In New York, we love lines. If there is a line, that is where we want to be. So, in the last few years, we have stood in line for events like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, Yayoi Kusama’s infinity room at David Zwirner, Doug Wheeler’s light room also at David Zwirner, the rain room at MOMA. And now, the place to be is the Kara Walker exhibit at the soon to be torn down Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Kara Walker is a contemporary mid-career artist who is known for scenes done in black paper-cut silhouettes. At first glance, the paper cuts look like something you might stencil in the baby’s room, but they depict scenes involving rape, violence, sex and slavery. Although the images in her work are mostly from the pre-Civil War south, they are also a commentary on abuses that exist around the world today.
The scale of her pieces can go from one extreme to another — from floor-to-ceiling wall murals (above) to small cut outs in vitrines or on table tops (below).
Walker’s work, which deals with issues of race, gender, violence and sexuality can be unsettling and repulsive and ambiguous and contradictory. It can be very controversial. A recent New York times feature mentions how veteran black artist Betye Saar criticized Walker for “her negative stereotypes of blacks as both victims and aggressors.” Walker has been awarded a MacArthur genius grant, her works are included in many museum collections.
Her current installation is different from her well-known silhouettes. On Friday afternoon, June 27th, the line to get into Walker’s current show stretched for about six blocks down Kent Avenue in Williamsburg.
Once in the show, you walk into the cavernous, now abandoned, sugar refinery to see a giant sphinx-like sugar mammy at the opposite end. Entitled “A Subtlety,” there is nothing subtle about it. (By the way, a subtlety is a medieval sculpture made of sugar or marzipan for royal families, often to decorate tables)
As you walk towards her, there are smaller molasses children. Many of them are carrying baskets. To me they seemed to be reminders of child labor (which I had just seen featured the night before on The Daily Show in a feature about children working in tobacco fields). Walker based them on some 10-inch slave boy knickknacks she had purchased on amazon.
At this point in the exhibit–which has been open since April–a number of the sugar children have melted under the heat of the factory and have toppled to the ground and broken.
Kara Walker’s installation deals with many of the issues she has addressed in the past. The sphinx is a stereotype of the handkerchief wearing mammy who took care of white families’ children. In addition, she represents a stereotype of an overly sexualized black woman.
In 1984, Sheena Easton had a controversial hit with the song “Sugar Walls” written by Prince.
Some of the lyrics:
“Come spend the night inside my sugar walls
I can tell you want me
It’s impossible to hide
Your body’s on fire
Admit it come inside
My sugar walls
My sugar walls
My sugar walls
My sugar walls”
TV and radio stations refused to air the song because sugar walls referred to the walls of a “vagina.” Well, Kara Walker’s sculpture includes the ultimate “sugar walls:”
The Domino Sugar Refinery was built in 1856 and for some time was producing half of the sugar in the United States. The refinery, which is about to be torn down to make room for luxury residences, still has the smell of molasses and sugar can be seen every where–dripping down the walls, at the top of pillars, in every crevasse and behind every wall. Sugar, which was at one time a luxury product, is making room, for a modern day luxury product.
The walls of the refinery look like abstract paintings:
The show ends July 6, 2014
NY Times on the exhibit
An excellent ten-minute in-depth look at the creation of the project (video with Walker in it)
Interview with Walker in The Brooklyn Rail on how the exhibit developed
Jerry Saltz’s reaction to the exhibit
Poetry, prose and illustrations related to the exhibition’s central themes, from five innovative and internationally renowned writers and artist on the Exhibit’s website
A discussion and guide to Walker’s art work
Video from the Live at NY Public Library Event (excerpt of interview starts 2 minutes in)
This week I went to a couple of outdoor concerts offering up a some jazz.
MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT SWING AT DAMROSCH PARK
Each standing-room only concert of the series costs $17. This gets you on to the large dance floor. You have the option of showing up early to take a dance class. You don’t have to dance—you can hop on the dance floor, get close up to the stage and just enjoy the music.
Salvant sang mostly standards and was backed by the swing orchestra, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Not known a couple of years ago, Salvant has been making a name for herself. The New York Times has done a couple of articles about her and, in April, Salvant won the Jazz Journalists Association award for “Up and Coming Artist of the Year.” I enjoyed her voice but thought her spark and energy were somewhat overwhelmed by the large outdoor space.
Someone who’s energy came through to the whole crowd was Norma Miller, a Lindy Hop dancer in the 1940’s. She came out on stage a couple of times to sing and dance and it was hard to believe she is 94-years old.
LUNCHTIME AT METROTECH
Today, I went to one of Metrotech’s Thursday lunch concerts. It’s part of a series of concerts put on by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The series continues through Thursday, August 7
Today was New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and New York trumpeter Steven Bernstein with his Hot 9 ensemble. They were promoting a new album they have done together, “Viper’s Drag.” It was a wonderful concert with a variety of styles which included modern jazz, blues, traditional jazz and some New Orleans standards by Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and others. It was great hearing Butler on a piano (as opposed to keyboard or organ) and his solo playing was the highlight of the day.
It was a funny sight, because just to the side of the stage was a giant screen showing the U.S. vs. Germany World Cup Match. Many of the people there had their backs to the stage—they were there to watch the soccer game. The applause and shouts didn’t necessarily match what was going on with the music, but both ended at exactly the same time. The people who were there for the concert left much happier than those who were there to root on the U.S. team.
I love the Hi-Collar Cafe which opened at 214 East 10th Street about a year ago. Hi-Collar is a kissaten, which is the Japanese version of a Western coffee shop. Kissaten are places where people can go to relax over a coffee, breakfast, lunch, a sandwich or a sweet.
There are no tables at Hi-Collar–just a counter with about 10 backless stools–so you can’t get too comfortable. During the day, Hi-Collar serves breakfast and lunch. They used to open early for breakfast, but currently are opening at 11:00–so check their hours before you go. At night, it turns into a bar with a long list of sakes to choose from.
During the day, you can find many typical kissaten items on its menu: omurice, which is fluffy omelet over rice, Japanese-style pancakes (i.e. thick and fluffy), and katsu (pork cutlet) sandwich. Of course, they also serve coffee. You can choose from three methods of preparation: pour over, aeropress, or siphon. I’m not sure what the differences are, but they all look like variations of science experiments with beakers and tubes and bubbling liquids and flames. They have several beans, and if you don’t know which bean you want they will serve as your coffee sommelier, asking: Do you like your coffee strong or medium? More or less acidic? More or less fruity?
Big confession: I LOVE this place, and I have NEVER had a coffee here. I’ve had a few of the food items and they have all been very nice, but what brings me back here is the kissaten style daily pasta special. The first time I went there I asked about the daily pasta–I was told “roe.” I had no idea what that would mean, but I ordered it. I got a plate of spaghetti in a very light creamy sauce, some enoki mushrooms with lots of tiny orange flying fish roe. The taste was subtle and delicious. It was good as many of the best dishes I had had from some very expensive Japanese restaurants.
Yesterday when I asked about the pasta, I thought the answer was “bonito” followed up with “garlic” and “pepperoni”. Of course I ordered it, that’s what I was there for. I’m not sure where the bonito was in the dish and pepperoni was in fact tiny rings of red peppers (sliced pepperoncini). It doesn’t matter. The dish was fabulous. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente. I don’t know how they cook it so perfectly especially in the tiny kitchen in the back. The pasta was in oil. When they were preparing the dish, the smell of garlic sautéing in oil reached me from the kitchen. But what came out was a delicate taste, with just a hint of garlic. There was also some spinach, fresh tomatoes, enoki mushrooms and shredded dried seaweed. Every once in a while I got a taste of something sweetly pungent. And don’t forget the sliced red peppers which gave the dish a perfect amount of heat. This is a dish that could go up against Del Posto’s pasta dishes–in particular it called to mind Del Posto’s spaghetti with jalapeño and crab. But there is nothing Italian about the pasta dishes at Hi-Collar. Spending time at Hi-Collar is like taking a trip to Japan. Hi-Collar’s slogan is “Flirting with the West”, but on 10th Street, it allows us to flirt with the East.
By the way, the pasta dishes at Hi-Collar are $8.50 if you also order a beverage or $10.50 a la carte.
214 East 10th St. New York, NY 10003
I had seen some small focused exhibits of Ai Wei Wei’s work in New York galleries over the last few years. The show at the Brooklyn Museum provides an opportunity to see a a wide range of his works, including sculptures, photography and video, spanning more than 20 years, and gives a good sense of who he is as an artist and a political activist.
I noticed a few themes:
Old vs. New
I spent 6 weeks travelling through China a few years ago. Construction was everywhere. The smallest towns were full of giant cranes. We constantly went looking for a restaurant or shop we had read about only to find either a giant empty construction site or a giant new skyscraper. We saw old parts of towns (e.g. Beijing, Pingyao, Lijiang, Shanghai) torn down and Disneyland-esque towns built in their places. Ai deals with this directly–there are rooms wallpapered with photos of construction sites–and less directly, as he does in one of his most iconic pieces:
In “Coca Cola Vase” (this one made in 2007) Ai has taken an ancient vase from around 4,000 B.C. and painted the Coca Cola logo on it, defacing it and turning it into a piece of modern advertising.
In “Colored Vases” (2007-2010), he has taken vases from the Han Dynasty and painted them in bright colors with industrial paint. Ai lived in the U.S. from for 12 years from 1981-1993. He started making works like the Coca Cola vase (an earlier one not on display is from 1994) in the mid-1990’s after he returned to China. On view (behind the colorful urns) is a set of photographs from 1995 in which Ai is seen dropping Han Dynasty vases on the ground, smashing them.
When I was in China, I travelled into the hills of northern Yunan province near the border of Tibet in order to visit the oldest monastery in China. Only as we were hiking up to the monastery did I notice something strange in the view up ahead—the monastery was missing. When I got to the top, I found out that the monastery had been torn down. It was made of wood and was deemed a fire hazard. A new modern monastery was being built in its place.
Ai Wei Wei has made art works from wood salvaged from dismantled ancient temples, including “Map of China” (2008):
It looks like an abstract wood sculpture, but if looked upon from above (which you can’t do because it is about 6 feet tall) it forms a Map of China.
Taking Functional Objects and Turning them into Something New
A number of Ai Wei Wei’s sculptures are made of things that had a functional purpose, such as pieces of furniture or bicycles.
Moon Chest is made up of a series of chests made of huali wood–the highly valued wood of a Chinese quince tree. Ai has cut four holes into each piece of furniture transforming them from functional objects to pieces of art. When they are lined up and you look through them, you can see different phases of the moon.
He has made pieces from stools:
The show includes “Stacked”, a site specific installation of 700 bicycles. It is a comment on the importance that bicycles have played in everyday Chinese life. And perhaps it is signaling the replacement of bicycles by automobiles–the bicycle no longer serves the same function it used to.
Multitudes vs. the Individual
Many of Ai’s works make us strain to find the individual in the multitudes. He questions how we value things, and looks at mass-production. The piece which best exemplifies this in the Brooklyn exhibit is “Bowl of Pearls”. You can also see a similar quality in his sunflower seed piece (which is not included in this exhibit), in the rebar piece, “Straight,” discussed below, and in the names of earthquake victims that fills a long wall in the room with “Straight”.
Art as a Political Message
And, of course, a large part of his work relates to political issues and some of his most recent projects. He has brought a lot of attention to the response of the government to the earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. He has started a project to find the names of the children who perished in shoddily constructed schools. One room of the exhibit has a wall of the names of the victims, and a large sculpture called “Straight” made of the tangled pieces of rebar from the ruins of the earthquake that he has collected and had straightened out.
Another room has a serpent on the ceiling made of backpacks like those of the children who perished.
The river crabs work shown above also has a political message. Ai served 10,000 crabs to guests invited to view the demolition of his studio in Shanghai by the government. The word for river crabs is He Xie, which is also the word for harmonious–a reference to the censorship of the regime, which is connected with China’s calls for a “harmonious society, free from dissent”.
The exhibit has a number of works related to Ai Wei Wei’s 2011 imprisonment and his persecution by the police. His passport has been confiscated and he is not permitted to leave China. Ai’s lawyer has recently been arrested.
And there a a number of videos on display, including the documentary So Sorry, which had its own room at the exhibit. Ai’s website has a lot of materials including many of the videos that we in the exhibit and others such as a music video about imprisonment written by and starring Ai.
The exhibit is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 10, 2014. A separate admission fee is required.
For more about Ai Wei Wei, I recommend the documentary “Ai Wei Wei Never Sorry“. It is available on Netflix
Read about the exhibit elsewhere:
New York Times review
WNYC: listen to Brian Lehrer and art critic Deborah Solomon discuss the show
Yesterday I went up to 181st street to visit a friend who is about to move away from New York. Washington Heights is a neighborhood I don’t know well. After I left her I wanted to grab a bite to eat. I saw an Irish pub, a Chinese restaurant, a sushi place, and then I remembered that I had once eaten at El Malecon, one of the best known Dominican restaurants in the neighborhood. I headed down towards 175th Street and on the corner where I thought I’d find Malecon (I was a couple of blocks off–actually on 177th), I found Mambi Steak House. Inside, there are about 10 tables and a long counter with fast food style menus overhead. Behind the counter there is a lot of hot food and other prepared food. All the way in the back, is a small bar, where it looked like there was more drinking than eating going on. I was a little worried about the hot stations. The waitresses were serving the food from those stations and I wasn’t sure about food that was already prepared and sitting there. But the place was hopping and I was starving.
I took a seat at the counter and had a fabulously delicious meal. Everything that went past me also looked delicious.
The menu is huge–there’s sandwiches, there about ten different chicken dishes on the menu, lots of shrimp and fish and about 15 variations of steak. There’s also a list of about 15 daily specials–mostly stews and soups.
I ordered the pernil (roast pork) with rice and black beans–the small $8.50 portion. I got a traditional plate of Caribbean food–a big portion of roast pork with peppers and onions, white rice, a bowl of black beans, and lots of sweet cooked plantains.
Everything was cooked perfectly and had lots of flavor, including the black beans. It’s a long subway ride up to the 175th Street stop on the A train, but I can’t wait to go back.
Mambi Steak House is at 4181 Broadway (corner of 177th St). It is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day!