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History of Modern and Contemporary Art [Rec]: Site Specific Art @ the New School

Site-Specific Installation: “Event Horizon” by Kara Walker

Link to the Essay.

Site-specific artworks refer to art pieces that engage with their environment and display the link between the work to the setting, potentially transforming the meaning of that surrounding. The New School, a private non-profit university in Manhattan, New York, has a longstanding history of being in favor of the freedom of artistic expression. Hence the university has commissioned popular controversial artists such as Kara Walker. Walker is an African-American artist known for her explorations as a contemporary painter and silhouettist. Throughout her work, Walker creates moments from history relating them to contemporary art. She is mostly popular for her cut-paper silhouette series which look into the ideas of race, gender, identity, sexuality and violence. Her first public installation, Event Horizon, is a well-liked silhouette mural commissioned by The New School at the lobby of Arnhold Hall on 55 W 13th street in 2005. Event Horizon is one of Walker’s murals which look into the psychological effects of the period of slavery, emphasizing the African-American community’s struggle for freedom in the form of contemporary art. This powerful piece encourages interpretation of the past among the viewers while urging them to look into everyday racial stereotypes.

Event Horizon is a floor-to-ceiling mural which portrays black silhouette figures on a white background falling down a lengthy tunnel. The piece is spread across two separate walls across a stairway; the west wall piece is 432 x 179 inches, whereas the east wall piece is 432 x 154.5 inches. Although the name of the work is “Event Horizon,” the shape of the piece is not at all like a horizon. Instead, the artwork is more like a vertical channel which is quite unusual in comparison to the standard visual narratives that are horizontal. Intersecting a set of stairs, the black latex paint on the wall appeals to the attention of the viewer’s passing by. As people descend and ascend the stairs, the figures on the piece move with them. Even though the cut-out silhouettes look very fragile and delicate, once explored with detail, the viewer can notice the contrasting sinister meanings visually narrated on the wall that depict racial tension. To the surprise of the audience, the falling black silhouette figures are people who have been pushed down the tunnels and are trying to find their way out to freedom and opportunity by climbing. For example, the east wall piece emphasizes a moment where a man lets go of a woman carrying a baby into the tunnel. As the woman’s hands are shackled, she uncontrollably lets go of the baby in mid-air. While the woman is falling, we can see additional depths of the tunnel where other figures are huddling together in between the walls that encircle them. We can also see lifeless human body parts such as feet or hands on different parts of the tunnel. By showing the intense horror caused by the dominant figures in the artwork, Walker is focusing attention to the miserable lives of 19th Century slaves.  

Looking at this piece from the distance, the audience (mostly students attending the university) is encouraged to explore the piece by juxtaposing the content of the work with the space it is placed in. The piece was created as a response to its location; a stairway in Arnhold Hall lobby leading to a major public program area, the Theresa Lang Student and Community Center. The structure of the mural corresponds with the large wall space, suggesting the Underground Railroad, a subterranean maze with secret routes used by African-American slaves to escape into free states. The Underground Railroad here is depicted as a vertical tunnel where the movements of the figures on the artwork match the walking cycles of the people using the stairs. Because of the location of the mural, the students get to interact with the piece in a very subtle way. For instance, students get to see the piece unintentionally as they are walking across the stairway. On the other-hand, students who are sitting at the lounge area underneath the staircase are still exposed to the piece. As The New School is a place that allows experimentations within art, many would agree that risky art pieces like Event Horizon encourages creativity and corresponds appropriately with the intention of the university. According to an article by Sydney Sellers in The New School Free Press, the building where the artwork is currently published is the Mannes College of Music, which is in contrast to its previous ground: Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. The article mentions contradicting interpretations from students attending each college respectively. The student interviews discuss the relationship of the piece to its old and new environment. As claimed by students attending the Mannes College of Music, it is assumed that the mural is out of place considering the fact that the building turned into an education center for music. Regardless of this opinion, many Mannes College students mentioned that the mural still sparks conversation among them, “It’s provocative, but it’s in a place and in a school that wants to talk about those issues,” states one student. In contrast, students attending Eugene Lang proposed the fact that although the building is now a music school, the mural was assembled in Arnhold Hall when it used to be the Eugene Lang College which focuses on social justice. Therefore Lang students agreed that the mural still works well with the space.

It could be said that Kara Walker’s Event Horizon is truly a powerful piece of art that is exposed in The New School. As the university welcomes the freedom of expression through art in scores of ways, the artwork fits well with its surrounding site. Although a change in the use of the building from a liberal arts college to a music school is quite contrasting, Walker’s piece still succeeds in its intentions of sparking conversation about today’s racial stereotypes and social issues caused by the historical interpretation of the work. Showing the struggles of African-American slavery in the form of contemporary art has a favorable outcome of communicating with today’s society, particularly The New School students.

West Wall Piece at Arnhold Hall

 

East Wall Piece at Arnhold Hall

 

Bibliography

“Kara Walker.” Walker Art Center. Accessed 23 April 2018.

walkerart.org/collections/artists/kara-walker.

“New School University Unveils “Event Horizon” the First Major Public Art Commission by Artist Kara Walker.” The New School. 26 April 2005. Accessed 23 April 2018.

www.newschool.edu/pressroom/pressreleases/2005/042605_nsu_walkerk.html.

Sellers, Sydney. “Kara Walker Mural in Arnhold Hall Sparks Conversation.” The New School Free Press. 9 March 2016. Accessed 23 April 2018.

www.newschoolfreepress.com/2015/10/15/kara-walker-mural-in-arnhold-hall-sparks-conversation/.

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