Monday, May 12, 2014

[Early] Impressions of Kara Walker's Sphinx: A Subtlety

By Andrew E. Colarusso

This weekend I had the good fortune and free pleasure of working with Creative Time NYC at Kara Walker's installation in the now defunct Williamsburg Domino Sugar Factory. Yes I understand that the previous sentence was a lot of name dropping, but nothing as it related to this exhibit went unnoticed by the artist. 

This Subtlety (so named for a European tradition of refined and sculpted marzipan treats) is an intellectual marvel of an installation. While Kara's work has always dealt with site and scale remarkably well, this piece calls her into being just as Guernica, its nigh unavoidable tableau of degeneration, called Picasso into being. 
Enigma of the tucked thumb

The Great Sphinx of Williamsburg signifies with such subtlety the tragic irony of our human (read: flawed and American) predilection for "sweet tastes". The sculpture was first designed as a 3D model. 35 tons of white sugar were molded over 330 blocks of styrofoam and compacted to form the tremendous ephemera of the Sphinx. She, all white and melting, all violence and compelling beauty (if not, titillation), commands attention in the long abandoned space--its walls aged black with sugar and molasses. The space presents itself as slightly phobic of natural light, with its old windows located along the top of the dilapidated hall where the ceiling meets the wall. And with so much sugar coming and going from the building since the middle 1800's, you can understand why. Natural light through glass can be a powerful heating agent, and sugar does not fare well in heat. 

So we consider sugar, refined white sugar, as material. What does it signify, here in this Sphinxian representation of a black mammy? And do you remember R. Crumb? Naturally we understand sugar/molasses (both naturally dark substances) as a commodity of modernity. In this instance specifically we consider the Atlantic Slave Trade (Molasses to Rum to Slaves) and Middle Passage. The truth of this is just as unavoidable as the object Kara has created. But my mind went elsewhere.

The Sphinx is an icon of the human/beast dialectic further stretched across the image of womanhood and femininity. We understand the Sphinx (woman/womanhood) as both monster and harbinger. She poses the question which holds in its answer the hero's life. So what question does Kara Walker's Sphinx pose?

The melting colossus which stands/kneels/abides at the far end of the factory seemed to pose (for this viewer) a simple question, a riddle perhaps, with no straight-forward answer. In fact it's a question that each of the viewers, if at all invested in the art object, must have had in her presence. 

What will you do with me?

The Mammy Sphinx, with her wide white gaze, upturned and sensuous ass, exposed labia and swollen mammaries, implores you to participate in the object of her comestible body. Alas, she is off-limits. None have yet succeeded in licking that sweet pussy (an actual question posed by one of the viewers) and more tragic yet, she is at every moment melting. Until, by the irrepressible heat of July, she may be nothing more than an amorphous blob, a sad reminder of her former grandeur. What then? What will we do with her?

The question is perhaps more than I am able to summon an answer for. What shall we do with the polymorphic identity of black womanhood as it begins to melt, as it is converted from black to white while preserving its oversexed shape, its role as spectacle? Do we look away with shame as it melts? Perhaps we should also ask the question--is this even a representation of black womanhood--or the [pre]figuration of a culture which has as its locus freedom of consumption and commodification on the back of forced/unpaid/underpaid labor? A culture, it would seem, slowly becoming aware of the violent bonds which hold it together and threaten even the thin fabric of the natural.

Yes the natural world too, it seems, is beginning to melt. This Sphinx, without uttering a word, signifies the inevitable collapse of artifice by standing as mirror to our own failures. Social, economic, moral, ecological. The Mammy Sphinx has given us what we desire, has changed for us from shameful black to refined white, has allowed us to thrive from the sustenance of her body--while we watch as she is denatured. Slow burn. 

And all of her withering beauty housed within an abandoned factory soon to be demolished, in a neighborhood now gentrified and patronized by young professionals and the children of [white] flight. 

Preach on, Kara. Preach.