A 13-meter-high fountain that alludes to a memorial with a colonialist past was revealed today as the latest Hyundai Commission work at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
American artist Kara Walker is behind the much-anticipated work, who started the fountain as a pencil sketch and a series of clay figures before designing the full work digitally and using a robotic arm to cut the massive shapes out of cork. They were then covered in a material called jesmonite to recreate its stone-like surface, and resemble some of Britain’s grandest buildings and monuments.
The fountain is largely based on and influenced by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. In Victory’s place however, stands a figure from whose breasts and neck water cascades down to the two-story basin filled with sculptures inspired by different works of art.
Despite looking like a typical public monument upon first glance, the work carries the same graphic, evocative and unsettling power that Walker’s silhouettes and films often have. The roughly sculpted figures seen in the fountain reference other art: J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship painting from 1840 where slaves were being thrown off a boat to reduce weight and most prominently Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream painting from 1899, where a Black subject is seen controlling a small fishing boat on treacherous and shark-filled seas. Many also were quick to connect Walker’s shark figures to Damien Hirst’s, seen in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living preserved in formaldehyde.
Overall, and in a typical fashion, Walker’s latest work comes off as playful and inviting, yet brutal in its core. Her imagination almost resembles Goya’s, who captured cruelty and the human condition with rawness and endless creativity.
Tate’s Daskalopoulos Senior Curator Clara Kim said: “What Kara is doing is bringing those histories she’s always been exploring in her work, the history of slavery and the Antebellum South in the US, as well as this connection to the UK and Europe, and the interconnectedness in terms of the histories that we share.”
She added: “What’s brilliant about the form of the fountain is that in some ways the Turbine Hall is a public square and so we really hope it invites people in, that people find the figures interesting enough to know a bit more about. It’s a form of a gift from her, a gift back to the heart of the empire, so it’s meant to also be a place of joy and celebration.”
The work, which is called Fons Americanus, goes on view on Wednesday until April 5.
Walker is best known for her massive paper silhouette works that show episodes from the history of American slavery in a pictorial style. Fons Americanus is certainly not her first public commission of this scale, having created A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby at the Domino Sugar Factory in New York in 2014. A sphinx with the body and face of a Black woman, made entirely of sugar, her sculpture became a public sensation. The sphinx was surrounded by sculptures of small children collecting sugar: all reminders of the conflicted history of the sugar trade.
Walker will also have a solo exhibition at Sprüeth Magers in Mayfair, called From Black and White to Living Color: The Collected Motion Pictures and Accompanying Documents of Kara E. Walker, Artist, which opens on October 4 and runs through December 21.