Sunday, July 20, 2014

A subtle, sugary spectacle.



Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)
One of the reasons I return to New York City year after year is the city’s willingness to embrace artists’ crazy ideas for monumental projects.  One of the best examples of this was Christo and Jean Claude’s epic The Gates installed in Central Park.  On this recent trip I experienced two such efforts including Kara Walker's installation for Creative Time, an organization that commissions and presents ambitious art projects throughout New York City.

For Creative Time's most recent project, they looked to a Brooklyn landmark for a space to present art: what’s left of the Domino Sugar Factory.  Parts of the factory have already been torn down and the rest will soon be demolished to make way for gleaming new river-front condominiums.

The Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1856 by the Havemeyer family.  By 1870 it was refining more than half of the sugar in the United States. That history was an important factor when visiting the installation of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)
A bit of information that will help inform the installation. The title of the work comes from a sugar tradition. In a past time when sugar was a luxury, subleties were elaborate sugar sculptures made for the rich as extravagant, edible table decorations. They fell out of favor as slavery helped sugar become more widely available to the general public.

Visiting the Domino Sugar Factory was an interesting experience.  The lines were surprisingly long and I’ve heard from friends that they’ve been that way most of the installation’s run. Fortunately the lines moved quickly and it was only about twenty minutes before we entered. To enter the building, you had to sign a release form acknowledging that you were entering an active demolition site.

As you entered the building you saw an elegant, graffiti-like sign that offered the full, poetic title of the work, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 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.

The surprise of walking into the cavernous building was the smell.  Even though the refinery closed in 2004 it still emotes a strong sugar smell.  Many of the walls are streaked and rusted with molasses and molasses still drips from the ceiling. In fact, my shoes were sticky after leaving the installation.

Kara Walker's best known works feature intricately-cut, black paper silhouettes of slaves and their owners, frequently in humorous, disturbing, or graphically-sexualized situations. Her work often complicates and questions issues of power and repression and the effect on humanity.


Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)
A Subtlety takes Walker’s recognized style and themes to monumental heights.  The star of the show is a giant sphinx-like statue with the head fashioned as a stereotypical mammy and the body as a hyper-sexualized black woman. The entire structure is coated with a thick layer of white sugar. In true Walker form, it is both alluring and discomforting.  The curatorial statement for the piece notes that the discomfort is intentional saying, “She has the head of a kerchief-wearing black female, referencing the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families, especially the raising and care of their children, but her body is a veritable caricature of the overly sexualized black woman.”

It’s interesting then, that in our age of the selfie, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety is proving to be controversial. Visitors have taken to snapping obscene pictures with the giant, naked sphinx, something that almost seems to prove Kara Walker’s point of society’s overtly-sexualized response to black women.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

While the Sphinx is an emotional and provocative image, my favorite part of the show were the cadre of young black boys cast in resin and dripping with molasses and sugar. The slightly bigger-than-life-sized figures were created by enlarging figurines Walker found on Amazon.com, interesting as the figures are fairly racist. It's hard to imagine that these are available on Amazon. And yet, as is frequently the case with Walker’s work, they are both “racist objectifications and strangely cute and compelling.” Several of the figures had crumbled under their own weight creating eerie images of child labor gone wrong. The appealing faces delivered big emotional impact.

All told, Kara Walker delivered a big Art-world punch.  I left this installation wanting to be a better "old, rich, white guy." OK, maybe I'm not that rich.  But I do feel like I've lived a life of privilege and part of the reason I've had that privilege is because I'm white and male.  That's why I hope Kara Walker keeps challenging me and the rest of society on issues of race and gender.  I'll finish this post with a few more photographs from the installation.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)


Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014)

Instagrams from this visit:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Of pots and pearls. . . and crabs and bicycles and rebar.

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)


I lucked out on my recent trip to New York City.  Not only was there the Jeff Koons retrospective (one of the reasons I planned the trip), there just happened to be an exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei.  Ai is another art-world superstar who is at the top of my list of artists to experience.  There’s a big difference between these two shows.  First, Ai does not suffer from the negative criticism that Koons often confronts. In fact, critics are in love with Ai Weiwei, but it’s understandable.  It’s hard not to respect an artist as political and provocative as Ai.  The Chinese government has thrown the artist in jail because he’s annoyed them so much.  He’s also embraced the digital age in ways that other artists haven’t quite figured out, using Twitter and other social media to amplify the impact of his art.

While the two artists’ styles are very different they do share something in common.  Both understand the importance of creating sophisticated objects.  And neither of them do much of the actual production.  People often talk about Koons’ army of assistants in a highly-critical manner.  You seldom hear the same criticism of Ai, even though he also employs an army of assistants and production personal to create his elaborate works of art.

The show, titled Ai Weiwei: According to What? originated in Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and then made several stops in the US and Canada before arriving in Brooklyn.  However the Brooklyn show features two large works that were not on display in the previous exhibitions.  I felt those two works make the show particularly interesting and wouldn’t have enjoyed the exhibition as much if I hadn’t seen them. Here are some of the works I found particularly interesting.


The woodworking skills in many of Ai’s works are impressive.  Take Moon Chest for example. On display in Brooklyn were seven large wooden chests that are from the larger work which features 81 chests.  Each chest has four holes cut into it that mimic the stages of the lunar eclipse.  The chests are constructed using traditional Chinese methods using no nails or screws. 

Ai Weiwei, Moon Chest (2008, seven chests in huali wood)
Ai Weiwei likes to use antiques in his works, often those antiques are in the form of furniture.  For his series started in 1997 he uses old furniture built without using nails, a technique perfected during the Ming and Qing dynasties when China's furniture production reached a pinnacle of excellence. In Grapes, humble stools are transformed into a space-like constellation, asking questions about how much tradition should influence the now.

Ai Weiwei, Grapes (2012, 27 antique wooden stools from the Qing dynasty [1644 - 1911])




Ai is notorious for creating works that feature enormous quantities of the same item.  The most famous of these was the installation at Tate Modern that included millions of handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds.  There are no sunflower seeds here, instead there are two enormous porcelain bowls filled with cultivated freshwater pearls.  Also, there was a great big pile of porcelain crabs. The word for river crab in Chinese is he xie which also sounds like the word for harmonious, part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan. In 2010, Chinese authorities announced they would demolish Ai’s new Shanghai studio.  In response, Ai used Twitter to invite guests to a feast of 10,000 river crabs to protest the control of information.  Ai was under house arrest so he was unable to attend the party.

Ai Weiwei, Bowls of Pearls (2006, porcelain bowls and freshwater pearls)
Ai Weiwei, He Xie (2010, 3,200 porcelain crabs)


Another of Ai’s favorite art world tricks is to destroy antiquities. Frequently the antiquities in questions are Han Dynasty vases.  One Ai’s most famous works is called Dropping and is seen in the photographs featured in this image.  In it, Ai destroyed a 2,000 year old vase.  Ai also has a penchant for painting Han Dynasty vases. For me, these works once again ask questions about the value of tradition.

Ai Weiwei, installation view featuring Colored Vases 
(2007 - 10, Han Dynasty vases [206 B. C. E. - 220 C. E] and industrial paint)
Ai is no stranger to New York.  He lived there from 1983 to 1993. During that time he was strongly influenced by the work of Marcel Duchamp. (It’s interesting that both Ai and Koons list Duchamp as a significant influence in their work.) I like this simple portrait made from a coat hanger that references some very Duchampian ideas.  There’s the readymade everyday object and the self-portrait of the artist in profile.

Ai Weiwei, Profile of Marcel Duchamp in a Coat Hanger (1986, wire clothes hanger)
One of my favorite works in the show is Straight.  I like this work because you can read it on two levels.  Without knowing the story behind the work, it’s still an impressive work that forces an immediate emotional response.  It too speaks to the idea of the readymade as it’s nothing more than a pile of rebar. But what a pile?  Laid out in varying lengths, the rebar evokes the landscapes of Maya Lin.  As you learn what you are really looking at, Straight becomes even more powerful.  The work consists of 73 tons of rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai had every piece meticulously straightened through a laborious process. Suddenly the landscape-like canyon feels like a crack in the world. And the emotional response is ratcheted up.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei likes bicycles.  And he’s taken to using them in spectacular fashion in large installations. He uses them to celebrate the bicycle’s importance to the Chinese people. For his Brooklyn show, he used bicycles made from stainless steel and ditched the handlebars and seat, creating a dizzying structure. The result is a work that suggests in “China the individual is often undervalued and seen only as part of the whole.” This again is an even more obvious reference to Duchamp who also used bicycle parts in his work.

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)



I’ll finish with another particularly powerful work featured in Ai Weiwei: According to what? The Chinese government regularly gets tired of Ai and his political activism and criticism. In 2011, the Chinese authorities threw Ai in jail for 81 days. In response, he created S.A.C.R.E.D. to document the unpleasantness of the affair.  In the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum were six very large, imposing metal boxes with no ornamentation.  Cut into each box were two small windows that allowed the viewer to peer inside. Inside were dioramas representing Ai’s life in prison, including the moment he was led into his cell, the periods of interrogation, and the daily activities of eating, sleeping, showering, and using the toilet. All of these views include his seemingly constant companions, guards. It made me appreciate the sacrifice of an artist working so hard to change his society.

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013, six dioramas in oxidized metal, wood, fiberglass, polystyrene, and sticky tape)

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013, six dioramas in oxidized metal, wood, fiberglass, polystyrene, and sticky tape)

Instagrams from this visit:

Other Art Lobster posts about Ai Weiwei: