Tuesday, July 8, 2014

[Final] Thoughts on Kara Walker's Sphinx: A Subtlety

by Andrew E. Colarusso

I never went back to see the Sphinx, to see whether it was left to melt even slightly over the styrofoam beneath it. We are each of us, whether we realize it or not, participants in a kind of daily pornography which is often more difficult to avoid than submit to. It's everywhere...

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences. To refuse to be conscious of what we are feeling at any time*, however comfortable that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd.

The pornographic: "this misnaming of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity - the abuse of feeling." This from Audre Lorde's essay The Uses of the Erotic. Lorde provides us with a concise definition of what is pornographic, the condition and characteristics of the pornographic. 

Discussion of the work has eclipsed the work itself. The wide range of responses, each in efforts to arrest a rhetoric surrounding the piece, have further destabilized our notions of what we all witnessed in and around Kara Walker's Subtlety. Like any good encounter with the Sphinx we are pressed upon by the weight of our own monstrous reflections. Some of us marveled at our own monstrosity. Others still were outraged or humbled. 

Without a doubt the work has left its mark, but it is kept from [art] historical significance because it has no historical context or moment to ground its erection outside of a brutal and interminable imagination. An imagination which exists concurrently and beside an equally brutal and interminable reality. The Sphinx's audience is "post-civil-rights/post-racial/post-hip-hop" and therefore "post-black" which renders the work both an archaism and a spectacle. 

Walker is deliberately playing with both archaism and spectacle by framing it as a mythological beast, a medieval treat, and an homage to the labor behind Sugar (slavery). There are countless layers to be addressed when dealing with the sculpture, but at the end of the day the work is a large personal statement from an artist with her own history and corollary imagination. 

To read more into the work, searching it for protest or meaning, is gross [pornographic] eisegesis. The work encapsulates a history of new world slavery, civil rights, blackness, gender and sexuality only insofar as it has been internalized by the artist herself. It is a total work of art. But it is not, to paraphrase Walker, a hero who can fix this problem of our history and racism. This Sphinx and her sugar boys are a kind of daemon for the artist herself. And it's never more clear than at this moment, at around 4:25, when Walker kisses the yet to be sculpted lips of the Sphinx. 

Walker acknowledges her own debt to this object, this fetish, which provides us with some insight into the awesome miracle that is her moment in time. This kiss of affection and reverence, which travels across a lineage of women and men, mothers and fathers, grounds me in time and place. 

Read my initial impression of the work >>> here