A Subtlety? More like a provocation. You may be familiar with Kara Walker‘s cut paper silhouettes that explore race and gender. This, her first site-specific sculptural installation, is on view inside the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn through 6 Jul 2014.
For context, this is the full title of the artwork:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
“A subtlety” refers to edible sugar sculptures that adorned Medieval aristocratic banquets, when sugar was strictly a luxury commodity. Symbolic of a host’s wealth, these confections often portrayed political figures and events, and were admired and then eaten by the guests. In this case, the sculptures are life-size versions of racist caricatures of African American servant boys carrying baskets and bananas.
The interior of this old factory is not climate-controlled, and the figures made of molasses-colored candy have been slowly melting into sticky puddles and disintegrating, their broken pieces placed in the baskets of the surviving boys as a symbol of the casualties of the slave trade and working in dangerous sugar refineries such as this one.
The centerpiece of the installation is a sphinx-like figure measuring over 35 feet tall and 75 feet long. This sexualized “mammy” has exaggerated facial features and a kerchief suggesting domestic servitude, yet her pose is sexually provocative and defiant. She presides over her servant boys, quietly bearing witness to their inevitable destruction. Their blood-like molasses puddles stand in stark contrast to her pure, refined whiteness.
In another sense of the word, she is anything but “refined.” Her voluptuous breasts and genitalia shock the viewer, and her sphinx-like pose alludes to female subjugation. Her left hand makes a lewd “fucking” gesture. She’s larger-than-life, ready for our objectification.
Wandering through the space, shadowy and filled with the sickening scent of molasses, I wanted to touch and taste the sculptures but also felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and rage. The life-like scale of the servant figures humanizes them, while the monumentality of the sphinx holds the audience captive.
The cavernous Domino Sugar Factory was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, employing over 4,000 workers and processing 3 million pounds of sugar a day. There is a kind of horror embedded in the scale of this operation — the exploitation, the labor, the injuries, the money, the refining and bleaching.
At the same time, NYC public art organization Creative Time was able to arrange the installation because this site is about to be leveled to build yet more apartments in the formerly industrial, now trendy neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management, the developer behind the project, sits on the nonprofit’s board. Domino, in some ways the protagonist in the piece, donated 160,000 lbs. of sugar for the main sculpture.
On my visit, kids were running around, playing among the sculptures. The audience skewed Caucasian, and most people seemed absorbed in photo-taking, including really goofy, inappropriate selfies. This was so jarring that I took very few photos. In this way, Walker’s ruse seemed to have worked — the audience, itself a spectacle, objectified the spectacle on view, seemingly more concerned with documenting its own presence at the installation than with directly experiencing the work in the space. Walker’s sphinx was reduced to a naughty backdrop for Instagram photos. Evidence of history repeating itself?
If you’re interested in learning more about A Subtlety, there are more articles and photos online than I care to link to. This installation has definitely hit a nerve for a number of reasons. If you can, try to see it in person through 6 Jul 2014.