Kara Walker's highly anticipated installation at Williamsburg's soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Factory opened last weekend to long lines waiting in the rain. Commissioned by Creative Time, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby is Walker's largest public art project to date and a departure from the delicate yet disturbing cut-paper silhouettes that the artist is best known for (see my post on the artist from September 2009 here and another from May 2011 here).
After waiting a little over 30 minutes in intermittent downpours last Saturday, and signing a waiver to enter the active construction site, visitors were greeted by an almost sickly sweet odor—a remnant of the refinery's earlier days (the factory has been vacant since 2004). Scattered throughout the massive, five-story space, fifteen life-size sculptures made from molasses depict child laborers carrying baskets and stalks of sugar cane. The sculptures will slowly melt where they stand as the weather gets warmer. At the far end of the space, a towering, sugar-coated sphinx crouches confidently, and perhaps, defiantly. Nude, aside from a mammy-style kerchief wrapped around her head, the sphinx is four-stories high and 75 feet long. The title of the work, A Subtlety, references elaborate sugar sculptures from the Middle Ages that served as centerpieces for the dinners of the wealthy. The subtitle of the exhibition: 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 reflects on the history of the Domino factory while addressing the connection between sugar production and slavery.
Thanks to Creative Time and Walker, the Domino Sugar Factory, which will be soon be demolished to make way for residential and commercial developments, is making a grand exit from Williamsburg after more than 120 years. A Subtlety is a commanding and thought-provoking installation. My one qualm with the exhibiton was all the sexy selfies people insisted on snapping—posing like they were licking the sphinx's derriere or groping her breasts, pretending to take a bite of the sculptures of the child laborers, and preening for vacant-faced "fashion" photos. Seriously?! Artwork representing oppression and exploitation shouldn't be trivialized like this. Walker and her work warrant more respect and contemplation. Learn more at creativetime.org and nytimes.com. Through July 6th.