Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Kara Walker at Tate Modern Review: Venus, Sharks and the Sadism of Empire

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Kara Walker at Tate Modern Review: Venus, Sharks and the Sadism of Empire

At the Turbine Hall, the artist turns the Victoria Memorial inside out, populating her counter-monument with memories of colonial violence

At the pinnacle of Kara Walker’s 13-metre-high fountain in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a Black woman’s breasts and slashed jugular spurt water. It is horrifying. Maybe not so when you perceive the water as emerging only from her breasts, although the supposed excess layered onto Black femininity might jump out, but it chills to locate the source of that third arc, swishing and tinkling as it does, cutting a curve so elegant. Tate’s wall text for Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) describes a Venus with arms splayed to gesture her ‘liberation’. But Venus appears dangerously off-balance; are her arms flung out for help? This queasy mix of the sadism enabled by Britain’s imperial project and the idylls of the imperial imaginary (fountains, monumentality, leisure) submerges viewers in the psychic waters that Walker’s work dredges.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood
The late theorist Stuart Hall famously unfolded the perverse dynamic between British pleasure and Black subjection in his 1991 essay ‘Old and New Identities’: ‘I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth [...] That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.’ Bringing the outside history inside has been the project of numerous Black British artists whose work subverts Empire’s monuments and heraldry, including Hew Locke and Yinka Shonibare. Following in that tradition without explicitly naming it, Walker inverts the Victoria Memorial – a marble and gilt monument to Queen Victoria in front of London’s Buckingham Palace – to populate Hall’s ‘other history’ with figures that look hand-worked and urgently rendered.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher
In the fountain’s basin, sculptural figurines crouch, gasp, mourn, are exhumed, paddle and await death amid see-sawing sharks. The structure’s higher tiers explicitly parody London’s celebratory monument to the Empire-expanding queen. In Victoria’s place sits a captain with legs splayed, a cocky amalgam of freedom fighters throughout history: Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jamaican Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey and the fictional Emperor Jones of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 invention. At his side, the rampant lion of European heraldry kneels with claws retracted. Sara Baartman – a South African Khoikhoi woman who, from 1810 to 1814, was toured in the UK and Ireland as a freak-show attraction named the ‘Hottentot Venus’ – appears clothed, wearing an isicholo and shielding a hunched figure with a whip-scarred back under her skirts. A noose swings from a tree with aggressively pruned limbs.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood
The spouting Black breast recurs throughout Walker’s work. In the 1998 installation Camptown Ladies, a cartoonishly large drop of milk springs from the breast of a Hottentot Venus figure while her baby excretes into a white woman’s mouth. The lactating Venus in Fons Americanus also speaks to gendered histories of extraction: enslaved women forced to wet-nurse white children and deprive their own of milk; high infant mortality rates on West Indian sugar plantations that left lactating mothers childless; and Britain rewriting its laws of descent to exploit enslaved women’s reproduction and convert their babies into slave-owner profits. Closer to the Turbine Hall’s West entryway, a child’s crying face breaks the surface of the water inside a scalloped shell, echoing the shell surrounding Venus. Too far from the child to breastfeed, Venus lactates on a loop, her blood and milk feeding the fountain’s closed circuit instead.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher
Although Walker’s hand has been present in previous works – appearing in silhouette in her shadow-puppet films – here its trace feels distinct. The fountain’s central pedestal retains the striations and unevenness of hand and tool, its surface rendering physically visible, and metaphorically restituting, the labour of Africans worked to death on British-owned plantations. More intimately, the artist’s fingers and thumbs groove the figurines’ bodies, lending movement and fleshliness to her Black forms. There is an inkling that Walker might stay a while with the interiority of these Black figures who, in the silhouettes of her previous work, are summoned primarily as visual testimony in her battle with US racial representation. But the weight of the references, the scale of the piece and the vastness of the space overwhelm these stories.
Fons Americanus places in conversation the sharks that stalked slave ships to feed on the enslaved Africans whom slave traders threw overboard and the renowned formaldehyde shark of British artist Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – a move that pokes at the repressed memories of colonial violence which thrash in even the most smartly conceptual white British unconscious, and that suggests an additional lineage for reception of Hirst’s work. Fons Americanus hovers 19th-century Baartman near 20th-century Emmett Till to situate Empire as having ‘conditioned the forms of liberty’, both material and psychological, available to Black people, to quote US cultural historian Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997). Mostly, the work addresses itself to the Empire and its full ‘citizens’, which Black people, regardless of passport, are structurally prohibited from being. Amid the familiar representations of Black agony, the work points to the danger shared by Black people of the Old and New Worlds: the snorkel-wearing swimmer may be kitted out in modernity, but that is no defence from the sharks that continue to move through the centuries of this collapsed time-space.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, is on view at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall until 5 April 2020.
Main image: Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Walker
Derica Shields is a writer and programmer from South London. She is currently developing a multi-format oral history project centring on black people’s accounts of the UK welfare state, and completing a book project on failure.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

They’re in Scenic Limbo




They Fled the Coronavirus. Now They’re in Scenic Limbo.

Some feel sheepish about their choice to retreat from stricken cities, for intervals that are stretching on. Others have found it liberating.
The day before Megan LeCrone, a soloist dancer with the New York City Ballet, turned 36, she got an urgent call from her longtime friend and fellow soloist Harrison Ball. “If we don’t leave now, we’re not going to be able to get out,” he told her.
The date was March 20, when only 17,000 Americans had tested positive for Covid-19, schools around the country had just closed and nonessential workers were beginning to tire of the “are you wearing pants?” jokes on Zoom.
Ms. LeCrone and Mr. Ball sped through Kennedy International Airport, which was deserted, and, despite takeoffs being canceled all around them, boarded the final flight to their destination. “It felt like we were crossing into West Berlin,” Mr. Ball said.
They were, in fact, flying to the Bahamas. And there they have remained.
If you’re going on week nine of an air-shaft view, with 17 varieties of pasta shapes for company, you may be breathing into a paper bag right now. And while many who can afford it stayed proudly in their home cities, some decided to move, “Green Acres”-like, to less-infected pastures.
Not just the Matt Damons or Jerry Seinfelds of the world. (Mr. Damon is staying in the seaside resort town of Dalkey, Ireland, after production for a forthcoming Ridley Scott film was shut down nearby; Mr. Seinfeld, who lives with his family in a terraced duplex in the Beresford on Central Park West, is sequestered in East Hampton.) The New York City Department of Sanitation has recorded a more than a 3 percent drop in garbage in the more affluent ZIP codes of the Upper East and West Sides.
But there are also those who thought they could sneak in a quick getaway and be back in plenty of time for Dr. Fauci’s next warning of impending doom.
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Which brings us back to Ms. LeCrone and Mr. Ball, and everyone else interviewed for this story. To put it bluntly, they get it. They know that their privilege — financial, physical, professional, personal — allowed them to leave their homes, where infections were rapidly multiplying. They know you will have about as much sympathy for them as you did for David Geffen on his $590 million superyacht in the Grenadines, or those newlyweds who kept an entire hotel staff at work in the Maldives.
They also know they cannot get home.
After a spring break family ski trip to Lake Tahoe in California was canceled, Morgan Bernstein, the director of strategic initiatives at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, thought of an empty house her mother keeps in Honolulu. “We floated the idea of going to Hawaii by a couple of friends and they said, ‘It sounds amazing, but you know you might get stuck there,’” Ms. Bernstein said. “At the time it was, ‘Ha-ha, yeah, right.’”
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Two months later, her husband is unemployed, the family car is in need of repairs after a Bay Area break-in, and their kids are happily playing catch with floating coconuts.
“I really struggled at first feeling trapped between work and vacation, feeling displaced and isolated, even though it’s definitely not a ‘poor me’ situation,” Ms. Bernstein said. “I would half-jokingly bring things up on Zoom happy hours with my friends about not having my pajamas and face lotions and all the little things that make me feel like I’m at home. They were like, ‘Seriously, Morgan? You’re complaining about cleansers when you’re in Hawaii?’”
Ms. Bernstein also worries about the faux-rosy reality she has created for her 5- and 7-year-olds. “They get that there is a virus that is making people sick, but I’ve never seen them happier,” she said. “They think they’re on an extended vacation. It makes me wonder if I’m robbing my kids of the experience of understanding what the world is going through. Are they not going to relate to their peers because they will have experienced this time in such a different way?”
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A few time zones over, Alice Boher and her husband, Sebastian Boher, artisanal marijuana pipemakers, boarded a flight at LAX in early March for a two-week trip to Nicaragua, thinking if they did get stranded, at least it would be within their budget.
They spent their first 12 days surfing on remote beaches with no internet access. The second Ms. Boher walked into her hotel room in Granada, she turned on the air-conditioner and flipped on CNN.
“The first thing we thought when we saw what had happened to the world was, ‘Dear God,’” she said. Just then, a truck drove down the street with someone claiming to be from the government yelling through a megaphone in Spanish, “Hey, everybody! You know how the United States and China think they’re better than us? They’re screwed now!”
After several failed attempts to find a place to stay (locals were understandably wary of renting to possibly infected tourists), Ms. Boher met a woman who charged $500 for a casita on a property shared by a virus-fleeing Australian couple, sack of coconuts and plantains included.
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“I’m still in the same mental reality as everyone else, regardless of where I physically am,” she said. “I look at the news and I’m devastated for hours. But I also have gratitude for real change. I’ve lived in cities my whole life and now I watch the first star come out every night.”
She has a friend in Los Angeles fulfilling pipe orders and no ticket home, since the airline she flew down doesn’t operate the route anymore. “We all have a story of this time,” Ms. Boher said. “And this is just my little story. This is my chain of weird events. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It just is.”
Across the planet, Josh Anchors, the director of global admissions at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School in New York, and his girlfriend of three months, Navia Nguyen, landed in Indonesia with hours to spare before visitors were banned. Without the same social restrictions that were in place in New York, Mr. Anchors got to Bali in time for five surf sessions and a trip to the wellness center that his girlfriend owns, where he luxuriated in a microdermabrasion facial, manicure, pedicure and vitamin-C drip.
But once the government closed nonessential businesses on April 1, he was quarantined at his girlfriend’s house, testing out the nascent relationship under conditions so extreme it’s a wonder producers of “The Bachelor” didn’t devise them. “You really get to know someone in depth in these circumstances,” Mr. Anchors said. “This is isolation-ship. Quaran-ship? Every once in a while we are like, ‘What are we doing?’” (Plus an expletive.)
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At first, he hid from colleagues the fact that he was halfway across the globe, and set his alarm to 2 or 3 a.m. to join meetings that would have been midafternoon back in New York. He has since come clean.
“There’s no reason to go home now, other than hugging my parents, which I can’t even do,” Mr. Anchors said. Working remotely has only increased his job efficiency, and he’s hopeful that with comparatively few cases on the island, his dry surfboard will be back in action soon. “I don’t feel stranded,” he said. “I feel liberated.”
After years working as an event planner in New York, Laura Ling had saved up enough money to travel for months and caught the last flight into Medellín, Colombia, before the borders closed.
“It was very weird to be two or three weeks ahead in terms of the virus. I knew their corona-future,” she said.
After hearing that immigration officers were picking up tourists on the streets and throwing them out of the country, she began self-quarantining, venturing out occasionally to her balcony or rooftop terrace.
“My industry is dead,” Ms. Ling said. “I talk to colleagues, and we know we won’t be making any money off events in 2020. I’ve just started to think about what other career options I have.”
Every night she watches President Iván Duque’s nightly address to the nation, where he talks about saving abuelos and abuelas. “I have no regrets about coming here and I don’t think about anything beyond the next three days,” she said. “At least I am still learning Spanish.”
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Back in the Bahamas, Mr. Ball and Ms. LeCrone also don’t know when they’ll return to the barre, with their ballet company’s entire spring season canceled. They stick to a strict daily regimen of swimming, ballet, yoga and a scary-sounding class called “Shaun T’s Insanity.” They pay an islander $10 to deliver giant bags of mangoes and eat whatever they can catch spearfishing.
They also check in on New York friends whose practice jetés have become the bane of downstairs neighbors’ lives. “Artists are dramatic by nature so there is a lot of, ‘Are we ever going to dance again?’” Mr. Ball said.
“We decided maybe we shouldn’t have the ocean in the background,” Ms. LeCrone said. “We’re trying to be sensitive.”
Minus the exercise, I can relate from a few islands away. I, too, booked an impromptu trip, in my case to St. John, a few days after a long-planned family vacation to Israel had to be shelved.
In retrospect, the plan — hatched on a crowded R train home from work — was far from responsible, though then schools were still in session and my office was open.
After our third attempt at a flight home got canceled, my husband took his new mask of frolicking-turtle-print fabric, made by a local who calls himself Iron Man, and hopped a choppy 30-minute ferry to another island to procure a printer and cheap laptop so our daughters could attend online school. I tried to convince vacation property owners that they could indeed rent to us because we had arrived before the government-mandated tourist ban. (Luckily, I didn’t have to ask the woman with whom I six-foot-distance-chatted on a hike, who sprinted away when I told her where I’d arrived from five weeks earlier.)
I sometimes feel guilt for not being “New York strong,” as Gov. Andrew Cuomo would say (yes, I watch him here too), along with sadness for my city, relief that I didn’t bring illness to this hospital-free island and worry about paying my bills after renting a vacation home for three months instead of two weeks.
But my time on this island (the two known Covid-19 cases are on the mend) is also a tonic, and I don’t take for granted the simpler life of afternoon beach swims and visits to the island’s beloved, songwriting organic gardener, Josephine, for her immunity-boosting “bush tea.”
A couple of days before I left New York, the comedian Sarah Silverman flew in there and settled into a rented apartment that her friend Adam Schlesinger had found. They had plans to workshop “The Bedwetter,” the musical they’d co-written with Joshua Harmon, based on Ms. Silverman’s memoir.
The afternoon Broadway went dark, Ms. Silverman, Mr. Schlesinger and the show’s director, Anne Kauffman, sat around the rental eating pizza, drinking wine and getting updates on when Linda Lavin, a cast member, would land in the city. “We figured, well, this is what it is, and eventually when it passes, we’ll all be together rehearsing,” Ms. Silverman later told me. “That was the last time I socialized in person. And it was the last time I will ever see Adam.”
Eighteen days later, Mr. Schlesinger, the frontman of Fountains of Wayne, died of Covid-19 at 52. Ms. Silverman is staying put until at least mid-June, her apartment eerily quiet (“I never realized how many New Yorkers seem to have a place ‘upstate.’”) but with a washer and dryer (which, to New Yorkers, may be a bigger brag than a Zoom ocean background).
Ms. Silverman also takes in the view every evening, from her vacation balcony, a.k.a. fire escape. “I live for 7 to 7:03 p.m. when the whole city seems to be howling and banging pots and pans in a collective primal scream.”
She is also not rushing to hop on a plane home. “Against all reason,” she said. “I feel safer here.”