If you didn’t meet her face-to-face, you probably met her on Instagram. At the very least, you may be acquainted with her boobs. Making her unapologetic debut at Kara Walker’s Brooklyn exhibit A Subtlety this past summer, the 35-foot tall sphinx sculpture is made of 40 tons of sugar. Sweet? Certainly. The sculpture makes uncomfortable references to the sexual and racial objectification of black women. As selfies with the sphinx and her body parts flooded the Internet, it seemed that it was the audience who had the last laugh. Until last week, that is, when we realized that Walker had been watching us all along. Last week, a 28-minute video was released at the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in Chelsea. It features hidden footage of people on the last day of the exhibit, posing for selfies and pictures with the sphinx and looking at the exhibit’s attendants. It is, appropriately, titled An Audience.
Not all the audience members in the video are posing disrespectfully, but common to the rude selfie takers and the fascinated onlookers alike is a kind of voyeurism at which the video seems to be poking fun. A clip sent to Vulture last Wednesday shows the camera lingering over the dumbstruck faces of visitors gazing up at the sphinx. They are so comfortable in their roles as spectators, so confident that they will forever be the viewer. But as Walker reminds us, the privilege of being the observer is available to any of us.
As part of an exhibit which dwells on unsettling paradoxes, the video is in good company. The sphinx, for example, represents a black woman—and yet she is made of bleached white sugar. Her pose—front paws on the ground, body crouched behind her—is simultaneously regal and submissive. She is a human figure, but as a sphinx she is also something not exactly human. Each of these not-quites serves to challenge our rigid conceptions of race and femininity, while drawing attention—as the artist has stated—to the fraught history of slavery and white supremacy in America. Through this video, Walker is purposefully destabilizing us once again, flipping our definitions of observer and observed on their heads. She reminds us that even as we objectify others, we are not exempt from this treatment ourselves. It is not a lesson about how to approach art exhibits, but about our lives in general.
This message also resonates beyond the historical context of the exhibit. In our post-Snowden era, we are more aware than ever that we are always being watched, and yet we tend to forget. By pointedly jogging our short memories, Walker emerges as a kind of gleeful Big Brother (Sister), showing us that even in the art gallery, the spirit of surveillance is alive and kicking. But as with any surveillance, we are led to wonder about the reasons that this information was gathered and the purpose that it serves.
Perhaps the footage is an artistic act of redemption, payback for all the black women who could not respond when their bodies were made into objects of desire or derision. And yet, in parts of the video, one can’t help but recognize the almost worshipful demeanors of the visitors who lift their iPhones toward this colossus of sugar, trying to capture an image. Is it possible that as well as being an indictment of those who objectify and exploit, the video is also Walker’s grudgingly affectionate tribute to her audience? Her own way of preserving a temporal work through the awe, confusion, and irreverence of her viewers? There’s only one woman who could tell us the answer. And therein lies Walker’s clearest, most undeniable message of all: It is always the artist who has the last word.