Kara Walker’s Mourning Play

Kara Walker’s Mourning Play For these are not so much plays which cause mourning, as plays through which mourning finds satisfaction: plays for the mournful. (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama) ‘The purpose of art’, James Baldwin wrote, ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers’. (Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric) In the summer of 2014 you could have experienced A Subtlety, an ambitious installation by Kara Walker that occupied the derelict Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Fig. 1). Free and open to the public most weekends in May, June, and into July, it was commissioned by Creative Time, a public art organisation founded in New York City in 1973 and known for its socially engaged programming. You could have embarked on your pilgrimage by foot, bike, or train to join the queue of visitors that stretched the length of Kent Avenue in the summer sun. Your tour would have begun after you signed a liability waiver to enter the dilapidated structure. Inside, once your eyes adjusted to the dimly lit space, you would have seen from afar the massive white sphinx with mammy features upstaged by fifteen life-size brown figures in the shapes of black boys toting thick branches of bananas or large wicker baskets. You might have stepped in the occasional pools of molasses oozing from the factory’s ramparts or run a surreptitious hand across the surface of the sugar-coated sphinx destined for demolition—along with the building—in the months following the special exhibition. You could have ceded to the artist’s, and her patron’s, encouragement to take photos with your smartphone and share them on social media using the hashtag #karawalkerdomino. Your visit would have exposed you to all manner of human performance, to moments of distraction and contemplation, outrage and grace, vulgarity and wonder, exultation and sadness. You could have—and you may well have—witnessed some or all of these things. The conversation sparked by A Subtlety continued online during the run of the show and into the months beyond the destruction of the work and the building that housed it. In many respects, this was an artwork of the moment because of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which it introduced narratives of historical loss and remains into the contemporary climate of racial politics in the United States. Fig. 1 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, 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, 2014, polystyrene foam, sugar, approximately 10.8 x 7.9 x 23 m. A project of Creative Time, installation at Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, 2014. Photo by Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Creative Time. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 1 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, 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, 2014, polystyrene foam, sugar, approximately 10.8 x 7.9 x 23 m. A project of Creative Time, installation at Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, 2014. Photo by Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Creative Time. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. A year later and in response to the violent deaths of black American citizens at the hands of white men—citizens including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting—the author and poet Claudia Rankine wrote ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’ for the New York Times. One of the achievements of her essay is her formulation of ‘mourning as a method of acknowledgment’ of black lives.1 Building on the conventional definition of mourning as ‘the action of feeling or expressing sorrow, grief, or regret’,2 Rankine imagines mourning as an affective expression with the potential to effect social and political change. She declares: ‘A sustained state of national mourning for black lives is called for in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation.’3 Illustrating her argument are two photographs of the spontaneous memorials to Eric Garner and Michael Brown that were assembled, respectively, out of votive candles and stuffed animals and that temporarily occupied the locations of their deaths. Noteworthy are the preferences in materials and place (ephemeral, site specific) and the implied rules of engagement (petitioning, collective). These vernacular memorials, in tandem with Rankine’s concept of mourning, bring to mind A Subtlety. And yet, to be clear, Walker’s site-specific work was not conceived as a memorial per se. Although transient and made of ordinary ingredients, A Subtlety was more explicitly an homage. Walker framed it as such, however ironically, in the work’s complete title: 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. Walker’s pronouncement, partly visualised in a florid script on the east façade of the factory, interpellated the reader in her present-tense historical fiction (Fig. 2). Once inside the building, the viewer encountered an artwork provocative in its appropriation—both strategic and elegiac—of racial and sexual stereotypes. The sphinx’s stylised head and steatopygia are descendent features in a genealogy of the representation of the black woman that includes the mammy and ‘the Hottentot Venus’.4 Based on an examination of colonial European travelogue images and the nineteenth-century exhibition of Sara Baartman, Zoë S. Strother has argued that the latter ‘represented a fantasy creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness, who could never actually threaten the viewer with the sexual power of a “Venus”’.5 Similarly, the grinning faces and obsequious gestures of the boy sculptures, inspired by ceramic tchotchkes that the artist found online, originate in the derogatory imagery of the pickaninny and Little Black Sambo.6 To countenance Walker’s engagement with the potency of these stereotypes as elegiac is to acknowledge the violence and loss that conditioned their creation. In her bracketing of stereotypes through scale and repetition, Walker destabilises what Homi Bhabha calls colonial power’s ‘regime of “truth”’.7 By staging a spectacle out of the already ‘functional overdetermination’ of these figures,8 Walker theoretically carves out a space, however tenuous, for mourning. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. In practice, however, Walker’s signature strategy of meta-critique, her apparently ambivalent interrogation of colonial narratives, afforded little room for expressions of sorrow, at least not for one viewer. Consider the first line of this review of A Subtlety by Malik Thompson, a self-described ‘eighteen year-old cis Black queer’ and also art critic for the blog Groundwork for Praxis: ‘One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power.’9 Thompson was perhaps less discouraged by the artist’s recourse to stereotype than by the offensive behaviours he witnessed at the public exhibition. Some of this behaviour is captured in the archived corpus of images maintained on the Creative Time website. Of the vast majority of images that were shared via Instagram during the eight-week run of the show, over 17,000 were harvested by Creative Time using the aforementioned hashtag for the visual archive called the ‘Digital Sugar Baby’.10 A survey of the archive’s contents reveals photographs that range from unexceptional to insolent, from casually documentary shots of the sphinx in situ to images that depict visitors appearing to pinch or fondle the sphinx’s nipples and touch or lick her exposed vulva. The latter recall what Darby English has described as ‘the [unmediated] reproduction of rhetorics and images about slavery’s “direct” impress upon our time’.11 He continues: ‘Inasmuch as representations are social relations, direct impress representations thus carry their own kind of danger; of imagining relations basically unmodified.’12 To the degree, however, that Walker—in tandem with Creative Time—quietly mediated such familiar modes of representation via the artwork’s rules of engagement, the more salacious images reveal themselves to be deeply uncanny, ‘testimonies more to the disintegrating effects of even greater distance from slavery and its effects’.13 Despite, or perhaps also because of their subtle ambivalence, these ‘direct impress representations’ dominated critical discussion of A Subtlety during and in the wake of the exhibition. Censure was swift. On 22 June, a group led by black women of colour visited the installation in solidarity under the mantra of ‘We Are Here’ in an effort to stand against the tide of toxic Instagram images, to mind the complex and traumatic histories that A Subtlety invoked, and to call out the dominance of white viewers at the exhibition.14 Cait Munro was one of the first art journalists to report on the offensive nature of the hashtagged images; in her exposé, she opined that the work ‘has recently spawned some tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work’.15 I am struck by the presumption that some visitors were ‘clearly missing the point of the work’. Were they not also possibly making a—if not the—point of A Subtlety? After all, Walker’s signature sarcastic masochism, her mordant humour paired with a willingness to surface shame, approaches satisfaction not only in the pain of the past but also in its persistence in the present. This is not unique to A Subtlety. Walker has long employed various means to implicate her viewers in the social theatre that her work regularly invites. Take, for example, her silhouette installation from 2000 called Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), depicting a slave revolt in the antebellum South in which the master is shown being disembowelled with a soup ladle (Fig. 3). What was new at the time about this work was how Walker used the light from several schoolroom-style overhead projectors literally to cast viewers into the violent shadow drama that unfolded across the gallery walls.16 By comparison, the images posted to social media during A Subtlety routinely show viewers as cheerful, even impish. Fig. 3 View largeDownload slide Installation view of Kara Walker, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002. Cut-paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Ann Ames, Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Tonino Perna, Denise Rich, Simonetta Seragnoli, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk, 2000. Photo: Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2 episode, Stories. © Art21, Inc. 2003. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s2/kara-walker-in-stories-segment/. Fig. 3 View largeDownload slide Installation view of Kara Walker, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002. Cut-paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Ann Ames, Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Tonino Perna, Denise Rich, Simonetta Seragnoli, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk, 2000. Photo: Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2 episode, Stories. © Art21, Inc. 2003. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s2/kara-walker-in-stories-segment/. I do not wish to rehearse the ethical merits, or lack thereof, of A Subtlety as they relate either to Walker’s appropriation of stereotypes or an audience’s behaviour in response to such imagery.17 I offer instead an analysis of the artwork and its reception within a Benjaminian framework, which, along with Freud’s conterminous engagement with mourning and melancholia, has shaped the critical discourse of mourning in the work of Judith Butler as well as David L. Eng and David Kazanjian.18 In the process, I aim to, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘lay bare the questions hidden by the answers’.19 Answers may be found in arguments that A Subtlety is about: the history of the industrial production of sugar in the Americas and its reliance on slave labour; the persistence of white supremacy in spaces conditioned by even the most progressive US cultural institutions; the persistence of historical stereotypes that characterise black women as sexual deviants and domestic servants; the cultural politics of real estate in New York City’s most gentrified borough; the fundamental inscrutability embedded in the body and ancient myth of the sphinx; and a mid-career artist’s desire to test the boundaries of her studio practice. A Subtlety is about all of these things, and more. Motivated, however, by Malik Thompson’s inability to mourn, I wish to contemplate the questions of mourning that A Subtlety post-mortem continues to animate. Such questions are alive to issues of the moment in the world—from Aleppo to Ferguson, Budapest to Charleston, South Sudan to Standing Rock—that demand recognition and action. If Walker’s art can do anything to reframe our response to such events, it might prepare us better in our anger and vulnerability to meet the next eruption of violence with the sobering reminder that such events have deep roots in historical injustices. Walker has long been vigilant on this front. In the exhibition After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, she created a body of work in response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and its human response.20A Subtlety, however, motivates questions about legacies of injustice differently, because of its theatrical and monumental forms as well as the affective nature of the installation.21 The proscenium-like space inside the factory, dominated by the bright white sphinx and dotted with the life-size sculptures, resembled a stage set attended by an audience that doubled as an unsuspecting, yet complicit cast of characters. The great work, it seems, was designed for maximum engagement and expressive-emotional impact inasmuch as it channelled the legacy of gendered and racial violence in American history that conditions our contemporary rape culture and the routine killing of black bodies. This effect of the artwork is arguably a matter of what Linda Nochlin has referred to as ‘urgent public interest and concern’. Reflecting on art and its audiences, she asserts that ‘looking at art is, for better or worse, a complex, communal affair, and hence a matter or [sic] urgent public interest and concern, an act which, however private and personal it may seem, takes place within the public sphere’.22 By attending to the effects of looking at art in public, what might we learn about each other and ourselves? In these respects, I bring Walter Benjamin and the larger discourse of mourning to bear on A Subtlety, to extend the work’s horizon of expectations into the realm of lived praxis.23 Although mourning is defined differently by the authors I have chosen, they share an understanding of the ways in which history conditions the present and the present conditions history—a fluid yet fraught relationship that similarly constitutes the core of Walker’s artistic practice. What follows is a speculative exercise in which I hope to demonstrate the amenability of Walker’s work to exploring the role that mourning might play in public discourse about race, gender, power, and history in the United States. The Trauerspiel, it was believed, could be directly grasped in the events of history itself; it was only a question of finding the right words. (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama) Walter Benjamin’s study of the German Trauerspiel is well known among art historians and critics.24 Its influence stems largely from part three of the book, in which Benjamin works to rehabilitate allegory, a beleaguered mode of expression in nineteenth-century aesthetic theory. In allegory, according to Benjamin, ‘any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else’.25 His theory of allegory both accommodates and anticipates contemporary artistic practices.26 For instance, Walker’s fragmented narratives and pictorial strategies lend themselves to Benjamin’s concept of allegory.27 Less familiar is part two, in which he considers the elements and operations of the Trauerspiel in the context of seventeenth-century German culture that gave rise to this particular genre of baroque drama. He points out that to most modern literary historians, the Trauerspiel eluded conventional taxonomies that organised dramas according to schools, epochs, and individuals. Benjamin is interested in the Trauerspiel less as a form than as a mode of expression. Although, as he observes, its formal properties are disparate and eccentric, the genre takes as its content ‘historical life’ (‘das geschichtliche Leben’) tempered by ‘the participation in contemporary events of world-history’ (‘der Anteil am aktuellen welthistorischen Verlauf’).28 By contrast, he argues, tragedy is concerned with myth and the social intercourse of heroes, whereas the dramatis personae of the Trauerspiel are drawn from the secular realm of the absolute monarch. At the same time, the Trauerspiel stems from a particular epistemological context shaped by the prevailing religious wars and theological earthquakes.29 Benjamin writes: ‘One of these [contemplative necessities of the Trauerspiel], and it is consequent upon the total disappearance of eschatology, is the attempt to find, in a reversion to a bare state of creation, consolation for the renunciation of a state of grace.’30 There is much loss to be mourned, and a sense of grief that is apparently latent, if not necessarily repressed, in the viewer. The plays activate that emotion; they become ‘plays through which mourning finds satisfaction (‘die Trauer ihr Genügen findet’)’.31 Many of the conclusions that Benjamin draws from his research on the Trauerspiel rhyme well with A Subtlety. For instance, he considers the baroque predilection for landscape as an elegiac site where the sacred and the profane cohabitate, an apparently timeless realm where painful memories are stored; ‘history merges into the setting’.32 This brings to mind Walker’s commemorative inscription on the east wall of the factory as well as the regular deposits of rotting sugar and molasses that accumulated in corners and trickled down walls, physical and olfactory evidence of hard labours past (Fig. 4). In these ways, the aging site mingled with the memory, avant la lettre, of the factory’s, and the artwork’s, immanent destruction. The setting merged into history. Benjamin goes on to observe that the setting in the German Trauerspiel is primarily the site of the court and its palatial precincts. These correspond to settings original to traditional aristocratic practices that are invoked in the title of Walker’s Domino installation. In early modern Europe, ‘subtleties’ were elaborate sugar sculptures consumed at banquets by the wealthy at a time when sugar was considered a luxury; the act of seeing and eating sugar was a rare spectacle for the privileged few.33 Touring A Subtlety in the summer of 2014, one could not help but notice the widespread visual consumption—often via smartphones—of the sugar sculptures and the historical pantomime that viewers unconsciously performed (Fig. 5). Art critic Jerry Saltz took this observation a step further when he likened the work to an ostentatious parade float.34 In his enthusiastic review of A Subtlety, he proposed that the sphinx be salvaged and made to travel around the United States ‘as a reminder of America’s original sin of slavery’, a proposition that Walker herself allegedly liked on Saltz’s Facebook page.35 Benjamin may have also approved. He notes the influence of Italian Renaissance trionfi, or triumphal processions, on German baroque playwrights, who wrote about the relationship between mourning and excess; according to one, ‘Such a dance of death is cherished in the world!’36 Fig. 4 View largeDownload slide From the installation by Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Fig. 4 View largeDownload slide From the installation by Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Fig. 5 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 5 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Risking the sort of ‘futile analogy-mongering’ that Benjamin abjures,37 I argue that such connections point to a deeper resonance between the Trauerspiel and Walker’s work that forecloses the possibility of redemption in contemporary society. Benjamin attributes the loss of salvation to the ‘theological situation’ of the Baroque period and the religious wars that marked it. Although he does not provide visual illustrations of the Trauerspiel, Jacques Callot’s epic print series, published in 1633, that documents the Miseries of War provides a hypothetical example. Inspired by first-hand experience with the devastation in France wrought by the Thirty Years’ War, Callot’s engravings testify to the brutality and pervasiveness of the conflict. In one image of a mass hanging, Callot anchors what might have been a chaotic composition with a solitary oak tree that bears harrowing fruit (Fig. 6). Such a flagrant display of death, in this case punishment meted out to marauding soldiers, is at odds with the casual indifference suggested by the friar and soldier in the right foreground and—in an allusion to the crucifixion?—the soldiers that roll dice beneath a canopy of hanged men.38 Fig. 6 View largeDownload slide Jacques Callot, The Hanging (La Pendaison), 1633, etching. From series Miseries of War (Les Grandes Misères de la guerre). Image dimensions: 8.415 x 18.733 cm. Sheet dimensions: 13.335 x 23.338 cm. Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Mr and Mrs Alfred L. Bromberg. Fig. 6 View largeDownload slide Jacques Callot, The Hanging (La Pendaison), 1633, etching. From series Miseries of War (Les Grandes Misères de la guerre). Image dimensions: 8.415 x 18.733 cm. Sheet dimensions: 13.335 x 23.338 cm. Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Mr and Mrs Alfred L. Bromberg. I am reminded of another of Walker’s silhouette installations with projection (Fig. 7). The visual anchor here is a solitary figure visible from the waist up and in the water but near shore, as indicated by the branches of what appear to be a few Southern Live Oak trees covered with Spanish moss. Her right arm is outstretched while her left arm appears to clutch her throat. A small fish—or is it vomit?—sails through the air in the vicinity of her mouth. Is this a tableau of defiant liberation or a cry for help? The work’s title—Salvation—suggests the former, but the image itself recommends no such thing. For Benjamin, ‘the baroque knows no eschatology’, that branch of theological study that concerns itself with death and judgement, heaven and hell.39 He continues: ‘the German Trauerspiel is taken up entirely with the hopelessness of the earthly condition. Such redemption as it knows resides in the depths of this destiny itself rather than in the fulfilment of a divine plan of salvation.’40 History, in Benjamin’s mind—and plausibly also in Walker’s—is quite bereft of that promise. What, then, if A Subtlety were a kind of Trauerspiel, a mourning play for the twenty-first century? And related to that proposition, what might it mean to call A Subtlety an allegory of loss and what remains of slavery in the United States? Or, more precisely, what might it mean to call A Subtlety an allegory of what Judith Butler has described as ‘the loss of loss itself’?41 But then there’s this awkwardness about being present, in the presence of her. It almost feels reverent, this kind of reverent space. And then, it creates for conflict. (Kara Walker, in interview with Jad Abumrad, New York Public Library, 20 May 2014) Fig. 7 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Salvation, 2000, cut-paper silhouettes, overhead projector, and transparency. Overall: 3,658 x 4,877 mm. Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Modern Art Fund. Photo by Mitro Hood. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 7 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Salvation, 2000, cut-paper silhouettes, overhead projector, and transparency. Overall: 3,658 x 4,877 mm. Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Modern Art Fund. Photo by Mitro Hood. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. I entered the Domino Sugar Factory, in a single-file herd of visitors, around midday on 1 June 2014. I turned my head right and followed the group in front of me. It took a moment for my pupils to dilate wide enough to apprehend the form at the far end of the factory floor. Chiaroscuro. I stopped walking and obeyed the prompt on the stanchion sign to take photos. My iPhone was about as accurate as my eyes, which is to say, not very (Fig. 8). I looked around and awakened to other sensory triggers. Scents and sounds coursed through the space, variously saccharine and familiar and repugnant. Some visitors danced and laughed, while others wandered aimlessly with slack mouths and eyes pitched high. Some stared at their phones, while others trained them on the brown boy sculptures or the great white sphinx, who seemed to preside with sly indifference. I walked on and stood next to one of the basket-bearing boys, eavesdropping on a conversation carried on by two middle-aged white women. One shared her knowledge, gained by cooking sugar for her colony of bees, of the carbohydrate’s chemistry when applied to heat. Her companion signalled her active listening with enthusiastic utterances, though her eyes—and mine, too—dwelled nervously in the basket that contained a pool of disintegrating body parts, also rendered in sugar, fragments of failed casts (Fig. 9). Elsewhere, I observed a smartly dressed young man balanced on a knee and a toe to lap and lick a sugary body fragment that had dislodged near the base of another boy sculpture, all before righting himself and mugging for the camera with his giddy companions (Fig. 10). What to make of the casual contemplation, of the insulting buffoonery, I wondered in silence as I observed. Fig. 8 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 8 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 9 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 9 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 10 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 10 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Walker appears to have wondered, too. She documented the final hour of A Subtlety’s public performance on 6 July 2014 by dispatching six surrogates with cameras onto the factory floor. On a wall label that later accompanied An Audience, the 27 minutes 18 seconds of video she edited from the resulting footage, Walker wrote: ‘Working without a script, I asked each [camera operator] to record the waning spectacle but also to observe the audience in the act of looking—at the work, at themselves, at one another, and especially looking at their phones and cameras.’42 I viewed An Audience several times on the final day of ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the gallery that represents Walker in the United States.43 A particular sequence from this short video struck me as noteworthy (Fig. 11). The camera shows a black woman entering the factory floor and her initial regard in the direction of the sphinx. She stops her approach and covers her mouth with her right hand, which then turns into a fist; she leaves it there for an interval that, together with her steady gaze and a slight shake of her head, suggests aggrieved contemplation. Eventually, with a drawn expression and moving her hand to her chest, she walks and turns away. Benjamin argues: ‘the Trauerspiel is conceivable as pantomime’.44 This theatrical form awakens the viewer’s awareness of the loss of hope in eschatology and the potential to satisfy her mourning. It is tempting to claim something similar in this passage from An Audience, as evidence not only of A Subtlety’s capacity to register the unknowable losses exacted by slavery but also its capacity to satisfy mourning, as a kind of redemption of Malik Thompson’s thwarted attempt to experience the same. But I cannot claim to know whether what this woman experienced in this moment was an expression of grief or an experience of something else, perhaps closer to the sublime. What might verification of her mourning yield?45 What loss—or losses—might be mourned? Fig. 11 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Stills from An Audience, 2014. Digital video with sound, 27:18 minutes. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 11 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Stills from An Audience, 2014. Digital video with sound, 27:18 minutes. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. It can be argued that Walker’s art names numerous losses exacted under and after slavery. These include, and are by no means limited to: the loss of what it means to be human in an ostensibly civilised society; the loss of agency in enslavement; the loss of representation in the clutch of state-sanctioned violence; the loss of culture as an expression of freedom; the loss of progress and uplift narratives; the loss of memory in wilful amnesia; the loss of an ability to mourn. Walker’s work also, at its most ambitious, strains to visualise what, in Butler’s estimation, is perhaps the most challenging loss, namely ‘the loss of loss itself: somewhere, sometime, something [and someone] was lost, but no story can be told about it’.46 Such profound loss is in part conditioned by the fact that, as Robert F. Reid-Pharr has observed, no one alive today has first-hand experience of the losses suffered under slavery in the United States, a lack of memory that is registered in the literal flatness of Walker’s silhouettes.47A Subtlety, however, named losses that were acknowledged in the artwork’s extended title and that emerged spontaneously in the various reviews of the show. As homage, A Subtlety recognised the loss of lives, remuneration, and agencies in the transnational history of modern sugar production, as well as the loss of neighbourhood and community on the contemporary Brooklyn waterfront.48 During the run of the show, the presence of a predominantly white audience surfaced the historical lack of access to cultural institutions that black audiences have experienced since the eighteenth century.49 And perhaps most powerfully, A Subtlety named the loss of an ability to ‘mourn the devastation of Blackness’.50 Amid such loss, we might ask: what remains? And to what end might they be produced, considered, and engaged? In his frustration, Thompson was wise to Walker’s having summoned some of what remains in A Subtlety, specifically an audience to participate in this vernacular theatre. Walker used props and lighting to block the cavernous space, a stagecraft that invited shenanigans, to be sure, and also a sort of flânerie in which viewers delighted in their own aimless anonymity. But if A Subtlety also demanded self-reflection by regarding the pain of others, then it blurred the line between casual spectator and voyeur. For my part, I wondered how my white fragility both impeded my capacity to bear witness to A Subtlety and, at the same time, forced me to confront my shameful complicity in the machinery of racism and white privilege.51 How was I meant to stand in the tension of my own scopophilia at the ineffable terrors and bad behaviours that Walker’s sculptures embodied and encouraged? In her book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya V. Hartman considers the self-defining function of various spectacles of terror—both explicit and diffused—under slavery and in its aftermath: ‘What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes’.52 Applied to A Subtlety, Hartman’s interest highlights a ‘precariousness of empathy’ that risks precluding an ability to mourn the past. It also calls our attention to the inscrutability of the sphinx and her ostensibly merry retinue, whose smiling faces mask the historical horrors that conditioned their creation. They are unstable referents that deny grief, because they ‘address how that history is fundamentally unknowable to the contemporary subjects that [stereotype] shapes’.53 In a sense, they become impossible to mourn. Indeed, A Subtlety was neither, properly speaking, a memorial nor a history lesson. As an artwork, it was unlike other objects in the world and therefore offered to the viewer in a form that was a deposit of the artist’s intentions.54 Walker has referred to her visual strategy as ‘two parts research and one part paranoid hysteria’.55 In A Subtlety, this strategy of documentation, appropriation, and critical hyperbole proved an affective combination. What, then, might A Subtlety mean apart from what its form elicited in the viewer? It would seem that Walker’s affective mode is the locus of A Subtlety’s lingering significance, or is it? Can affect and form reasonably be separated in the interpretation and evaluation of this artwork’s meaning?56 It is a thorny question that summons the nature and limits of representation. The visual hallmarks of Walker’s oeuvre convey a fundamental dissatisfaction, however ambivalent, with representations of the past and/in the present. That dissatisfaction is apparent in the ways in which she pairs the tropes of the pre-Civil War South and contemporary society with a critical historiography conveyed through the artwork’s medium, scale, palette, and/or technique. Whereas this juxtaposition is best known in Walker’s silhouette installations, it is equally evident in her drawings and visual essays. For instance, a watercolour from her series of works on paper from 1997 titled Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? depicts a perfunctory outline of a large tree that recalls the backgrounds of so many antebellum romance novels (Fig. 12). The tree is overlaid with a handwritten text of a prose poem that, like the imagery, simultaneously conjures and rejects the conventions of representation. Fig. 12 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, 1997, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 20.8 cm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 1998. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 12 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, 1997, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 20.8 cm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 1998. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. So, I ask what is a positive black image (besides a contradiction in terms) every image produced of “us” is mediated—? filtered through the grounds of years of misrepresentation, bitterness + suspicion I will never fail (or cease) to dismiss the black girl TV spokesmodel in all her benign beauty for being the end-all in some ad-execs pantheon of underrepresented groups she is supposed to be read as “see how far we’ve progressed”—without suggesting her earlier incarnation as—whore, maid or earth mother—struggle—weeping cause her baby done gone. Walker’s direct address initially suggests the difficulty that attends a critical visualisation of systemic racism. Closer examination reveals how she conjoins word to image to express the roots of racial tokenism. She limns an acerbic monologue, according to the tree’s contours from top to bottom, in a way that the misrepresentation of which the ‘I’ speaks is visually rooted in the tree’s sketchy morphology. Moreover, the economy with which the image speaks covertly visualises the all-encompassing nature of racial oppression—all that negative white space. The work remains. There is no final reprieve from the ambivalence and no final separation of mourning from melancholia. (Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power) In the introduction to their edited volume Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian stress the importance of what remains in the discourse of loss, inasmuch as therein lies the social and political potential of mourning. They describe the emphasis in this way: ‘This attention to remains generates a politics of mourning that might be active rather than reactive, prescient rather than nostalgic, abundant rather than lacking, social rather than solipsistic, militant rather than reactionary.’57 Moreover, they argue, just as loss is conjoined to remains, so too is mourning conjoined to melancholia. It is here that I should like to map a tentative conclusion to my consideration of A Subtlety,58 which effects and perhaps even satisfies both conditions.59 Theorised by Freud during the First World War in his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’,60 he dwells less on the former as a healthy response to the death of a loved one—or a surrogate abstraction—than on the latter as a pathological mourning: ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’.61 For Freud, the melancholic exhibits grandiose expressions of self-abasement and moral turpitude, an impoverishment of the ego as a result of having internalised her own ambivalence about the lost love object. This love/hate, Freud observes, gambles externalisation in the humiliation and degradation of the beloved object, now reviled. Still, there is important work in the psychic processes that accompany melancholia, which are similarly instrumental to the work of mourning (Trauerarbeit); both have the potential to release the subject from suffering. Eng and Kazanjian claim this recovery for creativity and political agency, when they assert that an ‘engagement [with melancholia] generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future’.62 How might an understanding of the ordinary and offensive behaviours witnessed at A Subtlety as manifestations of both mourning and melancholia move our estimation of the great work onto new terrain? One way to approach it is in terms of challenges to progress narratives that inform the writing of history in general and the public discourse about race, gender, power, and history in the United States in particular. Judith Butler tells us: Mourning is the relation to the ‘object’ only under the conditions in which history, and the narrative coherence and direction it once promised, has been shattered. The new choreography of the body constitutes one consequence of this shattering, but that is a form of mourning that is not yet resolved in melancholia. The melancholic form deadens the very body enlivened, in a ghostly way, through pantomime.63 To be sure, the recent surge in civil rights activity in the United States—represented most stridently by Black Lives Matter—has chastened the desire for the sort of wish fulfilment lodged in neologisms such as post-racial by demanding recognition of the persistence of anti-black racism in American society. Claudia Rankine, emphasising mourning as a catalyst, believes that the ‘Black Lives Matter movement can be read as an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness’.64 Pace Malik Thompson, such an open dynamic was arguably present at A Subtlety, where a new choreography of bodies in space mingled with moments of pantomime. In this essay, I have attempted in my analysis of A Subtlety to bring certain theories of loss and mourning to bear on the violent spectacles of injustice in our contemporary social and political life. What can art really do in the face of such challenges? What if the question is wrong? Benjamin suggests that the Trauerspiel was capable of emotional alchemy in baroque Germany. Without empirical evidence, perhaps it is foolish to take him at his word. Yet, if we read closer the passage in question, we learn that ‘the very name of the [Trauerspiel] already indicates that its content awakens mourning in the spectator (‘die Trauer im Betrachter weckt’)’.65 What if it were enough to say that a work of art harbours the potential to awaken mourning in the spectator? Among the approximately 130,000 visitors to experience of A Subtlety before it was destroyed, I sensed potential in the installation’s forms and physical space they occupied, in the pungent sensory assault, and in the viewers’ vernacular theatricality.66 Would this sense survive in our collective memory, A Subtlety may yet be newly comprehensible in the anachronistic time of its afterlife.67 Its capacity to awaken and satisfy our collective mourning depends on its survival, and our own. Footnotes 1 Claudia Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’, New York Times (published online 22 June 2015) <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/magazine/the-condition-of-black-life-is-one-of-mourning.html?_r=0>, accessed 23 March 2017. 2 ‘mourning’, Oxford English Dictionary <http://www.oed.com.pearl.stkate.edu/view/Entry/122947?rskey=VlaO13&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid>, accessed 23 March 2017. 3 Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’ (2015). 4 See especially Zoë S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Africans on Stage, ed. Bernth Lindfors (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 1–61; Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (ed.), Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002); and Deborah Willis (ed.), Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010). See also Sander L. Gilman’s influential, but controversial scholarship on the history of sexuality and black women, beginning with ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward and Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, Autumn 1985, pp. 204–42; Gilman, ‘The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality’, in Kymberly N. Pinder (ed.), Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 119–38; and Gilman, ‘Confessions of an Academic Pornographer’, in Philippe Vergne (ed.), Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2007): pp. 26–35. 5 Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’ (1999), p. 2. 6 See Kenneth W. Goings, Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1994). 7 Homi Bhabha, ‘The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse’, Screen, November/December 1983, p. 18. 8 Bhabha, ‘The Other Question’ (1983), p. 26. 9 Malik Thompson, ‘Kara Walker’s Desecrated Cemetery for Blackness’, Groundwork for Praxis (published online 3 July 2014) <http://groundworkforpraxis.com/2014/07/03/kara_walker_exhibit/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 10 See <http://creativetime.org/karawalker/digital-sugar-baby/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 11 Darby English, ‘A New Context for Reconstruction: Some Crises of Landscape in Kara Walker’s Silhouette Installations’, in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), p. 84. 12 English, ‘A New Context’ (2007), p. 84. 13 English, ‘A New Context’ (2007), p. 82. 14 See Jamilah King’s reporting for Colorlines on both the question of audience at A Subtlety and the ‘We Are Here’ event. King, ‘The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art’, Colorlines (published 21 May 2014) < http://www.colorlines.com/articles/overwhelming-whiteness-black-art>, accessed 23 March 2017, and ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women: “We Are Here”’, Colorlines (published 23 June 2014) <http://www.colorlines.com/articles/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-evokes-call-black-women-we-are-here>, accessed 23 March 2017. 15 Cait Munro, ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Spawns Offensive Instagram Pics’, Artnet News (published 30 May 2014) <https://news.artnet.com/art-world/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-spawns-offensive-instagram-photos-29989>, accessed 23 March 2017. 16 Reflecting on the work, Walker states: ‘But I wanted to activate the space, in a way, and have these overhead projectors serve as a kind of stand-in for the viewer, as observers.’ See ‘Kara Walker: Projecting Fictions “Insurrection! Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On”’, interview with Art21 (2003/2011), <https://art21.org/read/kara-walker-projecting-fictions-insurrection-our-tools-were-rudimentary-yet-we-pressed-on/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 17 Indeed, critics and scholars have debated them since Walker became the youngest recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (known as the ‘Genius Grant’) in 1997. Regarding some of the early consequences of Walker’s use of stereotyped imagery in her oeuvre, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, ‘Censorship and Reception’, in Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 103–24. 18 See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928), trans. John Osborne (London and New York: Verso, 1998); Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, (1917) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, vol. 14 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), pp. 243–58; Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 467–73; and Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’, in Loss (2003), pp. 1–25. In addition to these authors, I recommend the following discussions of mourning, the first as it pertains specifically to Walker’s oeuvre: Adair Rounthwaite, ‘Making Mourning from Melancholia: The Art of Kara Walker’, Image [&] Narrative, vol. 19 (published online November 2007) <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/autofiction/rounthwaite.htm>, accessed 23 March 2017; Nouri Gana, Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011); and Jermaine Singleton, Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015). Lastly, I offer a text that was instrumental in shaping earlier versions of this essay: Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, trans. Beverley R. Placzek (New York: Grove Press, 1975). 19 Quoted in Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), p. 115. 20 See Kara Walker, After the Deluge (New York: Rizzoli, 2007). 21 Walker’s engagement with theatrical forms ranges from the safety curtain she designed for the Vienna State Opera in 1998 to the dramatic conceit of much of her text-based work. See Kara Walker et al. Kara Walker: Safety Curtain (Vienna: P&S Wien, 2000). 22 Linda Nochlin, ‘Art and Its Audiences: A Personal View’, 14 May 1997, unpublished manuscript, p. 2. Used with permission. 23 Hans Robert Jauss stresses the potentiality of the social function of art, specifically literature, in his discussion of the objectification of a work’s horizon of expectations. He writes: ‘The social function of literature manifests itself in its genuine possibility only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis, preforms his understanding of the world, and thereby also has an effect on his social behavior. […] The experience of reading can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things’. See Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 39 and p. 41. 24 A most elegant example of this is Linda Nochlin’s ‘Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading “The Painter’s Studio”’, in Courbet Reconsidered, eds. Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1988), pp. 17–41. 25 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 175. 26 Craig Owens’s two-part essay on allegory in contemporary art relies on, among others, Benjamin’s formulations. See Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’, October 12, Spring 1980, pp. 67–86 and ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2’, October 13, Summer 1980, pp. 58–80. 27 For example, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s analysis of Walker’s 1996 gouache drawing of John Brown in Seeing the Unspeakable (2004), p. 8 and p. 101. 28 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 62, and Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1955), p. 44 and p. 45. 29 He writes: ‘In the German Trauerspiel the characteristic attitude is that of the reaction of the Counter-Reformation’. Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 157. 30 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), pp. 80–1. 31 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 119 and p. 100. 32 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 92. 33 Creative Time curator Nato Thompson describes them in this way: ‘The heart of [Walker’s] title, A Subtlety, refers to sugar sculptures that adorned aristocratic banquets in England and France the Middle Ages, when sugar was strictly a luxury commodity. These subtleties, which frequently represented people and events that sent political messages, were admired and then eaten by the guests. Perhaps Walker’s Subtlety is just a little less subtle.’ <http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/curatorial-statement/>, accessed 23 March 2017. For more on the cultural contexts and significance of sugar subtleties, see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985) and Marcia Reed (ed.), The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015). 34 Saltz writes: ‘This behemoth, part Cecil B. DeMille parade float, part alien, is accompanied by a retinue of life-size deformed black figures, boys carrying bananas or baskets with parts of other boys, all made from molasses and brown sugar.’ See Saltz, ‘Kara Walker Bursts into Three Dimensions, and Flattens Me’, New York Magazine (published online 31 June 2014) <http://www.vulture.com/2014/05/art-review-kara-walker-a-subtlety.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. 35 Jerry Saltz, ‘When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?’, New York Magazine (published online 17 November 2014) <http://www.vulture.com/2014/11/when-did-the-art-world-get-so-conservative.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. 36 Johann Christian Hallmann quoted in Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 120. 37 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 76. 38 For an analysis of Callot’s series as a whole and this image in particular as it relates to possible religious symbolism, see Diane Wolfthal, ‘Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War’, The Art Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 2, June 1977, pp. 222–33. See also Dena M. Woodall and Diane Wolfthal, Princes and Paupers: The Art of Jacques Callot (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 132. 39 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 66. 40 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 80. 41 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 467. 42 Quoted from wall label at Walker’s exhibition ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 17 January 2015. In an ironic twist on the public nature of A Subtlety, An Audience is only available online as a trailer: <https://vimeo.com/112396045>, accessed 23 March 2017. 43 Aptly recommended in the exhibition’s title, ‘Afterword’ presented a coda to A Subtlety and featured preparatory drawings, the Sphinx’s salvaged left hand (and only surviving piece of the sugar baby), a maquette of A Subtlety, along with two videos, including An Audience. The other video—titled Rhapsody—documented the destruction of A Subtlety choreographed to the sound of French composer Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, Rhapsody for Orchestra from 1883. 44 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 118. 45 Verification might be found in Stephanye Watts’s account of her experience at A Subtlety. She wrote: ‘I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself. I obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free’. Watts, ‘The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital’, Gawker (published online 4 June 2014) <http://gawker.com/the-audacity-of-no-chill-kara-walker-in-the-instagram-1585944103>, accessed 23 March 2017. 46 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 467. 47 See Robert F. Reid-Pharr, ‘Black Girl Lost’, in Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time, ed. Annette Dixon (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2002), p. 37. 48 See, for instance, Mintz, Sweetness and Power (1985) and Steven Greenhouse, ‘At Sugar Refinery, a Melting-Pot Strike; Workers of Many Nations Besiege Brooklyn Relic of Industry’, New York Times (published online 15 February 2000) <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/15/nyregion/sugar-refinery-melting-pot-strike-workers-many-nations-besiege-brooklyn-relic.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. Both of these sources, among others, are cited as inspiration by the artist on the Creative Time website for A Subtlety: <http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/inspiration/>, accessed 23 March 2017. See also, Charles V. Bagli, ‘$1.4 Billion Development at Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn Wins Key Council Support’, New York Times (published online 29 June 2010) <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/nyregion/30domino.html?_r=0>, accessed 23 March 2017. 49 See Jamilah King, ‘The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art’ (2014) and ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women’ (2014). For a broader treatment of this subject, see Susan E. Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016). 50 See Thompson, ‘Kara Walker’s Desecrated Cemetery for Blackness’ (2014). The literature on the subject of blackness is considerable, but I direct the reader to several key texts: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967); Fred Moten, ‘The Case of Blackness’, Criticism, vol. 50, no. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 177–218; and Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 51 See Robin DiAngelo, ‘White Fragility’, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 3, 2011, pp. 54–70. 52 Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 3. 53 Rounthwaite, ‘Making Mourning from Melancholia’ (2007). 54 Here I am thinking with Todd Cronan’s argument on the limits of affective formalism, particularly as it relates to the ontological integrity of the work of art and the artist’s intentions vis-à-vis form. Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 7 and pp. 10–14. 55 Walker interviewed by Susan Sollins in the video documentary Art21 – Art in the Twenty-first Century, Season 2: Stories (New York: PBS, 2003). 56 This is arguably a question for another article, but a place to start in such a consideration is with Harry Cooper et al., ‘Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism’, nonsite.org (published online 22 June 2015) <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/against-affective-formalism-matisse-bergson-modernism#foot_4_8779>, accessed 23 March 2017. 57 Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 2. 58 In this claim, I follow Eng and Kazanjian’s lead in asserting that ‘an intellectual history of loss must apprehend itself as an act of provisional writing against the conformism of unwavering historical truths [and disciplinary conventions], of histories that claim to blot out the present’. Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 6. 59 Although the capacity of the baroque Trauerspiel to satisfy melancholia might have been a bridge too far for Benjamin, he dwells briefly on the melancholic disposition with respect to mourning in the Trauerspiel. See Benjamin, The Origin (1998), pp. 138–58. 60 Composed in 1915 and published in 1917, Freud’s influential metapsychological essay was shaped by the widespread trauma of the First World War. See Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor, ‘“Mourning and Melancholia”’, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (New York: MacMillan, 2005). 61 Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 246. 62 Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 4. If this sounds too idealistic, consider Walker’s assertion along the same lines: ‘I think sometimes looking back leads to, kind of, depression and stasis, which isn’t good. But, looking forward without any kind of deep, historical feeling of connectedness—it’s no good either’. Quoted in ‘Short: Kara Walker: “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”’, Art21 (published online 23 May 2014) <http://www.art21.org/videos/short-kara-walker-a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby>, accessed 23 March 2017. 63 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 471. 64 Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life”’ (2015). 65 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 118 and Ursprung (1955), p. 100. 66 Quoted from wall label at Walker’s exhibition ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 17 January 2015. 67 Here I invoke Aby Warburg’s notion of afterlife [Nachleben], and Georges Didi-Huberman’s analysis in his essay ‘Artistic Survival: Panofsky vs. Warburg and the Exorcism of Impure Time’, trans. Vivian Rehberg and Boris Belay, Common Knowledge, Vol. 9, no.2, Spring 2003, p. 274. Acknowledgements I should like to thank all of my anonymous peer reviewers for their generous feedback and to the following interlocutors for their engagement and insights throughout the development of this argument: Gabrielle Civil, Karen J. Leader, and Connie Moon Sehat. I should like to thank especially the late Linda Nochlin, who read and encouraged earlier versions of this essay. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Oxford Art Journal Oxford University Press

Kara Walker’s Mourning Play

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved
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0142-6540
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Abstract

For these are not so much plays which cause mourning, as plays through which mourning finds satisfaction: plays for the mournful. (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama) ‘The purpose of art’, James Baldwin wrote, ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers’. (Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric) In the summer of 2014 you could have experienced A Subtlety, an ambitious installation by Kara Walker that occupied the derelict Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Fig. 1). Free and open to the public most weekends in May, June, and into July, it was commissioned by Creative Time, a public art organisation founded in New York City in 1973 and known for its socially engaged programming. You could have embarked on your pilgrimage by foot, bike, or train to join the queue of visitors that stretched the length of Kent Avenue in the summer sun. Your tour would have begun after you signed a liability waiver to enter the dilapidated structure. Inside, once your eyes adjusted to the dimly lit space, you would have seen from afar the massive white sphinx with mammy features upstaged by fifteen life-size brown figures in the shapes of black boys toting thick branches of bananas or large wicker baskets. You might have stepped in the occasional pools of molasses oozing from the factory’s ramparts or run a surreptitious hand across the surface of the sugar-coated sphinx destined for demolition—along with the building—in the months following the special exhibition. You could have ceded to the artist’s, and her patron’s, encouragement to take photos with your smartphone and share them on social media using the hashtag #karawalkerdomino. Your visit would have exposed you to all manner of human performance, to moments of distraction and contemplation, outrage and grace, vulgarity and wonder, exultation and sadness. You could have—and you may well have—witnessed some or all of these things. The conversation sparked by A Subtlety continued online during the run of the show and into the months beyond the destruction of the work and the building that housed it. In many respects, this was an artwork of the moment because of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which it introduced narratives of historical loss and remains into the contemporary climate of racial politics in the United States. Fig. 1 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, 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, 2014, polystyrene foam, sugar, approximately 10.8 x 7.9 x 23 m. A project of Creative Time, installation at Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, 2014. Photo by Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Creative Time. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 1 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, 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, 2014, polystyrene foam, sugar, approximately 10.8 x 7.9 x 23 m. A project of Creative Time, installation at Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, 2014. Photo by Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Creative Time. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. A year later and in response to the violent deaths of black American citizens at the hands of white men—citizens including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting—the author and poet Claudia Rankine wrote ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’ for the New York Times. One of the achievements of her essay is her formulation of ‘mourning as a method of acknowledgment’ of black lives.1 Building on the conventional definition of mourning as ‘the action of feeling or expressing sorrow, grief, or regret’,2 Rankine imagines mourning as an affective expression with the potential to effect social and political change. She declares: ‘A sustained state of national mourning for black lives is called for in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation.’3 Illustrating her argument are two photographs of the spontaneous memorials to Eric Garner and Michael Brown that were assembled, respectively, out of votive candles and stuffed animals and that temporarily occupied the locations of their deaths. Noteworthy are the preferences in materials and place (ephemeral, site specific) and the implied rules of engagement (petitioning, collective). These vernacular memorials, in tandem with Rankine’s concept of mourning, bring to mind A Subtlety. And yet, to be clear, Walker’s site-specific work was not conceived as a memorial per se. Although transient and made of ordinary ingredients, A Subtlety was more explicitly an homage. Walker framed it as such, however ironically, in the work’s complete title: 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. Walker’s pronouncement, partly visualised in a florid script on the east façade of the factory, interpellated the reader in her present-tense historical fiction (Fig. 2). Once inside the building, the viewer encountered an artwork provocative in its appropriation—both strategic and elegiac—of racial and sexual stereotypes. The sphinx’s stylised head and steatopygia are descendent features in a genealogy of the representation of the black woman that includes the mammy and ‘the Hottentot Venus’.4 Based on an examination of colonial European travelogue images and the nineteenth-century exhibition of Sara Baartman, Zoë S. Strother has argued that the latter ‘represented a fantasy creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness, who could never actually threaten the viewer with the sexual power of a “Venus”’.5 Similarly, the grinning faces and obsequious gestures of the boy sculptures, inspired by ceramic tchotchkes that the artist found online, originate in the derogatory imagery of the pickaninny and Little Black Sambo.6 To countenance Walker’s engagement with the potency of these stereotypes as elegiac is to acknowledge the violence and loss that conditioned their creation. In her bracketing of stereotypes through scale and repetition, Walker destabilises what Homi Bhabha calls colonial power’s ‘regime of “truth”’.7 By staging a spectacle out of the already ‘functional overdetermination’ of these figures,8 Walker theoretically carves out a space, however tenuous, for mourning. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 2 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. In practice, however, Walker’s signature strategy of meta-critique, her apparently ambivalent interrogation of colonial narratives, afforded little room for expressions of sorrow, at least not for one viewer. Consider the first line of this review of A Subtlety by Malik Thompson, a self-described ‘eighteen year-old cis Black queer’ and also art critic for the blog Groundwork for Praxis: ‘One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power.’9 Thompson was perhaps less discouraged by the artist’s recourse to stereotype than by the offensive behaviours he witnessed at the public exhibition. Some of this behaviour is captured in the archived corpus of images maintained on the Creative Time website. Of the vast majority of images that were shared via Instagram during the eight-week run of the show, over 17,000 were harvested by Creative Time using the aforementioned hashtag for the visual archive called the ‘Digital Sugar Baby’.10 A survey of the archive’s contents reveals photographs that range from unexceptional to insolent, from casually documentary shots of the sphinx in situ to images that depict visitors appearing to pinch or fondle the sphinx’s nipples and touch or lick her exposed vulva. The latter recall what Darby English has described as ‘the [unmediated] reproduction of rhetorics and images about slavery’s “direct” impress upon our time’.11 He continues: ‘Inasmuch as representations are social relations, direct impress representations thus carry their own kind of danger; of imagining relations basically unmodified.’12 To the degree, however, that Walker—in tandem with Creative Time—quietly mediated such familiar modes of representation via the artwork’s rules of engagement, the more salacious images reveal themselves to be deeply uncanny, ‘testimonies more to the disintegrating effects of even greater distance from slavery and its effects’.13 Despite, or perhaps also because of their subtle ambivalence, these ‘direct impress representations’ dominated critical discussion of A Subtlety during and in the wake of the exhibition. Censure was swift. On 22 June, a group led by black women of colour visited the installation in solidarity under the mantra of ‘We Are Here’ in an effort to stand against the tide of toxic Instagram images, to mind the complex and traumatic histories that A Subtlety invoked, and to call out the dominance of white viewers at the exhibition.14 Cait Munro was one of the first art journalists to report on the offensive nature of the hashtagged images; in her exposé, she opined that the work ‘has recently spawned some tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work’.15 I am struck by the presumption that some visitors were ‘clearly missing the point of the work’. Were they not also possibly making a—if not the—point of A Subtlety? After all, Walker’s signature sarcastic masochism, her mordant humour paired with a willingness to surface shame, approaches satisfaction not only in the pain of the past but also in its persistence in the present. This is not unique to A Subtlety. Walker has long employed various means to implicate her viewers in the social theatre that her work regularly invites. Take, for example, her silhouette installation from 2000 called Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), depicting a slave revolt in the antebellum South in which the master is shown being disembowelled with a soup ladle (Fig. 3). What was new at the time about this work was how Walker used the light from several schoolroom-style overhead projectors literally to cast viewers into the violent shadow drama that unfolded across the gallery walls.16 By comparison, the images posted to social media during A Subtlety routinely show viewers as cheerful, even impish. Fig. 3 View largeDownload slide Installation view of Kara Walker, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002. Cut-paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Ann Ames, Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Tonino Perna, Denise Rich, Simonetta Seragnoli, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk, 2000. Photo: Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2 episode, Stories. © Art21, Inc. 2003. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s2/kara-walker-in-stories-segment/. Fig. 3 View largeDownload slide Installation view of Kara Walker, Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On), 2000, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2002. Cut-paper silhouettes and light projections, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Ann Ames, Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Willem Peppler, Tonino Perna, Denise Rich, Simonetta Seragnoli, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk, 2000. Photo: Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2 episode, Stories. © Art21, Inc. 2003. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s2/kara-walker-in-stories-segment/. I do not wish to rehearse the ethical merits, or lack thereof, of A Subtlety as they relate either to Walker’s appropriation of stereotypes or an audience’s behaviour in response to such imagery.17 I offer instead an analysis of the artwork and its reception within a Benjaminian framework, which, along with Freud’s conterminous engagement with mourning and melancholia, has shaped the critical discourse of mourning in the work of Judith Butler as well as David L. Eng and David Kazanjian.18 In the process, I aim to, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘lay bare the questions hidden by the answers’.19 Answers may be found in arguments that A Subtlety is about: the history of the industrial production of sugar in the Americas and its reliance on slave labour; the persistence of white supremacy in spaces conditioned by even the most progressive US cultural institutions; the persistence of historical stereotypes that characterise black women as sexual deviants and domestic servants; the cultural politics of real estate in New York City’s most gentrified borough; the fundamental inscrutability embedded in the body and ancient myth of the sphinx; and a mid-career artist’s desire to test the boundaries of her studio practice. A Subtlety is about all of these things, and more. Motivated, however, by Malik Thompson’s inability to mourn, I wish to contemplate the questions of mourning that A Subtlety post-mortem continues to animate. Such questions are alive to issues of the moment in the world—from Aleppo to Ferguson, Budapest to Charleston, South Sudan to Standing Rock—that demand recognition and action. If Walker’s art can do anything to reframe our response to such events, it might prepare us better in our anger and vulnerability to meet the next eruption of violence with the sobering reminder that such events have deep roots in historical injustices. Walker has long been vigilant on this front. In the exhibition After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, she created a body of work in response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and its human response.20A Subtlety, however, motivates questions about legacies of injustice differently, because of its theatrical and monumental forms as well as the affective nature of the installation.21 The proscenium-like space inside the factory, dominated by the bright white sphinx and dotted with the life-size sculptures, resembled a stage set attended by an audience that doubled as an unsuspecting, yet complicit cast of characters. The great work, it seems, was designed for maximum engagement and expressive-emotional impact inasmuch as it channelled the legacy of gendered and racial violence in American history that conditions our contemporary rape culture and the routine killing of black bodies. This effect of the artwork is arguably a matter of what Linda Nochlin has referred to as ‘urgent public interest and concern’. Reflecting on art and its audiences, she asserts that ‘looking at art is, for better or worse, a complex, communal affair, and hence a matter or [sic] urgent public interest and concern, an act which, however private and personal it may seem, takes place within the public sphere’.22 By attending to the effects of looking at art in public, what might we learn about each other and ourselves? In these respects, I bring Walter Benjamin and the larger discourse of mourning to bear on A Subtlety, to extend the work’s horizon of expectations into the realm of lived praxis.23 Although mourning is defined differently by the authors I have chosen, they share an understanding of the ways in which history conditions the present and the present conditions history—a fluid yet fraught relationship that similarly constitutes the core of Walker’s artistic practice. What follows is a speculative exercise in which I hope to demonstrate the amenability of Walker’s work to exploring the role that mourning might play in public discourse about race, gender, power, and history in the United States. The Trauerspiel, it was believed, could be directly grasped in the events of history itself; it was only a question of finding the right words. (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama) Walter Benjamin’s study of the German Trauerspiel is well known among art historians and critics.24 Its influence stems largely from part three of the book, in which Benjamin works to rehabilitate allegory, a beleaguered mode of expression in nineteenth-century aesthetic theory. In allegory, according to Benjamin, ‘any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else’.25 His theory of allegory both accommodates and anticipates contemporary artistic practices.26 For instance, Walker’s fragmented narratives and pictorial strategies lend themselves to Benjamin’s concept of allegory.27 Less familiar is part two, in which he considers the elements and operations of the Trauerspiel in the context of seventeenth-century German culture that gave rise to this particular genre of baroque drama. He points out that to most modern literary historians, the Trauerspiel eluded conventional taxonomies that organised dramas according to schools, epochs, and individuals. Benjamin is interested in the Trauerspiel less as a form than as a mode of expression. Although, as he observes, its formal properties are disparate and eccentric, the genre takes as its content ‘historical life’ (‘das geschichtliche Leben’) tempered by ‘the participation in contemporary events of world-history’ (‘der Anteil am aktuellen welthistorischen Verlauf’).28 By contrast, he argues, tragedy is concerned with myth and the social intercourse of heroes, whereas the dramatis personae of the Trauerspiel are drawn from the secular realm of the absolute monarch. At the same time, the Trauerspiel stems from a particular epistemological context shaped by the prevailing religious wars and theological earthquakes.29 Benjamin writes: ‘One of these [contemplative necessities of the Trauerspiel], and it is consequent upon the total disappearance of eschatology, is the attempt to find, in a reversion to a bare state of creation, consolation for the renunciation of a state of grace.’30 There is much loss to be mourned, and a sense of grief that is apparently latent, if not necessarily repressed, in the viewer. The plays activate that emotion; they become ‘plays through which mourning finds satisfaction (‘die Trauer ihr Genügen findet’)’.31 Many of the conclusions that Benjamin draws from his research on the Trauerspiel rhyme well with A Subtlety. For instance, he considers the baroque predilection for landscape as an elegiac site where the sacred and the profane cohabitate, an apparently timeless realm where painful memories are stored; ‘history merges into the setting’.32 This brings to mind Walker’s commemorative inscription on the east wall of the factory as well as the regular deposits of rotting sugar and molasses that accumulated in corners and trickled down walls, physical and olfactory evidence of hard labours past (Fig. 4). In these ways, the aging site mingled with the memory, avant la lettre, of the factory’s, and the artwork’s, immanent destruction. The setting merged into history. Benjamin goes on to observe that the setting in the German Trauerspiel is primarily the site of the court and its palatial precincts. These correspond to settings original to traditional aristocratic practices that are invoked in the title of Walker’s Domino installation. In early modern Europe, ‘subtleties’ were elaborate sugar sculptures consumed at banquets by the wealthy at a time when sugar was considered a luxury; the act of seeing and eating sugar was a rare spectacle for the privileged few.33 Touring A Subtlety in the summer of 2014, one could not help but notice the widespread visual consumption—often via smartphones—of the sugar sculptures and the historical pantomime that viewers unconsciously performed (Fig. 5). Art critic Jerry Saltz took this observation a step further when he likened the work to an ostentatious parade float.34 In his enthusiastic review of A Subtlety, he proposed that the sphinx be salvaged and made to travel around the United States ‘as a reminder of America’s original sin of slavery’, a proposition that Walker herself allegedly liked on Saltz’s Facebook page.35 Benjamin may have also approved. He notes the influence of Italian Renaissance trionfi, or triumphal processions, on German baroque playwrights, who wrote about the relationship between mourning and excess; according to one, ‘Such a dance of death is cherished in the world!’36 Fig. 4 View largeDownload slide From the installation by Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Fig. 4 View largeDownload slide From the installation by Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Fig. 5 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 5 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Risking the sort of ‘futile analogy-mongering’ that Benjamin abjures,37 I argue that such connections point to a deeper resonance between the Trauerspiel and Walker’s work that forecloses the possibility of redemption in contemporary society. Benjamin attributes the loss of salvation to the ‘theological situation’ of the Baroque period and the religious wars that marked it. Although he does not provide visual illustrations of the Trauerspiel, Jacques Callot’s epic print series, published in 1633, that documents the Miseries of War provides a hypothetical example. Inspired by first-hand experience with the devastation in France wrought by the Thirty Years’ War, Callot’s engravings testify to the brutality and pervasiveness of the conflict. In one image of a mass hanging, Callot anchors what might have been a chaotic composition with a solitary oak tree that bears harrowing fruit (Fig. 6). Such a flagrant display of death, in this case punishment meted out to marauding soldiers, is at odds with the casual indifference suggested by the friar and soldier in the right foreground and—in an allusion to the crucifixion?—the soldiers that roll dice beneath a canopy of hanged men.38 Fig. 6 View largeDownload slide Jacques Callot, The Hanging (La Pendaison), 1633, etching. From series Miseries of War (Les Grandes Misères de la guerre). Image dimensions: 8.415 x 18.733 cm. Sheet dimensions: 13.335 x 23.338 cm. Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Mr and Mrs Alfred L. Bromberg. Fig. 6 View largeDownload slide Jacques Callot, The Hanging (La Pendaison), 1633, etching. From series Miseries of War (Les Grandes Misères de la guerre). Image dimensions: 8.415 x 18.733 cm. Sheet dimensions: 13.335 x 23.338 cm. Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Mr and Mrs Alfred L. Bromberg. I am reminded of another of Walker’s silhouette installations with projection (Fig. 7). The visual anchor here is a solitary figure visible from the waist up and in the water but near shore, as indicated by the branches of what appear to be a few Southern Live Oak trees covered with Spanish moss. Her right arm is outstretched while her left arm appears to clutch her throat. A small fish—or is it vomit?—sails through the air in the vicinity of her mouth. Is this a tableau of defiant liberation or a cry for help? The work’s title—Salvation—suggests the former, but the image itself recommends no such thing. For Benjamin, ‘the baroque knows no eschatology’, that branch of theological study that concerns itself with death and judgement, heaven and hell.39 He continues: ‘the German Trauerspiel is taken up entirely with the hopelessness of the earthly condition. Such redemption as it knows resides in the depths of this destiny itself rather than in the fulfilment of a divine plan of salvation.’40 History, in Benjamin’s mind—and plausibly also in Walker’s—is quite bereft of that promise. What, then, if A Subtlety were a kind of Trauerspiel, a mourning play for the twenty-first century? And related to that proposition, what might it mean to call A Subtlety an allegory of loss and what remains of slavery in the United States? Or, more precisely, what might it mean to call A Subtlety an allegory of what Judith Butler has described as ‘the loss of loss itself’?41 But then there’s this awkwardness about being present, in the presence of her. It almost feels reverent, this kind of reverent space. And then, it creates for conflict. (Kara Walker, in interview with Jad Abumrad, New York Public Library, 20 May 2014) Fig. 7 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Salvation, 2000, cut-paper silhouettes, overhead projector, and transparency. Overall: 3,658 x 4,877 mm. Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Modern Art Fund. Photo by Mitro Hood. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 7 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Salvation, 2000, cut-paper silhouettes, overhead projector, and transparency. Overall: 3,658 x 4,877 mm. Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Modern Art Fund. Photo by Mitro Hood. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. I entered the Domino Sugar Factory, in a single-file herd of visitors, around midday on 1 June 2014. I turned my head right and followed the group in front of me. It took a moment for my pupils to dilate wide enough to apprehend the form at the far end of the factory floor. Chiaroscuro. I stopped walking and obeyed the prompt on the stanchion sign to take photos. My iPhone was about as accurate as my eyes, which is to say, not very (Fig. 8). I looked around and awakened to other sensory triggers. Scents and sounds coursed through the space, variously saccharine and familiar and repugnant. Some visitors danced and laughed, while others wandered aimlessly with slack mouths and eyes pitched high. Some stared at their phones, while others trained them on the brown boy sculptures or the great white sphinx, who seemed to preside with sly indifference. I walked on and stood next to one of the basket-bearing boys, eavesdropping on a conversation carried on by two middle-aged white women. One shared her knowledge, gained by cooking sugar for her colony of bees, of the carbohydrate’s chemistry when applied to heat. Her companion signalled her active listening with enthusiastic utterances, though her eyes—and mine, too—dwelled nervously in the basket that contained a pool of disintegrating body parts, also rendered in sugar, fragments of failed casts (Fig. 9). Elsewhere, I observed a smartly dressed young man balanced on a knee and a toe to lap and lick a sugary body fragment that had dislodged near the base of another boy sculpture, all before righting himself and mugging for the camera with his giddy companions (Fig. 10). What to make of the casual contemplation, of the insulting buffoonery, I wondered in silence as I observed. Fig. 8 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 8 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 9 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 9 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 10 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 10 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Author’s photo. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Walker appears to have wondered, too. She documented the final hour of A Subtlety’s public performance on 6 July 2014 by dispatching six surrogates with cameras onto the factory floor. On a wall label that later accompanied An Audience, the 27 minutes 18 seconds of video she edited from the resulting footage, Walker wrote: ‘Working without a script, I asked each [camera operator] to record the waning spectacle but also to observe the audience in the act of looking—at the work, at themselves, at one another, and especially looking at their phones and cameras.’42 I viewed An Audience several times on the final day of ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the gallery that represents Walker in the United States.43 A particular sequence from this short video struck me as noteworthy (Fig. 11). The camera shows a black woman entering the factory floor and her initial regard in the direction of the sphinx. She stops her approach and covers her mouth with her right hand, which then turns into a fist; she leaves it there for an interval that, together with her steady gaze and a slight shake of her head, suggests aggrieved contemplation. Eventually, with a drawn expression and moving her hand to her chest, she walks and turns away. Benjamin argues: ‘the Trauerspiel is conceivable as pantomime’.44 This theatrical form awakens the viewer’s awareness of the loss of hope in eschatology and the potential to satisfy her mourning. It is tempting to claim something similar in this passage from An Audience, as evidence not only of A Subtlety’s capacity to register the unknowable losses exacted by slavery but also its capacity to satisfy mourning, as a kind of redemption of Malik Thompson’s thwarted attempt to experience the same. But I cannot claim to know whether what this woman experienced in this moment was an expression of grief or an experience of something else, perhaps closer to the sublime. What might verification of her mourning yield?45 What loss—or losses—might be mourned? Fig. 11 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Stills from An Audience, 2014. Digital video with sound, 27:18 minutes. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 11 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Stills from An Audience, 2014. Digital video with sound, 27:18 minutes. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. It can be argued that Walker’s art names numerous losses exacted under and after slavery. These include, and are by no means limited to: the loss of what it means to be human in an ostensibly civilised society; the loss of agency in enslavement; the loss of representation in the clutch of state-sanctioned violence; the loss of culture as an expression of freedom; the loss of progress and uplift narratives; the loss of memory in wilful amnesia; the loss of an ability to mourn. Walker’s work also, at its most ambitious, strains to visualise what, in Butler’s estimation, is perhaps the most challenging loss, namely ‘the loss of loss itself: somewhere, sometime, something [and someone] was lost, but no story can be told about it’.46 Such profound loss is in part conditioned by the fact that, as Robert F. Reid-Pharr has observed, no one alive today has first-hand experience of the losses suffered under slavery in the United States, a lack of memory that is registered in the literal flatness of Walker’s silhouettes.47A Subtlety, however, named losses that were acknowledged in the artwork’s extended title and that emerged spontaneously in the various reviews of the show. As homage, A Subtlety recognised the loss of lives, remuneration, and agencies in the transnational history of modern sugar production, as well as the loss of neighbourhood and community on the contemporary Brooklyn waterfront.48 During the run of the show, the presence of a predominantly white audience surfaced the historical lack of access to cultural institutions that black audiences have experienced since the eighteenth century.49 And perhaps most powerfully, A Subtlety named the loss of an ability to ‘mourn the devastation of Blackness’.50 Amid such loss, we might ask: what remains? And to what end might they be produced, considered, and engaged? In his frustration, Thompson was wise to Walker’s having summoned some of what remains in A Subtlety, specifically an audience to participate in this vernacular theatre. Walker used props and lighting to block the cavernous space, a stagecraft that invited shenanigans, to be sure, and also a sort of flânerie in which viewers delighted in their own aimless anonymity. But if A Subtlety also demanded self-reflection by regarding the pain of others, then it blurred the line between casual spectator and voyeur. For my part, I wondered how my white fragility both impeded my capacity to bear witness to A Subtlety and, at the same time, forced me to confront my shameful complicity in the machinery of racism and white privilege.51 How was I meant to stand in the tension of my own scopophilia at the ineffable terrors and bad behaviours that Walker’s sculptures embodied and encouraged? In her book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya V. Hartman considers the self-defining function of various spectacles of terror—both explicit and diffused—under slavery and in its aftermath: ‘What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes’.52 Applied to A Subtlety, Hartman’s interest highlights a ‘precariousness of empathy’ that risks precluding an ability to mourn the past. It also calls our attention to the inscrutability of the sphinx and her ostensibly merry retinue, whose smiling faces mask the historical horrors that conditioned their creation. They are unstable referents that deny grief, because they ‘address how that history is fundamentally unknowable to the contemporary subjects that [stereotype] shapes’.53 In a sense, they become impossible to mourn. Indeed, A Subtlety was neither, properly speaking, a memorial nor a history lesson. As an artwork, it was unlike other objects in the world and therefore offered to the viewer in a form that was a deposit of the artist’s intentions.54 Walker has referred to her visual strategy as ‘two parts research and one part paranoid hysteria’.55 In A Subtlety, this strategy of documentation, appropriation, and critical hyperbole proved an affective combination. What, then, might A Subtlety mean apart from what its form elicited in the viewer? It would seem that Walker’s affective mode is the locus of A Subtlety’s lingering significance, or is it? Can affect and form reasonably be separated in the interpretation and evaluation of this artwork’s meaning?56 It is a thorny question that summons the nature and limits of representation. The visual hallmarks of Walker’s oeuvre convey a fundamental dissatisfaction, however ambivalent, with representations of the past and/in the present. That dissatisfaction is apparent in the ways in which she pairs the tropes of the pre-Civil War South and contemporary society with a critical historiography conveyed through the artwork’s medium, scale, palette, and/or technique. Whereas this juxtaposition is best known in Walker’s silhouette installations, it is equally evident in her drawings and visual essays. For instance, a watercolour from her series of works on paper from 1997 titled Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? depicts a perfunctory outline of a large tree that recalls the backgrounds of so many antebellum romance novels (Fig. 12). The tree is overlaid with a handwritten text of a prose poem that, like the imagery, simultaneously conjures and rejects the conventions of representation. Fig. 12 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, 1997, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 20.8 cm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 1998. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Fig. 12 View largeDownload slide Kara Walker, Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?, 1997, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on paper, 29.5 x 20.8 cm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 1998. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. So, I ask what is a positive black image (besides a contradiction in terms) every image produced of “us” is mediated—? filtered through the grounds of years of misrepresentation, bitterness + suspicion I will never fail (or cease) to dismiss the black girl TV spokesmodel in all her benign beauty for being the end-all in some ad-execs pantheon of underrepresented groups she is supposed to be read as “see how far we’ve progressed”—without suggesting her earlier incarnation as—whore, maid or earth mother—struggle—weeping cause her baby done gone. Walker’s direct address initially suggests the difficulty that attends a critical visualisation of systemic racism. Closer examination reveals how she conjoins word to image to express the roots of racial tokenism. She limns an acerbic monologue, according to the tree’s contours from top to bottom, in a way that the misrepresentation of which the ‘I’ speaks is visually rooted in the tree’s sketchy morphology. Moreover, the economy with which the image speaks covertly visualises the all-encompassing nature of racial oppression—all that negative white space. The work remains. There is no final reprieve from the ambivalence and no final separation of mourning from melancholia. (Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power) In the introduction to their edited volume Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian stress the importance of what remains in the discourse of loss, inasmuch as therein lies the social and political potential of mourning. They describe the emphasis in this way: ‘This attention to remains generates a politics of mourning that might be active rather than reactive, prescient rather than nostalgic, abundant rather than lacking, social rather than solipsistic, militant rather than reactionary.’57 Moreover, they argue, just as loss is conjoined to remains, so too is mourning conjoined to melancholia. It is here that I should like to map a tentative conclusion to my consideration of A Subtlety,58 which effects and perhaps even satisfies both conditions.59 Theorised by Freud during the First World War in his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’,60 he dwells less on the former as a healthy response to the death of a loved one—or a surrogate abstraction—than on the latter as a pathological mourning: ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’.61 For Freud, the melancholic exhibits grandiose expressions of self-abasement and moral turpitude, an impoverishment of the ego as a result of having internalised her own ambivalence about the lost love object. This love/hate, Freud observes, gambles externalisation in the humiliation and degradation of the beloved object, now reviled. Still, there is important work in the psychic processes that accompany melancholia, which are similarly instrumental to the work of mourning (Trauerarbeit); both have the potential to release the subject from suffering. Eng and Kazanjian claim this recovery for creativity and political agency, when they assert that an ‘engagement [with melancholia] generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future’.62 How might an understanding of the ordinary and offensive behaviours witnessed at A Subtlety as manifestations of both mourning and melancholia move our estimation of the great work onto new terrain? One way to approach it is in terms of challenges to progress narratives that inform the writing of history in general and the public discourse about race, gender, power, and history in the United States in particular. Judith Butler tells us: Mourning is the relation to the ‘object’ only under the conditions in which history, and the narrative coherence and direction it once promised, has been shattered. The new choreography of the body constitutes one consequence of this shattering, but that is a form of mourning that is not yet resolved in melancholia. The melancholic form deadens the very body enlivened, in a ghostly way, through pantomime.63 To be sure, the recent surge in civil rights activity in the United States—represented most stridently by Black Lives Matter—has chastened the desire for the sort of wish fulfilment lodged in neologisms such as post-racial by demanding recognition of the persistence of anti-black racism in American society. Claudia Rankine, emphasising mourning as a catalyst, believes that the ‘Black Lives Matter movement can be read as an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness’.64 Pace Malik Thompson, such an open dynamic was arguably present at A Subtlety, where a new choreography of bodies in space mingled with moments of pantomime. In this essay, I have attempted in my analysis of A Subtlety to bring certain theories of loss and mourning to bear on the violent spectacles of injustice in our contemporary social and political life. What can art really do in the face of such challenges? What if the question is wrong? Benjamin suggests that the Trauerspiel was capable of emotional alchemy in baroque Germany. Without empirical evidence, perhaps it is foolish to take him at his word. Yet, if we read closer the passage in question, we learn that ‘the very name of the [Trauerspiel] already indicates that its content awakens mourning in the spectator (‘die Trauer im Betrachter weckt’)’.65 What if it were enough to say that a work of art harbours the potential to awaken mourning in the spectator? Among the approximately 130,000 visitors to experience of A Subtlety before it was destroyed, I sensed potential in the installation’s forms and physical space they occupied, in the pungent sensory assault, and in the viewers’ vernacular theatricality.66 Would this sense survive in our collective memory, A Subtlety may yet be newly comprehensible in the anachronistic time of its afterlife.67 Its capacity to awaken and satisfy our collective mourning depends on its survival, and our own. Footnotes 1 Claudia Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’, New York Times (published online 22 June 2015) <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/magazine/the-condition-of-black-life-is-one-of-mourning.html?_r=0>, accessed 23 March 2017. 2 ‘mourning’, Oxford English Dictionary <http://www.oed.com.pearl.stkate.edu/view/Entry/122947?rskey=VlaO13&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid>, accessed 23 March 2017. 3 Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”’ (2015). 4 See especially Zoë S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Africans on Stage, ed. Bernth Lindfors (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 1–61; Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (ed.), Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002); and Deborah Willis (ed.), Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010). See also Sander L. Gilman’s influential, but controversial scholarship on the history of sexuality and black women, beginning with ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward and Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine and Literature’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, Autumn 1985, pp. 204–42; Gilman, ‘The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality’, in Kymberly N. Pinder (ed.), Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 119–38; and Gilman, ‘Confessions of an Academic Pornographer’, in Philippe Vergne (ed.), Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2007): pp. 26–35. 5 Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’ (1999), p. 2. 6 See Kenneth W. Goings, Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1994). 7 Homi Bhabha, ‘The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse’, Screen, November/December 1983, p. 18. 8 Bhabha, ‘The Other Question’ (1983), p. 26. 9 Malik Thompson, ‘Kara Walker’s Desecrated Cemetery for Blackness’, Groundwork for Praxis (published online 3 July 2014) <http://groundworkforpraxis.com/2014/07/03/kara_walker_exhibit/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 10 See <http://creativetime.org/karawalker/digital-sugar-baby/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 11 Darby English, ‘A New Context for Reconstruction: Some Crises of Landscape in Kara Walker’s Silhouette Installations’, in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), p. 84. 12 English, ‘A New Context’ (2007), p. 84. 13 English, ‘A New Context’ (2007), p. 82. 14 See Jamilah King’s reporting for Colorlines on both the question of audience at A Subtlety and the ‘We Are Here’ event. King, ‘The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art’, Colorlines (published 21 May 2014) < http://www.colorlines.com/articles/overwhelming-whiteness-black-art>, accessed 23 March 2017, and ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women: “We Are Here”’, Colorlines (published 23 June 2014) <http://www.colorlines.com/articles/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-evokes-call-black-women-we-are-here>, accessed 23 March 2017. 15 Cait Munro, ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Spawns Offensive Instagram Pics’, Artnet News (published 30 May 2014) <https://news.artnet.com/art-world/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-spawns-offensive-instagram-photos-29989>, accessed 23 March 2017. 16 Reflecting on the work, Walker states: ‘But I wanted to activate the space, in a way, and have these overhead projectors serve as a kind of stand-in for the viewer, as observers.’ See ‘Kara Walker: Projecting Fictions “Insurrection! Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On”’, interview with Art21 (2003/2011), <https://art21.org/read/kara-walker-projecting-fictions-insurrection-our-tools-were-rudimentary-yet-we-pressed-on/>, accessed 23 March 2017. 17 Indeed, critics and scholars have debated them since Walker became the youngest recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (known as the ‘Genius Grant’) in 1997. Regarding some of the early consequences of Walker’s use of stereotyped imagery in her oeuvre, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, ‘Censorship and Reception’, in Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 103–24. 18 See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928), trans. John Osborne (London and New York: Verso, 1998); Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, (1917) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, vol. 14 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), pp. 243–58; Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 467–73; and Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’, in Loss (2003), pp. 1–25. In addition to these authors, I recommend the following discussions of mourning, the first as it pertains specifically to Walker’s oeuvre: Adair Rounthwaite, ‘Making Mourning from Melancholia: The Art of Kara Walker’, Image [&] Narrative, vol. 19 (published online November 2007) <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/autofiction/rounthwaite.htm>, accessed 23 March 2017; Nouri Gana, Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011); and Jermaine Singleton, Cultural Melancholy: Readings of Race, Impossible Mourning, and African American Ritual (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015). Lastly, I offer a text that was instrumental in shaping earlier versions of this essay: Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, trans. Beverley R. Placzek (New York: Grove Press, 1975). 19 Quoted in Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), p. 115. 20 See Kara Walker, After the Deluge (New York: Rizzoli, 2007). 21 Walker’s engagement with theatrical forms ranges from the safety curtain she designed for the Vienna State Opera in 1998 to the dramatic conceit of much of her text-based work. See Kara Walker et al. Kara Walker: Safety Curtain (Vienna: P&S Wien, 2000). 22 Linda Nochlin, ‘Art and Its Audiences: A Personal View’, 14 May 1997, unpublished manuscript, p. 2. Used with permission. 23 Hans Robert Jauss stresses the potentiality of the social function of art, specifically literature, in his discussion of the objectification of a work’s horizon of expectations. He writes: ‘The social function of literature manifests itself in its genuine possibility only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis, preforms his understanding of the world, and thereby also has an effect on his social behavior. […] The experience of reading can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things’. See Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 39 and p. 41. 24 A most elegant example of this is Linda Nochlin’s ‘Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading “The Painter’s Studio”’, in Courbet Reconsidered, eds. Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1988), pp. 17–41. 25 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 175. 26 Craig Owens’s two-part essay on allegory in contemporary art relies on, among others, Benjamin’s formulations. See Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’, October 12, Spring 1980, pp. 67–86 and ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2’, October 13, Summer 1980, pp. 58–80. 27 For example, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s analysis of Walker’s 1996 gouache drawing of John Brown in Seeing the Unspeakable (2004), p. 8 and p. 101. 28 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 62, and Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1955), p. 44 and p. 45. 29 He writes: ‘In the German Trauerspiel the characteristic attitude is that of the reaction of the Counter-Reformation’. Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 157. 30 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), pp. 80–1. 31 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 119 and p. 100. 32 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 92. 33 Creative Time curator Nato Thompson describes them in this way: ‘The heart of [Walker’s] title, A Subtlety, refers to sugar sculptures that adorned aristocratic banquets in England and France the Middle Ages, when sugar was strictly a luxury commodity. These subtleties, which frequently represented people and events that sent political messages, were admired and then eaten by the guests. Perhaps Walker’s Subtlety is just a little less subtle.’ <http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/curatorial-statement/>, accessed 23 March 2017. For more on the cultural contexts and significance of sugar subtleties, see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985) and Marcia Reed (ed.), The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015). 34 Saltz writes: ‘This behemoth, part Cecil B. DeMille parade float, part alien, is accompanied by a retinue of life-size deformed black figures, boys carrying bananas or baskets with parts of other boys, all made from molasses and brown sugar.’ See Saltz, ‘Kara Walker Bursts into Three Dimensions, and Flattens Me’, New York Magazine (published online 31 June 2014) <http://www.vulture.com/2014/05/art-review-kara-walker-a-subtlety.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. 35 Jerry Saltz, ‘When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?’, New York Magazine (published online 17 November 2014) <http://www.vulture.com/2014/11/when-did-the-art-world-get-so-conservative.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. 36 Johann Christian Hallmann quoted in Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 120. 37 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 76. 38 For an analysis of Callot’s series as a whole and this image in particular as it relates to possible religious symbolism, see Diane Wolfthal, ‘Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War’, The Art Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 2, June 1977, pp. 222–33. See also Dena M. Woodall and Diane Wolfthal, Princes and Paupers: The Art of Jacques Callot (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 132. 39 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 66. 40 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 80. 41 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 467. 42 Quoted from wall label at Walker’s exhibition ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 17 January 2015. In an ironic twist on the public nature of A Subtlety, An Audience is only available online as a trailer: <https://vimeo.com/112396045>, accessed 23 March 2017. 43 Aptly recommended in the exhibition’s title, ‘Afterword’ presented a coda to A Subtlety and featured preparatory drawings, the Sphinx’s salvaged left hand (and only surviving piece of the sugar baby), a maquette of A Subtlety, along with two videos, including An Audience. The other video—titled Rhapsody—documented the destruction of A Subtlety choreographed to the sound of French composer Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, Rhapsody for Orchestra from 1883. 44 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 118. 45 Verification might be found in Stephanye Watts’s account of her experience at A Subtlety. She wrote: ‘I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself. I obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free’. Watts, ‘The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital’, Gawker (published online 4 June 2014) <http://gawker.com/the-audacity-of-no-chill-kara-walker-in-the-instagram-1585944103>, accessed 23 March 2017. 46 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 467. 47 See Robert F. Reid-Pharr, ‘Black Girl Lost’, in Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time, ed. Annette Dixon (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2002), p. 37. 48 See, for instance, Mintz, Sweetness and Power (1985) and Steven Greenhouse, ‘At Sugar Refinery, a Melting-Pot Strike; Workers of Many Nations Besiege Brooklyn Relic of Industry’, New York Times (published online 15 February 2000) <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/15/nyregion/sugar-refinery-melting-pot-strike-workers-many-nations-besiege-brooklyn-relic.html>, accessed 23 March 2017. Both of these sources, among others, are cited as inspiration by the artist on the Creative Time website for A Subtlety: <http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/inspiration/>, accessed 23 March 2017. See also, Charles V. Bagli, ‘$1.4 Billion Development at Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn Wins Key Council Support’, New York Times (published online 29 June 2010) <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/nyregion/30domino.html?_r=0>, accessed 23 March 2017. 49 See Jamilah King, ‘The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art’ (2014) and ‘Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women’ (2014). For a broader treatment of this subject, see Susan E. Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016). 50 See Thompson, ‘Kara Walker’s Desecrated Cemetery for Blackness’ (2014). The literature on the subject of blackness is considerable, but I direct the reader to several key texts: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967); Fred Moten, ‘The Case of Blackness’, Criticism, vol. 50, no. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 177–218; and Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 51 See Robin DiAngelo, ‘White Fragility’, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 3, 2011, pp. 54–70. 52 Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 3. 53 Rounthwaite, ‘Making Mourning from Melancholia’ (2007). 54 Here I am thinking with Todd Cronan’s argument on the limits of affective formalism, particularly as it relates to the ontological integrity of the work of art and the artist’s intentions vis-à-vis form. Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 7 and pp. 10–14. 55 Walker interviewed by Susan Sollins in the video documentary Art21 – Art in the Twenty-first Century, Season 2: Stories (New York: PBS, 2003). 56 This is arguably a question for another article, but a place to start in such a consideration is with Harry Cooper et al., ‘Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism’, nonsite.org (published online 22 June 2015) <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/against-affective-formalism-matisse-bergson-modernism#foot_4_8779>, accessed 23 March 2017. 57 Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 2. 58 In this claim, I follow Eng and Kazanjian’s lead in asserting that ‘an intellectual history of loss must apprehend itself as an act of provisional writing against the conformism of unwavering historical truths [and disciplinary conventions], of histories that claim to blot out the present’. Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 6. 59 Although the capacity of the baroque Trauerspiel to satisfy melancholia might have been a bridge too far for Benjamin, he dwells briefly on the melancholic disposition with respect to mourning in the Trauerspiel. See Benjamin, The Origin (1998), pp. 138–58. 60 Composed in 1915 and published in 1917, Freud’s influential metapsychological essay was shaped by the widespread trauma of the First World War. See Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor, ‘“Mourning and Melancholia”’, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (New York: MacMillan, 2005). 61 Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 246. 62 Eng and Kazanjian, ‘Introduction: Mourning Remains’ (2003), p. 4. If this sounds too idealistic, consider Walker’s assertion along the same lines: ‘I think sometimes looking back leads to, kind of, depression and stasis, which isn’t good. But, looking forward without any kind of deep, historical feeling of connectedness—it’s no good either’. Quoted in ‘Short: Kara Walker: “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”’, Art21 (published online 23 May 2014) <http://www.art21.org/videos/short-kara-walker-a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby>, accessed 23 March 2017. 63 Butler, ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’ (2003), p. 471. 64 Rankine, ‘“The Condition of Black Life”’ (2015). 65 Benjamin, The Origin (1998), p. 118 and Ursprung (1955), p. 100. 66 Quoted from wall label at Walker’s exhibition ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 17 January 2015. 67 Here I invoke Aby Warburg’s notion of afterlife [Nachleben], and Georges Didi-Huberman’s analysis in his essay ‘Artistic Survival: Panofsky vs. Warburg and the Exorcism of Impure Time’, trans. Vivian Rehberg and Boris Belay, Common Knowledge, Vol. 9, no.2, Spring 2003, p. 274. Acknowledgements I should like to thank all of my anonymous peer reviewers for their generous feedback and to the following interlocutors for their engagement and insights throughout the development of this argument: Gabrielle Civil, Karen J. Leader, and Connie Moon Sehat. I should like to thank especially the late Linda Nochlin, who read and encouraged earlier versions of this essay. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Published: Mar 1, 2018

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