When artist Kara Walker unveiled her giant white sphinx at an old sugar processing plant in New York City last spring, the think pieces came fast and furious: There were essays about sugar's exploitative labor history, the troubled legacy of the artist's ghostly white mammy figure, the demographic makeup of the audience and the vulgar gestures some visitors made before this very prominent representation of a black female nude.
If you were reading all of this remotely (as I was in Los Angeles), you would have gotten the idea that the old Domino Sugar factory, where the sculpture was installed, was a caldron of racial tension and childish sexual gesturing.
But there can be a gulf between the always-boiling tenor of the Internet and what goes on in real life. And a five-minute video (embedded in this post) that Walker released of audience interactions with her piece is a reminder that the reactions to "A Subtlety," as the piece was called, were as singular as each of the visitors themselves.
There was befuddlement, awe, discomfort, reverence, intensity, wonderment and a tourist's urgent sense of wanting to get it all on film. At one point, a young man hugs the massive sphinx and declares, "I feel safe."
The clip is part of a longer 30-minute video titled "An Audience" that is on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in New York, where the artist is displaying materials related to the sugar baby project. (The fact that she had videotaped her audience was something that Walker first revealed during a conversation we had in advance of her talk at the Broad museum here in L.A. last month.)
For the video, she got a crew of six camera operators to capture whatever happened on the last hour of the last day of the exhibition (a commission for the arts nonprofit Creative Time).
"One could observe many meanings taking shape in individual viewers," she writes in the wall text. For Walker, it was significant that these viewers were not the usual contemporary art crowd, especially given that the main work being displayed was a figure of nude black woman: "Full families with small children, elderly churchgoers, artists, grandstanders, and a general public of all shapes came out each weekend in large numbers to bear witness."
The day after she recorded her video, "A Subtlety" was demolished. It's left fist is on view at the gallery too.