The public monuments of a great city such as London are objects which we both see and do not see. The not-seeing is, in part, a choice, and in part a response to the facts that these things are too familiar to be seen.
The Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace is one such specimen: a presence which is also a resounding absence. In spite of its size, and the fact that it commands such a noticeable space, as if by right, at the end of the Mall, who could ever talk in any detail about what it means, or even begin to describe its constituent parts?
It has been there for far too long. It has faded back into utter insignificance, little other than an annoying impediment to the flow of traffic. It is too much with us to be meaningfully present to us, to feed into the life of our imaginations. Its symbolism – what symbolism? – looks remote, ossified.
Thoughts of this kind may have been swirling around the brain of Kara Walker when she did an artist’s residency in Rome many years ago. There was so much Baroque monumentality to be seen, everywhere, in the Eternal City. It seemed to speak of continuities, and to remind her that the country of her birth was a much younger place altogether. It affected her in other ways too. It troubled her, for various reasons, as she explained to the press at Tate Modern this week.
“I was perversely moved,” she said, “and taken by the grandeur of these projects.” She felt Baroque overcoming her, lifting her up in a way that she regarded as treacherous. Why treacherous? Because it had no right to do so. It moved her without justification. It caused her to ask herself: what do civic monuments mean? What do they tell us about power and its partly hidden sources? How is a single, fragile African-American body such as my own supposed to relate to idealized European bodies on this scale?
Though dead, silent, and seemingly forgotten for decades, can the enduring presence of such monuments among us — whether in Europe or America — still have the power to reinforce deep-rooted prejudices, by the very fact that they have simply not gone away? Can they not still serve in some way as magical talismans?
Some of Kara Walker’s richly ambiguous and playful answers to that question have fed into a monumental fountain called “Fons Americanus” (2019) which went on public display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this week. This fountain is both a public monument and a knock-about critique of the very idea of the public monument.
Rising 13 meters from the floor, and triumphantly topped by an African-cum-Brazilian-cum-Caribbean variant on the goddess Venus, it challenges us all to ask questions about the relationship between Europe, Africa, and America, to look deeply into our colonial inheritance, to stare hard into the past of slavery, to wonder once again, as we consider the nature of the oval pools at the fountain’s foot, about the turbulent history of the Black Atlantic, and everything that has washed across — or vanished without trace in — those fathomless primordial waters.
“Fons Americanus” seems to take its starting point from two sources: the Victoria Memorial itself, and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It consists of two concentric oval basins brimming with water, topped by an obelisk. The smooth, stone-effect material from which the fountain is made (not in fact stone at all, but a good imitation), its seductively milky color, the smooth finish of the undulating walls of the fountain’s basin, put us in mind of ideas of authority, fixedness, durability, and dependability so readily associated with the beauty of Portland Stone, the Jurassic-Period limestone that has built so many of Britain’s buildings and memorials.
In the shallow waters of the basins, filled from on high by flamboyantly spurting streams from Venus’s breasts, sharks circle a man adrift in a boat while a desperate swimmer lunges away, and a triple-masted ship leans into the wind. We recognize an art-historical reference or two here: was this scene of a desperate man adrift and shark-pursued also in a painting called “The Gulf Stream” (1899) by Winslow Homer? And has Damien Hirst perhaps gifted these sharks?
On a ledge above the oval basins, human figures posture and disport themselves. A spread-legged, bearded man who looks every inch the captain — tricorne hat, epauletted jacket — raises his eye to heaven. Toussaint L’Ouverture? Marcus Garvey? To his left a noose dangles from a blasted tree. At the other side of the ledge an uproarious, part-comic take on Queen Victoria — Queen Vicky, Kara Walker calls her — seems to be protecting an emaciated man beneath her voluminous skirts. Or is she simply unaware of the fact that he is there at all?
As our eye climbs from pool at ground level up to Venus at the summit, the nature of the fabrication changes. Low down, all is smooth and regular, as if it genuinely wishes to mimic the characteristic smoothness and elegance of the Baroque. As we go higher, things begin to fall apart. Even the edges of the topmost plinth seem to be wilting and drooping as our Venus flings out her arms in a gesture of…joy?
As the making gets rougher-hewn looking, more hand-slabby, these sculptures begin to resemble scaled-up versions of what might have begun as small, finger-shaped figurines in the studio, with all the rough vitality of their manual-craftedness. Honoré Daumier’s brilliant heads spring to mind.
The text on the wall describes the work, in its all crazed, over-brimming totality, as something akin to a circus spectacle, at which we might stand, marvel, wonder, and point a finger. It is rooted in the past’s darkness, for sure, all our blameworthy acts of negligence, cruelty, and indifference, all our undeniable culpabilities.
Yet it also seems to rise above such irrefutable sources of collective misery, to invite us into a mood of convivial enjoyment, to accept the terrible things that have happened, and perhaps even suggest that there is also a spirit of acknowledgement and reconciliation which might yet bind us.
And, oh yes, perhaps this is one civic monument worth pausing to look at.
Hyundai Commission: Kara Walker: Fons Americanus continues in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England), through April 5, 2020.