Working with exclusionary subject matter

When working with subject matter that could be considered exclusionary to a wider audience there is a big question around how to include the viewer in the work rather than causing them to feel alienated so that they become disinterested and don’t bother to engage. Many artists might have subject matter within their work which is personal and not necessarily understood by the viewer, but the work itself is inclusive enough and the subject matter abstract enough, that the viewer still feels comfortable questioning the work rather than feeling excluded.

Kara Walker is an artist who deals with potentially exclusionary subject matter in a very successful manner. Her common narrative is a whimsical yet brutal portrayal of slavery in the Southern USA. As an African American woman she is in a particular position that allows her to work with this subject matter in a very powerful way. The narratives are direct rather than oblique, the themes are blatant, there is no question what is being portrayed. For anyone other than an African American, this experience could be not only somewhat alienating, due to lack of experiential understanding, but could also be deeply uncomfortable, due to potential feelings of complicity in the fate of the slaves being depicted.

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Kara Walker. (1997) Slavery! Slavery! (section). Brooklyn Museum. Cut paper silhouettes.

Kara Walker has created an almost fairytale quality to the narratives using strangely postured figures cut from paper and arranged in staged scenes. She has claimed the use of the Victorian silhouette portrait, so popular with the white upperclass, and used it to tell her stories of conflicted interactions between the black and white populous of the antebellum south. The silhouettes have a playful quality that makes the viewer initially feel at ease, until the scenes are observed more closely and the brutality of some of the actions is made clear. In her 2000 work Insurrection! she also uses projections which create a life-size environment for both her paper figures and the viewer. The projectors are set in such a way that the viewer will walk in front to view the work and their silhouette is captured and added to those on the wall, transporting them into the narrative as their own shadowy caricature.

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Kara Walker. (2000) Insurrection! (section). Guggenheim. Cut paper silhouettes and projections.

Walker’s work is provocative in it’s use of racial stereotypes, antebellum ‘minstrel’ characters and perverted fairytale capering. But it’s this twisted humour that allows viewers to become involved in and question the work rather than feeling it is ‘not for them’. Addressing the issue of slavery in such a gregarious way has the potential to be very controversial and alienating to large sections of the public. But Kara Walker’s approach not only invites the viewer into the work, it also makes the viewer become a part of the work and gives them the opportunity to engage with her subject matter and her visual language.

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April Critique

For the April Critique I presented 2 works-in-progress that were both focussed on the use and understanding of symbols in visual documents and artefacts, particularly the use of symbology in artwork with esoteric content.

Symbols have layers of meaning and understanding attached to them that vary greatly depending on context and reader. They have the ability to surrender their secrets in a fractal manner when examined. Within esoteric art practice I have experienced an occulting and revealing of knowledge that seems to fold and unfold within the work.

My first piece, ‘Enochian Artefact’, was a complex, interactive, paper-craft piece that required a certain degree of inquisitiveness and bravery on the part of the reader. Some felt apprehension and even fear on encountering the artefact, and this was not something I had anticipated. I expected curiosity, but not such strong negative emotion. I felt that the symbols on the work would make viewers curious, but actually they created a barrier between them and the work. There was a feeling from a couple of readers that permissions were required to access the artefact and explore it’s secrets, that it was alive in some way and that it held a power that could be let-loose without permission from it’s maker – the opening of Pandora’s box.

The artefact hid and revealed certain elements (seen as ‘secrets’ by the readers) and came in several different parts that needed to be interacted with in different ways. It was pointed out that the whole piece operated a lot like a language and the reader had to believe that there was a logical system at play. The rotating torus and the moving star were the most successful elements because they held the viewer’s attention and got them asking questions. The torus in particular was fascinating to people and they seemed comfortable interacting with it. Many commented on its infinite movement and the balancing point where it was able to rest.

The second work-in-progress was a symbology game made up of tessellated tiles. It required the players to gain points by making symbolic connections and adding tiles onto each other, spreading out across the table. Yet again their was trepidation around the symbols and their meanings that created a barrier between the ‘players’ and the game. While some were excited to pick up tiles and see what connections could be made, others were repelled and felt unwelcome. There was even a suggestion that the player felt like a victim who was being manipulated into playing a powerful game that they don’t understand and don’t know what the outcome will be. Yet again, it was only the presence of myself as the ‘Host’ that made them feel safe enough to touch the tiles.

I had not anticipated the level of trepidation and unease, but this is because I am familiar with this symbolic language in a way many are not. This raises the very important question of whether these pieces actually *work*. While visiting Peter Robinson in his studio he brought up the pertinent question that he asks of his work (and which I need to ask of mine!) “Is this interesting to me? Is this interesting to others?” I have fallen into the trap of making work that is interesting to me, but is exclusionary to others.

The other problem is that there is too much going on in my work. One reader commented that it might be a bit ‘over baked’ and as soon as she said that I knew it was true. It is important for me now to take apart my work, find one aspect that I think is interesting to me AND to others, and delve into it in a way that I haven’t before. Leave behind the symbolic language I am using to avoid attachment to that particular code and find a new language. Materiality and scale are also obvious areas to explore and I feel that there is a lot I can express just through scaling and changing the substrates.