Kara Walker’s burlesque memorial

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, a 13-metre fountain that references the legacies of the British empire and the transatlantic slave trade is the latest Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern. Modelled on the Queen Victoria memorial outside Buckingham Palace, it is, as Alastair Sookes puts it, ‘a burlesque version’ of the original memorial, as well as a ‘joyful skit… on Baroque fountains across Europe.’

Rather than the ‘Winged Victory’ of Thomas Brock’s Beaux-Arts memorial, here the fountain is topped by an exuberant Venus, arms outstretched and jets of water pouring from her nipples and a cut in her throat, while Brock’s Queen Victoria is replaced by ‘Queen Vicky,’ a black woman in a headdress, with a naked man cowering in her skirts. To her right is a broken tree with a noose (the allegorical figure of ‘Justice’ on the original monument), and on the other side of the fountain, the seated figure of a sea-captain, described as ‘a composite of several characters who began as freedom fighters, but whose legacies were complicated by their hunger for power: Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution; Emperor Jones, the titular character in a Eugene O’Neill play; and civil-rights advocate Marcus Garvey’ (Rea). There are many other references: among them a sinking boat in the fountain’s basin alluding to JMW Turner’s abolitionist painting Slave Ship; and a figure holding a mangled body – a reference to Emmett Till.

It is not so very joyful then – the evident playfulness of the piece tempered by mordancy, even rage. And it is messy – crammed with allusions in a seemingly chaotic way. Several critics have quailed at this discordancy: Will Gompertz suggesting that it is ‘sprawling’ and lacking precision, while Alastair Sookes argues that the sculpture looks ‘cheap’, its texture ‘horribly bland and soapy’. While Gompertz is critiquing the content and Sookes is questioning the form, both are troubled by the piece’s seeming lack of resolution, or finish. Perhaps it is partly the contrast with Walker’s earlier work that produces this unease: those exquisite silhouette tableaux which dramatise the violence of slavery – the content of the work radically undercutting the form. Her massive Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) saw a move away from that early ironic delicacy, and this new work is a continuation of her engagement with a different scale and a newly provisional aesthetic. One could imagine an alternative Fons Americanus produced in her earlier period as a pitch perfect parody of a baroque monument – the distortions and subversions only evident on closer inspection. Now, however, she seems suspicious of such established visual languages and is developing a deliberately coarsened aesthetic. The fountain is made from jesmonite (a mix of acrylic and cement) over cork, as opposed to the bronze and marble of the Victoria memorial, a deliberately rough finish that appears ‘to be in the process of being formed or eroded.’ This is fitting given that ‘[t]hese are histories that have not been recognized properly, and histories that are continuing to be explored.’ Thus Walker is ‘challenging the language of monuments themselves, the fact that they do represent power and domination, and subverting that language of how one represents history, and specific moments in history’ (Clara Kim qtd in Rea). The porous, ‘soapy’ texture that Sookes dislikes is actually an ambitious and sophisticated attempt to develop a new language of monumentality – one that is paradoxically anti-monumental (in a similar vein, ‘A Subtlety’ was made from polystyrene blocks and sugar).

Both Gompertz and Sookes mention Disney as a way of articulating the work’s cartoonish quality – (a comparison which clearly dismays Walker), but Adrian Searle’s review in The Guardian invokes instead the Regency-era caricatures of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, a much more helpful way of situating the work. Often seen as a disposable art form because of the topicality of its subject matter, from the time it was first produced, such satire ‘belonged both to the street and to the connoisseur’s study’ (Tate). These caricatures ‘retain an ambivalent status today, hung in a kind of limbo between political history and art history’ (Tate), and it is precisely this ambivalent value or status that Walker is trying to access, seeking freedom from both monumentality and commodification.

Gompertz, Will, ‘Kara Walker’s fountain installed at Tate’s Turbine Hall’, BBC News website, 1 Oct 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-49876928

Rea, Naomi, ‘Do You Find Europe’s Grand Public Fountains Charming? Kara Walker’s Spectacular Turbine Hall Commission May Change That’, Artnet, 30 Sept 2019, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/kara-walker-turbine-hall-tate-modern-1665289

Searle, Adrian, ‘Kara Walker Turbine Hall review – a shark-infested monument to the victims of British slavery,’ The Guardian, 30 Sep 2019 1https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/sep/30/kara-walker-turbine-hall-review-a-shark-infested-monument-to-the-victims-of-british-slavery

Sookes, Alastair, ‘Kara Walker: Fons Americanus review, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern – noble ambition let down by rubbery sharks’, The Telegraph, 30 Sept 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/reviews/kara-walker-fons-americanus-review-hyundai-commission-turbine/

‘James Gillray: The Art of Caricature,’ Tate Britain website,  https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/james-gillray-art-

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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