I made a special trip to New York last weekend to visit Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino factory during its last weekend. It was worth it. It was worth the four 90-degree days with no air conditioning in a hostel, it was worth the plane fare despite my general brokeness, and it was worth the syrup that got caked on the hem of my dress. The floor of the factory had flooded a little the night before I went, so the bases of the sugar sculptures had eroded; some of the figures that had already started to break down were melting into pools of syrup that looked like blood, and some of the figures held baskets full of hardened sugar-water.
Beyond the colonial critique that the installation waged, what struck me the most was the way that the viewers had sensationalized the Sugar Baby’s naked body, taking unintentionally macabre smiling selfies in front of her breasts or exposed vagina. And although this artwork has the most to do with the exploitation of black women’s bodies, the feeling that shocked me, as a viewer, into just total heartbreak for this woman was that this is what I feel like every time I get catcalled: a body that’s been unwillingly made into a sideshow, a thing to consume and reduce, vulnerable and exposed. In other words, it was a massively effective work of art.
But you missed it! And I know that you missed it because every single friend I met with during my visit said “Oh yeah! I’ve been meaning to go see it.” But by then it was too late. I’m so sorry, guys. However! There’s another exhibit in New York that I have to exhort you to see to soothe your lady-art cravings…
The MoMA has an excellent and very thorough retrospective of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s work, titled The Abandonment of Art, on display through late August. As a sort of brief background to her work, it’s important to know something about minimalist art a la Robert Morris or Donald Judd: In the 1960s, the minimalists sought to create art with which the viewer had to relate with his or her body, rather than artworks that were meant to be consumed and understood only with the eyes. So early minimalist artists like Morris or Tony Smith would create rooms full of large, plain objects that the viewer had to encounter with the body rather than just see.
The Brazilian Neo-Concretists, active starting around the same time as the Minimalists, and were reacting to many of the same things (like the rigidness of abstract art). They believed that art could be a living thing, that part of the work of art was the viewer’s interaction with the object, that the viewer’s body was, in fact, part of the artwork. Lygia Clark was at the forefront of this movement. Her practice evolved alongside psychotherapeutic treatment, and eventually she “abandoned” art for practicing psychotherapy using the artistic techniques she had developed. Some of her more famous or notable works are “sensorial masks,” cloth masks that have objects sewn in by the eyes, ears, and nose in order to affect the viewer’s senses. Each viewer has a unique experience of wearing the mask, and that experience is the artwork.
I suggest the Lygia Clark retrospective because part of the magic of the Kara Walker installation was the act of encountering and relating to the artwork with your body. Lygia Clark’s library of work is one of the few available with which the viewer is meant to directly participate, and the very very cool thing about this retrospective is that they have facilitators on site for three hours every day to help you play with replicas of Clark’s work. I was lucky enough to have talked my way into performing Estruturas Vivas, a work in which a group creates a web of elastic bands and moves around the web and each other to create the living sculptures the title suggests.
This is the first major retrospective of Clark’s work within North America, and the likelihood of the replicas being available again anytime soon is super-low. So go! Don’t miss this one!
[Photos: Lygia Clark via MOMA (left); Rebecca Vipond Brink (right)]