seeming to come in the form of outright hatred for, not only the audience, but for the artist herself. It seemed to me that I now found myself surrounded by Black folks that just didn't get it.
And on the third visit, on the final weekend of the exhibit, it all viscerally clicked. The physicality of this sugar warehouse as tomb and slave ship alike. The past meets present connection of the porthole cut out of the wall framing perfectly the real housing projects across the east river that now holds the descendants of the Sugar Sphinx and her children. The decomposed state of the children themselves naturally melted over the course of the run of the show. The fact that Kara Walker and Creative Time planned to use the hash tagged online photos that the thousands of visitors have posted for an epilogue project of sorts goes directly to the idea that "A Subtlety" is just as much a critique of how the piece is engaged by the public as it is about the piece itself, the artist has said as much already. But what is so striking is the notion that ultimately it may not even be about "getting it" anyway. Increasingly as the show ran on whether intentional or not, those who engaged "A Subtlety" became in many ways the work itself. On that last day it seemed that the audience was just as enthralled by watching the crowd as there were watching the sugar melt.