When I visited Nari Ward’s Socrates Sculpture Park exhibition Nari Ward: G.O.A.T. again on a spring day, children were roaming the park, enjoying the mellow weather. Presumably on a day trip from a local school in Queens, these kids of diverse backgrounds and and colors, were climbing on Scapegoat, a mammoth-scale goat figure reclining in the middle of the park. They were giggling at Bipartition Bell, a pair of giant copper goat testicles hanging from a steel and wood structure, facetiously evoking the Liberty Bell in terms of its monumentality and heft.
The Jamaica-born and New York-based Ward has been a prominent figure since the 90s with career highlights like his participation in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and recent win of the Vilcek Prize for the Arts, awarded to immigrant artists. Ward’s mastery lies within his witty manipulation of found mundane objects, and the careful balance he creates between the familiar and peculiar. In the center of his occupation of the Socrates Sculpture Park—the park’s first solo show in its 30-year history—stands Apollo/Poll, a steel, wood, and repurposed vinyl sculpture replicating the iconic Apollo Theater sign in Harlem. With each flicker, LED lights oscillate between “Apollo” and “Poll.” Undertaken during last year’s presidential election, when the country faced extreme polarization and animosity, Ward’s ode to his neighborhood’s landmark venue—now flashing in another up-and-coming neighborhood with working class roots—spearheads his commentary on race and class struggles.
Nari Ward, Apollo/Poll, 2017. Courtesy the artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana
During our walkthrough, Jess Wilcox, the park’s Director of Exhibitions, underlined the parallels Ward aims to build between public art and live performance; referencing both the Apollo’s popular Amateur Night and the work’s presentation in a public park, she noted how the artist brings together ideas about vulnerability, visibility, and exposure. As an artist subverting utilitarian functions of everyday objects, humor is fundamental for Ward—and so are puns. Goat sculptures do, indeed, populate the park, but the acronym in the exhibition’s title stands for “Greatest of All Time”—a hyperbolic expression adopted to define musicians and athletes, made popular by Muhammad Ali and picked up by the Queens native LL Cool J for his best-selling album.
The title speaks to the representation and categorization of race, in this case linking it to a controlled promise of achievement. Sports and music—two fields granted as token routes for the African-American dream—suggest supposedly realistic pathways for success and acceptance. Bombastic slogans and marketing strategies abound in popular culture: from sneaker ads in which the highest paid musicians and sportsmen play agents of prosperity to music videos depicting extravagant wealth and fame. These roles tailored to African-American youth hardly exceed one-dimensionality, and their definitions of success and achievement are improbable at best. In Ward’s exhibition, the goat figure tackles these notions of struggle, guilt, victimization, and public image.
Nari Ward, G.O.A.T.s, 2017 (detail). Courtesy the artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana
Despite carrying different connotations across cultures, goats primarily reflect determination: with their steadfast persistence to reach soaring peaks, goats are the go-getters of the animal kingdom. Conversely, the goat may also represent victimization and guilt. In three major monotheist religions, the goat symbolizes sacrifice, with the scapegoat imaged to be the bearer of all sins. Dispersed around the park’s rolling landscape surface, the goats, totaling twenty, pose at varying elevations, adding performative accents to the installation while calling back to the notion of escalation towards success. Like David Hammons’ Basketball Chandelier series, they convey quixotic heights and the determination to reach them.
Sprawling tragically on the grass is the enormous Scapegoat, encapsulating ridicule and futility, a fall from grace. A goat’s disembodied head is mounted onto a stick-like apparatus punctuated by a single wheel: it’s an impotent hobbyhorse. A fire hose, a material Ward notably used in his 1993 installation Amazing Grace, wraps around the sculpture’s baton of a body. The discordance between the primary life-saving purpose of the fire hose and its use by the police to suppress protesting crowds corresponds to the goat’s wretched position.
Nari Ward, Scapegoat, 2017. Courtesy the artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana. Photo: Matthew Herrmann
Leaving the park, the tensions between Ward's subversive subject matter and the way his sculptures disarmed and playfully engaged the school children, stuck with me. Although Ward’s sculptures brim with joviality on the surface, they simultaneously encompass serious political commentary on American nationalism and racial and economic injustice. Images of goats hauling shoes or electronic cords may convey pure entertainment for the kids playing around the park, but Ward’s sculptures also encapsulate the struggles that they, their parents, relatives, and neighbors may experience throughout their lifetimes. The goats represent immigrants, foreigners, or laborers struggling to make ends meet while defying the pathways—sports, music—dictated to them.
Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again continues at Socrates Sculpture Park through September 4, 2017.
Osman Can Yerebakan is a writer and curator based in New York.
(Image at top: Nari Ward, G.O.A.T.s, 2017 (detail). Courtesy the artist; Socrates Sculpture Park; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana)