Wednesday 14 October 2015

Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First Kara Walker at Victoria Miro Catherine Johnson

A view of an earlier Kara Walker Installation, Darkytown Rebellion at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery 
I don't know a lot about the American Civil War. I've read Amanda Foreman's book and a few others. I've seen photographs, some of the first war pictures ever taken. I remember a terribly emotional TV show with Cicely Tyson as a 100 year old ex slave remembering the war.

I know it was a war about slavery and a clash of ideals. I know the Unionist north won and that the south, the Confederacy, saw themselves as rebels fighting for  their way of life which included the right to buy and sell and own other individuals.

I'm writing about it today because last week I went to an art exhibition. It was unusual in that it made me feel so much at once. I think we are so used to our culture being so saturated with images that they lose their power. Occasionally something will break through, for example in recent months the photograph of Aylan Kurdi provoked a massive response, but that was particularly shocking. And so terrifying it was hard to look at.

Kara Walker's life size friezes are, at first glance, very easy on the eye.

I don't go to loads of art exhibitions, previously to this I saw some local artists' work exhibited in a derelict newspaper building, oh and a couple of weeks ago I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to look at the portraits of the Tudors. Oh I do love those paintings!

But last week I went to the Victoria Miro gallery to see a new show by an artist whose work I've only ever seen before in books or in photographs.

The title of the show is the title of this blog, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, the artist Kara Walker is known for her silhouette cut out friezes. Which on first glance appear whimsical and  almost fairytale, but on closer inspection are also insightful, political, shocking and horrific.

The show was  Walker's reaction to the Confederate Monument, Stone Mountain, a colossal carving of Confederate Generals on the side of a mountain. This mountain was the site of the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915, and in 1916 the Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the carving.  Several artists worked on the sculpture, there were accidents and fallings out. It was not finished until 1970 when it was 'consecrated.  (the State of Georgia bought the mountain off the Venables family who were big in the Klan in 1958).

The Klan rise again, Stone Mountain 1915 from the Atlanta Constitution newspaper

The Stone Mountain Monument, Georgia

This show was Kara Walker's response to this gigantic memorial. There were preliminary sketches downstairs in the gallery and then upstairs one massive open space with the finished frieze on one side and a massive photograph of the monument on the other.

I felt completely overwhelmed by Walker's work.  Shocked and stunned and monumentally sad. Moved to tears. I thought about trying to get a reproduction up here, but it would never have that punch, that power.  I've tried to show some sketches and a couple of samples of her silhouettes but without standing in that space surrounded by those images it's never going to be the same.

If you're in London and anywhere near the Angel do go, the show is free and on  at The Victoria Miro Gallery , 16 Wharf Rd London N1 until November 7th.

I have since read up loads - Stone Mountain is a popular hiking and picnicking venue for Georgians of all colours,  it does seem to be on it's way to reclamation. But Walkers' is not the only uneasy voice about the monument. There's talk of making a memorial to Martin Luther King on the top of the thing, as it gets a name check in the famous 'Dream' speech as if this might cancel out the power of the earlier images.

From Go to Hell or Atlanta,  Kara Walker

I was trying to think of parallels in this country and of course in Britain we have our Tate galleries that glorify the fruits of slavery. Also we should never forget that most of the  'big houses' around our country owe their existence to a horde of unpaid and horrifically exploited labour.

I suppose what grates is that this enormous bas-relief - the largest of its kind in the whole world - was only finished and 'consecrated' in 1970, over a hundred years after the war ended.


1 comment:

Lydia Syson said...

So very glad to hear about this exhibition, Catherine, and will definitely go. I came across Kara Walker only a few years ago through my daughter, and likewise have only seen her work in reproduction, which can hardly do justice to it. On that very subject, I also heartily recommend the William Kentridge show currently on at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Piccadilly/Soho, London (but I think only for just over another week) - including two extraordinary, immersive sound/video installations which encompass South Africa, China, the Paris Commune, the refugee crisis...