When I was little, I used to get so annoyed when my mom answered my questions with questions. She was so eloquent about subtly getting me to ask myself the question I asked her to presumably to get me to learn more about whatever the subject was and maybe even answer the question myself. No matter if it helped in my development process, the whole thing still annoys the heck out of me. But, this week I realized that I am required to do the same exact thing for my job–make people answer their own questions. Thanks, Mom. You’re super good at preparing me for my future.
***note: if you don’t know about Creative Time and Kara Walker’s Project at the Domino Sugar Factory you’re going to be very confused. Before you read on, read this article, watch this video, and read my earlier blog post to learn more about the artwork and my work with Creative Time. ***
Working on “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker Has Confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: A 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” has had me asking a lot of questions. I began with simple questions: why a sugar factory? Why domino? A sphinx? A woman? So much Styrofoam? That much sugar? Once I got to working on the project and started literally throwing myself (along with sugar) onto the project, I became more attached to its message and started asking different and deeper (messier) questions: Does using this much sugar for something other than consumption perpetuate the historic privilege that sugar is associated with? What will other people think about the project? How does being part of the fabrication process affect my outlook on the work? Without a background of research in sugar-refining will people see similar messages?
I’m still asking questions. Right mow, I’m sitting in a high-rise Whole Foods sipping on my sugar-free kale-apple juice and thinking about how I just ate a ton of delicious maple-sweetened granola. It wasn’t easy to find granola without cane sugar. Has working on the project and dealing with 35 tons of sugar made me hate sugar (FYI: now, later in the day, as I proofread this post, I am sitting in the actual Domino sugar refinery amidst the marvelous sugar baby. The smell here today is overwhelming and disgusting. It smells like diabetes and barf and a cupcake that has been sitting near the window of a car for too long and has melted all over the place. I still love sugar, but I also realize its disgusting characteristics).
Doing research on Kara Walker, her work, and her research for “A Subtlety…,” I became (and am still becoming) more aware of the messages I connect from the marvelous sugar baby. I don’t want to share too many of those feelings here for fear that you (reading this) will grab hold of the messages I see and take them as your own. I’m all for sharing, but it’s much cooler and more enlightening to find your own meaning in the work. Ha – I’m telling you to ask your own questions.
Now that the project fabrication is finished (though since Kara wants the work to be altered naturally by the factory, technically the piece will never be finished—think dripping molasses) and the public is welcomed in to see the artwork, I have an entirely different job than when I was actively in the process of making the work. All of last weekend I spent in the Domino Sugar Refinery with the sugar baby and the public viewers. I was stationed at the merchandise (or as the cool kids call it, merch) table selling 24×36 inch Kara Walker at Domino posters for $5 (to the amazement of New Yorkers who assume anything that costs less than $25 to be either the bargain of the century or a scam – okay, maybe that’s a little bit of an over exaggeration).
Sitting at the merch table I learned a lot and was asked a lot of questions. When people hear that I was in the crew of people who helped make the work, I’m asked questions about the proportions of sugar, the way the entirely-sugar figurines were made, how long it took to make the piece, if ants will take over the sugar sculpture, and if all of the gunk lining the walls and ceiling and beams and everywhere you can imagine is really all original sugar and molasses (the answer is yes). Then there are people who come to the merch table looking for a brochure or handout or anything that could lead them into the “right” way of thinking about the mysterious sphinx. And then there are the people so curious that they rush to me at the table and exclaim that “I need to know the meaning of Kara’s work” and “why did she make it” and “WHAT SHOULD I THINK ABOUT IT?!” I answer their demanding and impossible requests like a boomerang (think: I am rubber, you are glue, whatever you say bounces back and sticks to you) with another question—what do you think? I say, “Kara didn’t want there to be any text associated with her work onsite and wants you to interpret the work yourself.” To this, people either wither with disappointment, give me a look that says you’re not telling me the whole story, or breakout into wide smiles and thank me for telling them and tell me how interesting it is that Kara made this decision.
I like that there aren’t answers to the questions of the meaning of the Kara’s installation. It leads to people to be more eager about discussing their thoughts and opinions on the work. People’s unique, unchangeable histories make their ways into different ways piece is viewed. Many visitors share their thoughts with one another can be enlightened by others’ experiences with the work.
Of course, there are people who don’t know what do say but “it’s beautiful” and walk out quickly hoping to not have to think much more about the artwork, but that’s also an experience in of itself.
No matter how I view Kara Walker’s piece or other artwork anywhere, I am learning that asking questions is good even though there will probably never be a definitive answer them. There are always guesses and educated promises and statistical pointers, but there could always be a different answer.
So, though it drives me nutz, thanks, Mom for making me ask my own questions. Thanks for helping me realize that an authority figure or “wiser one” doesn’t always hold the answers. Thanks for helping me listen to other’s views and opinions while also giving myself the respect to listen to my own opinion.
But really though, have a question? Go ask yourself.