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Issue 217

The Lasting Aftertaste of David Hammons’s Sugar

Deborah Levy can’t stop thinking about a work seen at Kettle’s Yard more than 30 years ago

BY Deborah Levy in Features , Thematic Essays | 25 FEB 21

‘Re-Writing History’ was the title of an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, curated in 1990 by Anna Harding. This intriguing, radical group show featured the work of David Hammons, Alfredo Jaar, Sarkis and Francesc Torres. I was 29 when I first saw it, a little-known writer with a first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989), under my belt. I was also, at that time, writing a fiction I reckoned I might title Swallowing Geography

In September 1990, the UK was coming to the end of the Thatcher years; we were growing out our mullet haircuts and getting to grips with Microsoft Word. When I arrived at Kettle’s Yard to see the show, I intuited from the catalogue essay, written by Harding, that ‘Re-Writing History’ was exploring some of the questions I myself was thinking about in Swallowing Geography: if I do not recognize myself in the history that has been written for me, how might I speak of my own history, of what I value and who I love?

‘These artists’, Harding wrote, ‘have been brought together for this exhibition because they are each saying something about the allure and theatricality of installation as a medium for conveying otherwise complex ideas.’ 

david hammons 1990
David Hammons, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 1990. Photograph: Chris Dorley-Brown

The installation that most preoccupied me was the fly that Hammons had placed in a bowl of sugar and titled A Fly in a Sugar Bowl (1990). As I remember it, this was a round tea tray set with a paper mat inscribed with a gentle ink illustration of some sort of plant. Maybe flora from the plantations on which enslaved children, women and men planted, harvested and processed the ‘white gold’ for their brutal overseers. Placed on the mat was a porcelain bowl filled with white sugar and, nestling in this sugar, was a black fly. 

It would be true to say that Hammons’s fly has been stuck in my head for 30 years.

The fly itself was the top of a zipper, maybe from the fly of a pair of trousers.

If a pun plays with the double meaning of a word, Hammons’s visual pun seemed to be asking a question: whose history are we re-writing? The zipper pull in the sugar bowl, like the proverbial fly in the ointment, had interrupted the narrative of one telling of history. It was a disturbance, a presence, a witness perched lightly on the sweet poison of white supremacy. 

At the time of ‘Re-Writing History’, Hammons was about 40. For all his gravitas, he was not lofty, and we ended up talking late into the night. His now-iconic African American Flag (1990) was also part of this exhibition. He encouraged me to go with my title, Swallowing Geography. After the show, Hammons and a few other artists gathered in my flat. There were no shops open and the only thing I had to drink was a bottle of Amaretto. We sipped it from tiny glasses. I remember the glasses because we could not fit an ice cube into them when we tried to dilute the cloying sweetness of the almond liqueur. The next day, Richard Demarco, the curator, impresario and founder of the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, turned up at my front door. He wore a suit, a small camera looped around his neck on a string. I did not know him personally, but was aware that his gallery had famously hosted performances by all the artists I most admired at the time, including Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys and the Polish theatre director and auteur Tadeusz Kantor. I couldn’t work out why Demarco had arrived or how he knew where I lived. I suppose these encounters are history, art history, but at the time it was just how it was.

david hammons fly 1990
David Hammons, A Fly in a Sugar Bowl, 1990, installation view, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Courtesy: the artist and AND Journal of Art & Art Education; photograph: Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Move forward 30 years and I am now 60. It’s October 2020, five months after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. The world has seen the film, captured on a mobile phone, of the white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while gazing outwards, serenely psychopathic, as if he were watching the sun set over a mountain.

Hammons is often described as a provocateur. What kind of artist is not a provocateur? I could say that he has been provoked. I mean, what African American artist living in any century has not been provoked more than, let’s say, Jeff Koons?

On 8 October 2020, I am watching the televised vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City. I am staring at Pence’s frozen face and immaculate white hair. He speaks his savagery quietly, as if it is a well-practised seduction. As Frantz Fanon told us in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), ‘hate […] has to be constantly cultivated’ and Pence is skilled at this job. Harris is the first vice-presidential candidate in US history who is a woman of colour. Pence is lecturing her on race relations: ‘Joe Biden said that he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities,’ he pauses for effect, takes a little intake of breath as if he is about to sob, ‘[this] is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement. And I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day that President Trump and I stand with you.’

The fly that flew into that studio and landed on Pence’s manicured white hair on the word ‘insult’ is well documented. In fact, it became the star of the debate. It remained there for two minutes and became a notorious online celebrity. Twitter pointed out that flies are drawn to faeces and that Pence was certainly speaking bullshit. It was noted that the fly had ingested a bit of Pence and now carried him in its stomach. Everyone had become a magical realist for the day. 

A photo emerged of Biden holding a fly swatch in his hand, while multiple Twitter accounts were set up in which the fly spoke on behalf of the nation. Its motivation was to be the messenger of truth and to unmask lies. Hammons apparently once commented to a curator, ‘outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.’ If Marcel Duchamp had added a moustache to Mona Lisa’s upper lip (L.H.O.O.Q., 1919), chance had given us a fly from Salt Lake City. That it was weirdly still and not buzzing around made it seem a little uncanny. Biden’s fly swatter, in a Duchampian sense, is a readymade. But to have literally swatted the fly away would have been to swat the delicate unconscious life within us all. The fly was working hard for us in the way that toys, which the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called ‘transitional objects’, work for children. We pour our anxieties, rage, love, most secret thoughts into the bodies of our dolls, ducks, bears and bunnies, and give them a life to live on our behalf. 

david hammons bliz-aard ball sale
David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, photographed by Dawoud Bey. Courtesy: the artists, Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco 

The pinkness of Pence’s left eye was noted by viewers. Was it conjunctivitis or COVID-19? His face was scrutinized as if he were the Mona Lisa (1503). Mona and Mike share an enigmatic lack of expression; we want to see what is inside them. Pence looked somewhat sedated, maybe with God. He was wearing a red tie identical to the one his boss always wears – in the way that my teenage girlfriends and I swapped clothes to steal a little of each other’s aura. 

My mind went to Hammons’s fly. I thought, well, there it is again: the fly in a sugar bowl has returned, like the repressed, to perch once again on a purveyor of white supremacy, this time asphyxiated by Pence’s hairspray. And then history flips. Biden wins the election. The Trump administration attempts to overturn its defeat and ‘re-calculate’ the legally certified vote count in Georgia. Pence’s boss wants to ‘find’ another 11,780 votes. Re-writing history, in this sense, requires adding many more spoonfuls of sugar to the bowl. 

And what about the fly? To be a fly in a sugar bowl is to be an insider and outsider at the same time. If it has somehow managed to crash inside the bowl, it has not been invited to partake of its contents. And if the fly, for historical reasons, is obliged to endlessly critique the sweet stuff on which it is perched, why not flip history another way and become (as Hammons has done) one of the most sought out and expensive living artists in the world?

Hammons has made some of the most confrontational art in the US since he was kind enough to speak to a nobody young writer at Kettle’s Yard in 1990. Since long before. It would also be true to say that the snowballs he sold for a dollar each in 1983 in Cooper Square, New York (Bliz-aard Ball Sale) – formally and conceptually perfect spheres, photographed by Dawoud Bey – have still not thawed in my mind. The provocation of the dada fly and the ephemeral snowballs is that they are of immeasurable value.

The zipper is also sort of sexual and the sugar on which it lurks might be, too. The mind can go anywhere but, like the fly, it has to land somewhere. Hammons’s readymades (hair from Harlem barber shops, wine bottles found on the subway, chicken bones, fur coats) poetically argue and play and poke at the nasty reality of the social world more than Duchamp’s readymades ever needed to. 

Why wouldn’t they? 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Lord of the Flies’.

Main image: David Hammons, A Fly in a Sugar Bowl, 1990, installation view, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Courtesy: the artist and AND Journal of Art & Art Education; photograph: Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Deborah Levy’s most recent novels, The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), Hot Milk (2016) and Swimming Home (2011), were nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Real Estate, the final book in her trilogy of ‘living autobiographies’, will be published in May by Hamish Hamilton.