Kirk Ke Wang loved the intense sweetness of Cuban sugar as a kid growing up in Shanghai in the 1960s. So when he made his first trip to the island from Tampa earlier this year, tasting it again was high on his list of priorities.
But the granular brown sugar Wang found in Havana didn’t taste the way he remembered. Sugar today isn’t like the stuff they used to make, a Cuban told him when he asked.
A frustrated sweet tooth made Wang ruminate on something else: the close kinship between China and Cuba during communism’s heyday that made the strong sugar a handy commodity, along with other items of exchange — including ideology.
“Communist countries have a very sweet way of delivering propaganda,” Wang says. “That led me to coming up with the idea for the show.”
Wang’s installation at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor School of Visual and Performing Arts Gallery, Sugar Bomb, makes serious comedy out of political encroachment. More than 30 bombs, each handmade by the artist from a combination of Chinese, Cuban and American found objects, hang suspended from the gallery ceiling. Filled with sweet things such as gummy bears, Skittles and, yes, Cuban sugar, they playfully invite consideration of how people are seduced into consuming ideals, and how culture can be as invasive as missiles.
Granted, with U.S. military intervention in Syria under discussion, it’s not the most comfortable time to be making light of bombs. The accident of coinciding with real conflict adds a note of somberness to Wang’s installation that I don’t think the artist intended.
What’s really engaging about Sugar Bomb is the craft that went into its making. Wang’s missiles are a hoot. Big and phallic (based on a generic cruise missile shape with a long shaft and small wings), they possess a super-polished pop sensuousness. The largest ones are five feet tall and made of cast epoxy encrusted with brown sugar or papered with whole tobacco leaves; smaller ones are made of things like Miller High Life bottles, painstakingly stripped of all identifying marks except the raised “High Life” logo. Wang partially coats the smaller vessels with yellow or pink paint, then pours in candy or tiny figurines of cloyingly sweet characters, including the erotic Betty Boop.
You want to take these bombs home and live with them, or at least hug and lick them. Maybe crack one open and eat a few gummy bears. Here’s a dissonant note Wang did intend — he picked Skittles to fill some jars because of their recent, charged association with Trayvon Martin’s death.
In addition to the suspended bombs, the installation consists of a multi-channel soundtrack of communist propaganda songs sung by children of various nationalities, which visitors can listen to by donning headphones; a video of Havana street life shot by Wang during his trip to Cuba, projected on two walls; and yellow, child-size chairs that have been sliced into segments and embedded in the gallery walls to suggest an explosion.
As a whole, the project flirts with symbolic overload, but it’s worth taking the time to parse. Wang’s point isn’t to deliver a didactic message about political right and wrong, but rather to invite reflection on national identities and international relationships, and how they fluctuate and shape each other in a world of consumables.
As an American born in Shanghai who recently explored his nostalgia in Cuba, Wang says it was curious to be presumed Chinese and welcomed warmly, then revealed as American and welcomed warmly again.
“They just kept hugging me and asking for my chewing gum.”
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