THURSDAY JULY 3
The drive from Boston to NYC is endless and difficult – and I’m just the passenger! It may take fewer hours than other trips I’ve been known to take, but it’s more daunting what with the bridges and construction detours. Our only real gridlock is in Brooklyn. For amusement, I stare at the license of the car in front of us: KICK AXE.
We arrive to Vicki and Zach’s place in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. Vicki had asked me to bring her four copies of Lillian’s Last Affair, and it is a treat to see her and Zach holding the book in their hands. These are old friends from 90s London who have always been so supportive of me.
After a quickie rest, we are off to the Brooklyn Museum, open late on Thursday nights. It’s practically empty so we have the remarkable establishment to ourselves, although the air conditioning – obviously set to deal with the heat of human crowds – turns the place into a massive fridge.
We go directly to the special exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” (until July 13) a marvelous collection of work done at the time by engaged artists who wanted to highlight both the obstacles to and the advances of civil rights. Sixty-six artists are represented, from Ben Shaun’s simple portraits of the three murdered young men, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, to the deeply textured gut-wrenching painting into which Benny Andrews embeds coarse fabric in a work named Witness. Barkley Hendrick's Lawdy Mama is a gold-leafed black power figure in a medieval holy setting. Only one artist quite literally used the imagery of the times in an exploitative way – the always-reactionary Andy Warhol who admitted to feeling “indifferent” to the movement.
Next we visit “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” (until August 10). These forty works cover a couple of decades and highlight his mix of photography, sculpture, installation, and activism. A row of photos from his time in Brooklyn include many images of Allen Ginsberg. His political resistance to the Chinese government is embraced by a huge room-size exhibit documenting the experience of an orphan woman thrown out of her living quarters because of her political activities. A downstairs installation of interlocking bicycles with revolving wheels is almost monumental in size and impact. Coincidentally, I was at a lunch party a couple of days later with the person who oversaw the assembly of Ai Weiwei’s massive structures at this exhibition. Here’s a one-minute clip of how the bike piece was put together:
We are surprised by the amazing exhibit “Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” (until August 24). It is the fantastical, feminist, epic work of Swoon, an artist based in Brooklyn. The astounding scale of her work put me in mind of Louise Bourgeois who, even quite late in life, built art of a size and impact that went way past ambitious. Swoon had to work with an engineer to fit a lift to the highest roof of the museum in order to raise her gorgeous, fabric-draped tree. Her lacy cut-out leaves and her multi-generational figures contribute to an unreal, exquisite statement about the impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Restaurant tip: We end our day by sharing scads of scrumptious appetizers at Am Thai Bistro, 1003 Church Ave, Brooklyn 11218.
FRIDAY JULY 4
Vicki drops me off at a restaurant called The Farm where I am meeting my college freshman (sic) roommate Abby Robinson for lunch. She is a well-known, accomplished photographer who teaches in NY during the year and in the East during the summers – from VietNam to China to Singapore. She has turned into such a chic, good-looking, cool-dressing grown-up, and I am floored by the brilliant work she shows me on her iPad. Check out her website here.
Vicki, Zach, Barry and I watch the World Cup match between Brazil and Colombia at a Mexican bar, after which we stroll around Brooklyn, dipping into a gay bar where there is a hand-written sign behind the bar that says, “God sees you when you don’t tip.”
Later we head out to see the Fireworks down by the river. Since Vicki has truly remarkable parking karma - and parking skills to match - she drives right down to the river and squeezes into a nearby spot. We arrive two hours early so that we can secure street-level spots to stand against the wall – something to lean on. Thousands are passing through police security to descend to watch from the riverside below.
As first there are only dozens of us, but as 9:00 approaches that turns into thousands. I have to fight to maintain our four spots, aided by a group of French tourists next to me, while Barry and Zach go to forage for food. Soon it is no longer an issue as the crush becomes extreme and we are pressed against our wall.
There are some booms that sound like fireworks, but we can see nothing. We realize that the places we guarded for two hours are irrelevant when the many thousands around us start running down a nearby street. I ask a cop what’s happening and he says he hasn’t been told, but he heard that because of the wind they moved the barge and we now have to get on the other side of the bridge in order to see. We rush with the others and find a spot in a crowded side street where we can see a particularly narrow slice of the show between the buildings. It’s fine.
SATURDAY JULY 5
We stand in a very long line, perhaps five or six blocks – as have over 130,000 viewers during its two-month run. It is the penultimate day to see Kara Walker’s stunning and historic sculpture installation, “A Subtlety,” at the Domino Sugar Factory. In fact, the full title is:
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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
I have read a dozen reviews, articles, and critiques, and seen video of the making of the installation. I know just what to expect and I’m steeped in the varied reactions people have had. But I knew from the first time I heard of it that I would have to view it in person, which is why we first decided to come to Brooklyn.
The narrative of the work has to do with the labor that it takes to turn brown cane into white sugar. The main figure is a black woman, her head in a scarf, her body naked. It is fitting that she is in the form of a Sphinx, which is a figure both beautiful and painful, having been built by slave labor – like the sugar industry.
The scale of “A Subtlety” is sobering and exhilarating. Her nakedness, breasts, uplifted rear end, and exposed genitals speak to the violent exploitation of black women’s bodies during 250 years of slavery and their objectification ever since. However, the elegance of her head and features conveys pride and volition. The dazzling whiteness is commanding, and is scored by the seams of the many blocks of Styrofoam on which has been sprayed an undercoat of sugar water to hold the white sugar skin. Altogether it is constructed of 160,000 pounds of sugar, according to one NYTimes piece.
In the approach to the main figure, we pass many life-size little boys holding cotton-picking baskets and other field items. These figures, made of molasses, are reminiscent of the lantern-holding statues of young black slaves once so popular on suburban lawns. The combination of the summer heat and the passage of time has caused a good deal of melting – and some of them have lost their balance, only to lay like murdered children in dark puddles of molasses that looks disturbingly like blood.
Creative Time is the non-profit that is organizing the viewings. There are many volunteer docents around to talk to you about their own take on this installation. I spoke with an undergraduate volunteer whose analysis of the gender, race, and class ramifications of this work made sophisticated sense. Then I spoke with Robert Shelton, a former Domino employee, who the day before had been featured in the NYTimes. His perspective – including a bitter stint of strike-breaking at the Domino factory – was all about the mechanics of the laborers’ work.
“A Subtlety” is full of meaning about work, about slavery, about our diets, about concepts of beauty, about the female body, about exposure, about mixed-messages, about all of life. I’m privileged to have seen it in real time. The visuals and the complex feelings they evoked will surely feature in my mind in myriad situations for many years to come.
Here is a video in which the artist Kara Walker introduces you to A Subtlety:
Thanks to Barry Hock for all the photos (except from the Brooklyn Museum)