Visiting "A Subtlety"
July 6, 2014
Today is the final day for Kara Walker's powerful exhibition, "A Subtlety". The exhibition, presented by Creative Time, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, which is typical of Walker's material. I wanted to attend the exhibition for two reasons. First, I wanted to experience the installation firsthand and draw my own conclusions. Secondly, I wanted to set foot in the Domino Sugar Factory, and this was most likely going to be the only opportunity I'd have.
As is to be expected with popular installations in New York, there was a long line stretching for blocks from the entrance. However, this line moved rather quickly and before long, I was inside.
There are plenty of pictures of the pieces in this exhibition, but one of the things they can't communicate is the smell. The air is thick with the smell of sugar. This isn't the kind of pleasant aroma you would find in a bakery or confectionery. Instead, the odor begins as slightly unpleasant at the start of the exhibition, and by the time you approach the Sphinx, the smell becomes intoxicatingly oppressive, if you can imagine both of those descriptors together.
Beneath the boys scattered around the grounds were pools of melted sugar. The floor was sticky in spots throughout the factory. This, coupled with the visuals and the smells, made for a very unsettling experience.
What I found to be the most interesting part of the exhibition wasn't any single piece within the factory. It was actually the attendees that intrigued me most. There were people of all colors and nationalities in attendance, and everyone had different reactions. Some were silently observing, while others were engaged in full conversation. There was an overwhelming sense of spectacle, and I suppose that is the point. Come one, come all and see the Marvelous Sugar Baby! What caused me some discomfort was seeing just how objectified everything was, and how easily everyone was able to fall in line with that mentality. Comments were made on the stature of the figures, on how "magnificent" certain features of the sphinx were. It's true, the pieces were very detailed and magnificent. The way the boys glowed from the sunlight was unreal, and the glaze that would run down their backs was like sweat from countless hours of unpaid labor. However, it was difficult for me to think of the pieces this way; even though they are inanimate, they represent people who suffered, and I didn't want to add to that objectification. Each goofy pose and selfie I witnessed was a bit unsettling, particularly when they were taken with the broken and fallen statues scattered about the building.
I suppose it could be argued that by attending and even by photographing the space, I have already participated in the objectification. Maybe that's another part of what made it so uncomfortable, but discomfort was definitely a goal of this exhibition.
As I left the space, you could hear various discussions going on. I made a point not to actively eavesdrop, but I imagine that the conversations were probably extremely varied. Judging from reactions that have been floating around regarding the installation, there are some strongly polarized opinions on its purpose and impact, but there are also a number of opinions that lie in between. If nothing else, the exhibition has people talking, and if that talking leads to someone's education and change, then I'd say the exhibition was a success.