Sugar in my bowl

Kara Walker's Subtlety, photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian

Kara Walker’s Subtlety, elevator butt view, photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian

Some throw-away thoughts that arose randomly in response to the Hyperallergic’s excellent reflections (and photography) of Kara Walker’s new 35-foot-tall installation. It’s a striking feline berm of polystyrene coated with 80 tons of sugar, configured as a Sphinx. It’s called A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, and it’s sitting inside Brooklyn’s deteriorating Domino Sugar Factory, now scheduled for demolition.

First, I thought of some Irish poetry:

1. . . . a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/ Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;/A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/ . . . what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?   –W.B. Yeats

2. Thus having been put in mind of sphinxes that herald the apocalypse, or at least the end of factories as we know them, it struck me that if Subtlety were to start dating, after her performance in Williamsburg is up, her perfect match would be the equally apocalyptic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, from Ghostbusters. They’re perfect for each other. They’re both enormous (weight issues would be off the table), made of sugar, very very white and they both bring intimations—at least for those with Yeats on the brain—of uprisings and/or end times. My only caveat for Stay Puft would be that he may be a big old sailor on leave and probably has seen more than his share of bad-ass ports, but the sweetness on offer here is only skin deep. Underneath she’s got a hard core of polystyrene. And, in turn, Subtlety should keep in mind that her hook-up is highly flammable. Aside from that, a one-in-a-million match.

3. Tired of bein’ lonely, tired of bein’ blue,
I wished I had some good man, to tell my troubles to
Seem like the whole world’s wrong, since my man’s been gone
I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog between my roll. —Bessie Smith

4. Any cat lover, or simply cat observer, will recognize her pose as “elevator butt.” This is a term I discovered on YouTube after recognizing it from experience and trying to find a name for it. While being stroked affectionately on the back, or when ready for sex, a cat will raise its tail this way and expose itself. So this is a cat that’s either happy or about to be very very happy. It’s taking control of other cats in the time-honored way that women have taken control of men through the ages. The way sugar babies control sugar daddies. So, as if it weren’t enough to be an apocalyptic sphinx, this cat rules as they all do.

5. The last shall be first. An image explicitly honoring slaves by depicting a racial stereotype in a figure that represented, in Egypt, the fusion of god and humanity, would seem to indicate that Walker wants to celebrate how those who were last and lowest, a century and a half ago, now have the opportunity to be first and at the top of their chosen food chain. A visage that belonged to Aunt Jemima now adorns a figure that seems to demand worship, or obeisance, or at least some down-home adoration. The tips of a sweat-absorbent kerchief become the ears of a cool cat. The election of Barack Obama and the sale of Dr. Dre’s brand for $3 billion to Apple would be just two examples of how at least some members of a once enslaved race now can pretty much achieve anything they like in a way very few people can. There is a long list of others who have proven this to be true. (Some of us would like to reserve the right to wish for the old days when Dre was simply one of the most unique and minimalist DJs in hiphop who knew his way around an actual beat like few others.)

6. This turning of the tables, how the lowly can rise up into a position of power, the former slave becoming a master, put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, of all things. It was a novel about a dystopia in which most work had been mechanized and automated. The machine is the ultimate slave yet the labor it offers increasingly displaces more and more human workers. What once simply served us, now usurps the role we once had and leaves us, like the children with their baskets of token sweets in Walker’s installation, wandering aimlessly and unemployed in the terrain it controls and harvests. The rule of technology would indeed be a sphinx worthy of W.B.’s poem, The Second Coming, though I doubt that Walker had this kind of reversal in mind, leaving aside the question of whether her image can stand as an emblem of it regardless of her intent.

7. Does artistic intent matter? Should it determine what effect a work has on a viewer? I like ideas that arise out of some visceral struggle with basic formal challenges. You want to pair something monochrome and cold and shiny against something soft and colorful and bright and you end up representing objects that enable you to do this and, maybe all those shapes cohere in a visual way. Sometimes, on top of that, you end up with another kind of coherence. A painting of, say, open diaper pins becomes an emblem of moral choice, a way of behaving, an outlook on life, once you step back and start thinking about it. None of this needs to be in the mind at the start of the process; only a desire to achieve a particular visual quality. But maybe an idea arises as you feed that impulsive, instinctive appetite to see certain colors and shapes appear on a field of white. Personally, I want to make paintings that have nothing to say, but evoke a world, a unity, a whole. If they imply more than I had in mind, fine. Yet I like Walker’s installation, as intentionally conceptual as it appears to be. It does all I ask: it makes me want to keep looking at it. I mean, who am I to say no to something that big? It makes me wonder if she had an idea of a sphinx lurking in the back of her mind for a long time and finally found the place to make it come alive, without any ideas associated with it, or did she come up with it only after being offered the space? Even better, did the sphinx not occur to her until she had sketched a hilly mound of abstract sugar, with its eskers and kames, and then she thought: hey, that could be the haunch of a cat! Better yet, a sphinx! And she went on from there. I’d love it if that were the case, because that for me is how art ought to come about. It starts as a subconscious pull, like love, towards certain instinctive physical choices, certain formal qualities, and in the effort to make a whole out of many disparate parts, something else happens. It all comes together somehow, and you’re surprised by what your mind has led you to do, even if it didn’t bother to enlighten you, along the way, about where you were headed.

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