New Kara Walker Video Shows ‘A Subtlety’ Was Performance Art All Along

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We’ve known Kara Walker’s video follow-up to her installation piece A Subtlety, which showed at Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory site this summer, was coming for a while. In a conversation with the LA Times last month, Walker revealed she’d filmed audience reactions to her monumental piece — the same audience reactions that provoked outrage in some attendees. While the full, 28-minute video premieres at Chelsea’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. tomorrow, Walker released a five-minute preview clip today, and while tactlessness certainly makes an appearance, it’s a largely evenhanded look at the interaction between A Subtlety and its onlookers, and how those interactions became part of the art itself.

Last month, I wrote about how Walker had clearly considered her audience’s behavior when planning the installation, particularly the insensitive behavior that will inevitably happen when you present thousands of people with a work that comments on centuries of exploitation (and ask them to post photos of it on Instagram). “I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do,” she said, and sure enough, there’s a white dude snapping an ass-pinching pic about a minute into the preview:

The majority of the clip, however, focuses on audience interactions of all kinds: kids playing with molasses, families posing for group shots in front of the sphinx, couples touching its side and marveling at the texture. The obnoxious pictures make an appearance, but the video spends far more time focusing on the full range of responses from the audience — an audience that’s both predominantly non-white and far more respectful than not. It’s a representative look at how Walker’s audience experienced her work, highlighting not the outliers but the overall feeling of what it was like to occupy a warehouse with hundreds of other people (and their smartphones).

Those smartphones are ubiquitous, of course, but the video’s hardly trying to take its subjects to task for using them. Instead, it’s concerned with how they affected the actual experience of A Subtlety, lingering on people’s faces as they ask where to stand and panning across a sea of raised arms. The takeaway is less a scold-y, “look what the screens have done to us!,” or even, “look what the screens have done to that white dude snapping ass-pinching pics!,” and more of an acknowledgement that camera phones’ universal presence was an inextricable part of the artwork, both for those snapping the photos and those observing the photographers.

In other words, Walker appears less interested in playing up a certain kind of audience behavior than emphasizing how important the presence of fellow audience members was to experiencing A Subtlety, and thus understanding A Subtlety in retrospect. Photos of an empty warehouse like the one at the top of this post don’t convey the full work, because the work wasn’t complete until it had an audience to interact, pose, and yes, take selfies with it.

Walker’s use of her audience and its behavior in her art means that A Subtlety wasn’t just an installation; it was, in a sense, performance art. The reactions documented in the video are mostly predictable, but at times delightfully spontaneous; see the girl who avoids photo-bombing another audience member by somersaulting across the floor. A Subtlety functioned in part as a staging ground for those reactions — reactions Walker then incorporated into the work, warts and all.