The Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern is a cavernous maw that swallows and spits out all but the most confident artists. Kara Walker, the latest to have undertaken the annual commission in the echoing central chamber of the former power station, is equal to its challenge. The African American artist has built a 13-metre-tall fountain, a play on the Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. It subverts the tropes of Britain’s pompous public monuments, and offers a mordant commentary on the nation’s enrichment through the transatlantic slave trade.
Like the Victoria Memorial – which is peopled with allegories of Agriculture, Manufacture, Peace, Progress, Constancy and Courage, all surmounted by Victory – Walker’s fountain, Fons Americanus, teems with encoded figures. The scenes on her fountain – a woman who might be Queen Victoria receiving a bowed captive, a pietà in which a drowned figure is cradled in tender arms, a tree stump from which a noose dangles, sea captains enthroned in pomp – pulse with references to the history of empire, slavery and resistance.
The scenes are also dense with art-historical allusions. From a scallop shell it is not Botticelli’s Venus who emerges, nor the racist “Sable Venus” used as the frontispiece to an early 19th-century British defence of the slave trade. Instead, a tear-stained face is not so much rising from the shell as sinking beneath it – a reference to the hellish pit into which uncooperative slaves were thrown to die at Bunce Island in Sierra Leone. The viewer may not recognise all the references that Walker uses. But it hardly matters: the vocabulary Walker is invoking is instantly familiar from the public monuments that scatter European cities – such as Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, which claims dominion for the Catholic church over Asia, Europe, America and Africa.
The great surmounting figure of Walker’s work, from whose breasts water cascades, is not Victory, nor yet the phallic obelisk that extrudes from Bernini’s sculpture, but a female figure who arches back in what might be agony – a wounded but triumphant African goddess who contains echoes of another great Bernini sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
The public monuments of the past are seldom unproblematic. Often they are hardly noticed; they form mere wallpaper to the urban experience. Frequently, they celebrate virtues and acts that are now discredited. Occasionally, they sit in such violent opposition to contemporary values that pressure mounts to rip them down. Walker’s Turbine Hall commission offers a different route: she remakes the language of such monuments, bending it easily to her own purpose. Fons Americanus is a powerful work that is both harshly satirical and playfully exuberant; both a rebuke to the history of a nation, and a generous gift to it. Britain should gaze into Walker’s fountain, and have the courage to recognise itself reflected in its waters.