Guest blogger Brad Ford Smith is a Dallas artist and art conservationist.
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was expecting to have a full house for Kara Walker’s lecture Tuesday night, but I was surprised that the allocated 500 seats would not be enough to accommodate even those people standing in line two hours before the lecture begin. (If you missed the lecture, the Modern will post a video podcast on their web site within the next 30 days.)
During the introduction Terri Thornton, the Curator of Education said that this exhibition has generated more public response than any other exhibition in the museum’s history. Now stop and think about that. This show that the Modern was so nervous about presenting has surpassed all previous public responses of any exhibition that the museum has ever had. That is amazing. That is a true blockbuster.
Okay, the Modern has a house full of people that have waited hours, if not months, to hear this controversial, in your face artist stand up and speak for herself. Terri finishes up her introduction, and Kara Walker steps up to the podium. She says hello, she laughs a little bit. Then she asks everyone to lower his or her expectations because she is not very good at public speaking. And she is correct.
This artist who creates artwork that is so clearly aggressive and biting has an awful time speaking in public. Her lecture was littered with likes, ums, and wells. It was a surprise that she was so unpolished and innocently casual. One audience member even asked her why her work was so confrontational and angry, but that she seemed not to be. Where does that anger come from? Her reply was that it comes from – and stays in – the studio.
The lecture was very loosely structured. Ms. Walker started off showing some behind the scenes footage of her new shadow puppet video. She spoke about her creative process and about working in collaboration with other people. She then flipped back and forth through a power point collection of her artwork while giving bits of personal history and nuggets of artistic insight. The whole thing was once again surprisingly spontaneous, unrehearsed and vulnerable.
She did of course spend the majority of her time addressing her continued portrayal of slavery, but throughout the lecture she made casual references to the separation of body and soul, often referring to herself in terms of a split personality. Let me paraphrase a few of her statements:
- I see myself as a cardboard cutout standing over here, and as this little person hidden away that does all this weird and kind of crazy stuff.
- It is like one side of me is filled with idiocy and innocence, and the other side is furious and angry about the idiocy and innocence.
Her statements about the body revealed an attitude of being confined and alienated with in oneself:
- My body is history, racism, sexism, attitude, and preconceived ideas.
- This is the body that I have.
- The fiction that lives inside of the body.
- Bodies that are trying to undo the bodies that they are in.
- I am my own kind of wrong-headed beast.
Now I am not trying to say that Kara Walker is announcing that she is schizophrenic. Instead, I think these statements clearly show that her artwork is about a very personal exploration of the self. That the themes people use to explain her artwork are only the tools that she uses to explore the emotional and sociological parameters of the body/cage that she lives in, that we all live in.
So, I have to see the exhibition again, because this idea changes the way I have viewed her artwork in the past. And this change would not have occurred without sitting through this unpolished, disjointed lecture. That is why listening to artists talk about their art is so important.