Extremely powerful and stunningly beautiful, The Subtlety by Kara Walker can’t leave you indifferent. The site itself, where the sugar sphinx is exhibited – Domino Sugar Refinery – is a painful reminder of hard labor and hazardous environment where the floor temperature would reach 140 degrees. Ironically, the place is still considered to be dangerous, even after being closed in 2004. And now, before entering the exhibit inside the factory, each visitor must sign a waiver. This step also seems to be essential as if it prepares the viewers to tune in and think about all pain and hardness, abuse and controversy which were in the artist’s mind while she was working on this massive piece of art.
What Kara Walker says about her marvelous Sugar Baby: this is “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”.
In the reality, the audience seemed to be quite wild, turning the incredible art into the background for their awkward selfies. As Artnet pointed, “While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike.”
So the question arose: should public art touch such painful and serious issues or should it remain just entertaining?.. To agree with the latter seems even somehow humiliating, it would show that a priori the artists and curators would not trust the audience and each one of us is a part of it. But being there next to the sugar sphinx, with no chance to see the sculpture without several people at once in front (and back) of it, striking a pose, feels humiliating as well.
However, not every one kept silence about it.
Nicholas Powers, a professor of black literature at SUNY Westbury, explains why he yelled, “You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique!” at the Kara Walker exhibit recently:
Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain was transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage.*
Maybe the issue is that the audience is not “not ready”, but the audience is not prepared?.. So the curators and staff should think about how to inform the visitors better before they enter such exhibits? And this “how”-question should become a part of the exhibition concept. Maybe, in case with serious social artwork, the way how to announce what’s going to be seen should be different. This is a food for thought for any future shows which themes will be controversial, dramatic or tragic. Or does it sound like too much coaching and babysitting for adults?.. Our point is learn, read, think, respect. Always. Cogito ergo sum.
The Subtlety by Kara Walker can be viewed through July 7 at Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, New York.