No sweet little thing

She rises: 'A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby' is the centrepiece of an installation by Kara Walker and the present highlight of New York's cultural scene. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sugar sculptures that locate humour in sites of trauma and tell of America’s troubled history

A Sphinx rises in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is 12 metres tall, 25 metres long, and sits in a warehouse that feels like a cathedral, where the walls drip with molasses. She is made of polystyrene drenched in gleaming white sugar that spills off her haunches and arms onto the floor. She is nude save for a kerchief. Her expression is blank. Her rear is mountainous. Her vulva is exposed. Her name is ‘A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,’ and she is the centrepiece of an installation by Kara Walker that is this season’s must-see art in New York City.

Walker, who is 44 and African-American, has made a reputation as a major artist with works — most famously made of cut-paper silhouettes — that stage the history of race in America in all its pain, debasement, sexual violence and the grotesque. She has a devastating grasp of oppression’s violent absurdity, and her portrayals locate macabre humour in the sites of trauma. They are unflinching and sometimes hard to take.

In Brooklyn, the arts group Creative Time and the property developer who will soon demolish this sugar factory have handed Walker a site freighted with exploitation. Here, just across from Manhattan, ships unloaded sugar from the plantations of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where slavery lasted late and gave way to only marginally better conditions. The raw cane stacked up as high as Sugar Baby is tall. Workers lugged it into the adjacent refinery, which at the start of the 20th century was the world’s largest.

The sugar cartel, led by the Havemeyer family, controlled the industry — the sugar brand it launched, Domino, is still the most common in US shops. Over the years the trade lost value, and as industry gave way to banking as the city’s economic engine, sugar refining moved to Baltimore and New Orleans.

The factory shut down for good in 2004 and the site has lain idle since then. The decline of industrial Williamsburg and depletion of its working class set the stage, however, for aggressive gentrification that made the neighbourhood an epicenter of bohemia, and now — as the first-wave artists and assorted marginal characters in turn get the boot — an increasingly wealthy yuppie haven. Just north of the factory, titanic glass towers rise above the water in which apartments rent for $4,000 monthly.

New York City puts effort into historic preservation, but it is little against the dominant force, which has been erasure. As the factory gives way to a forest of desirable waterfront high-rises, the trace of sugar will vanish. The ties of New York traders to plantation violence — sugar interests kept New York a major chartering port for slave ships long after the trans-Atlantic trade was banned — have always been shameful and downplayed. Now that history threatens to evaporate.

More than brash

Though titled a “subtlety” — a term used for sugar table sculptures in Renaissance Europe — Walker’s sculpture is big and brash. There is a long subtitle, printed in large letters on the outside wall as visitors approach the building. It reads: “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 minimum didactic mission is achieved.

But there is much more. Only at first glance is the warehouse a basic, derelict industrial space. Steel columns and girders enshrine Sugar Baby as if in a nave, the church effect heightened by the light that streams through high windows. Nestled into the steelwork — and at the hinges of the warehouse doors, the crevices in the walls — is encrusted sugar, the accumulation of decades. The dark splashes on the walls are molasses.

Into this milieu, in the wide area between the entrance and Sugar Baby, Walker has set 15 life-size figures of young boys carrying baskets. Some are light brown, made of metal sprayed with molasses. Others, darker, are made of sugar, and have started to break. Everything is melting. Molasses pool on the floor. The wreckage of the broken boys lies strewn at their own feet, or has been loaded into the baskets of the others.

The broken bodies send their own clear message about the debasement of slavery and indentured labour. But the melting shifts the energy, and paradoxically brings them to life in a kind of perverse worksite that implicates the visitor viscerally. The boys are spooky and tender; they nearly steal the show.

It is impossible to visit an installation like this without noting how the work is being consumed. Tourists pose between Sugar Baby’s outstretched hands and mug for the camera. There is awe in the air, but little solemnity. Only a small fraction of visitors are Black. A critique that needs hearing, by Jamilah King in Colorlines, points out that the organisers’ request that visitors post pictures on Instagram with an “official” hashtag (#KaraWalkerDomino) drifts toward presenting, once again, the slave as spectacle. It surfaces broader, ongoing concerns about the interaction of Black artists and the white-run art world, the types of work that get funded and the narratives they perpetuate and bolster.

As a site-specific piece, however, Sugar Baby triumphantly rises to the scale and stakes of its setting. At once white and black, submissive and dominant, alone and with an army, she has returned to bless and curse this place, one last time before it turns to rubble.

(The show runs at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, New York, till July 6.)

( Siddhartha Mitter is a New York-based writer)

Published on June 06, 2014

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