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One of the season’s most anticipated art events will finally open to the public tomorrow. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” aka the “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” which comes with the substantial subtitle of “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,” is the renowned artist’s first public artwork.
The piece is situated in a highly contested space in Williamsburg: the former Domino Sugar Factory, a site that’s become a lightning rod for discussions about post-industrial urban identity, the moneyed forces of gentrification, and the uneasy relationship of arts patronage and developers. Once one of the neighborhood’s leading employers, by the beginning of this century, when artists, musicians, writers, and urban professionals were slowly beginning to outnumber blue collar workers in Willliamsburg, Domino had become a symbol of the city’s industrial past that was never to return.
Situated on the waterfront, developers have long been eyeing the attractive and large site in an area developing beyond its working-class roots at lightning speed. Once New York may have turned away from its coastline, but today — even post-Hurricane Sandy — people are lining up to buy condos, walk on boardwalks, and take ferries on the city’s waterfront. As recently as 2006, many in the neighborhood have fought to turn the Domino site into a cultural complex or other public facility, but the city, under the guidance of developer-friendly former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been largely uninterested in doing anything but seeing it redeveloped. It is now slated to become a multi-use development that will include commercial space, condos, some affordable housing, and a public boardwalk. For many longtime area residents, the Domino plan represents the city’s cultural amnesia, a desire to scrub the neighborhood of its history — the factory was also the site of one of the city’s longest labor struggles, when, in 2000, 250 workers went on strike for 20 months.
For Walker’s installation, the long industrial chamber of the Domino complex, which is slated for demolition by its owner, Two Trees, is dotted with children sculpted mostly of sugar products; they, in turn, are carrying baskets of sugar and other saccharine concoctions. And off on one side of the cathedral-like space is a glowing white sphinx, clearly constructed of blocks of sugar. It’s worth mentioning that Two Trees’ owner, Jed Walentas, is on the board of Creative Time, which is the organization that commissioned Walker’s “A Subtlety.”
Walker’s work doesn’t explore any of the site’s recent past, focusing instead on the shadowy history of the sugar industry in the Americas and its reliance on slave labor for centuries. The Domino Sugar Factory has been a prominent fixture in the neighborhood since it opened in 1856 (though the current building dates to 1882), and by the 1890s it was producing half of the US’s sugar. When it opened, the building was the world’s largest sugar factory, but by 2004, when it closed, it was a ghost of its former self.
As the New York Times reported last year, the history of sugar in the United States, and even the process of refining it, is a sordid tale:
In the earliest days, much of the sugar arriving at the Havemeyer family’s refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront had been harvested by slaves. It was mixed into a dirty slurry, boiled in enormous vats and filtered through charred animal bones.
Then it was “whipped, beaten, flayed, hurled into ‘grain,’” The Illustrated American magazine reported in 1894. “The process is very wild and terrible, like a caged cyclone.”
Life in the refinery was so infernal that The New York Tribune declared in 1894 that a worker had only one hope of escaping “perpetual torture.”
Knowing this charged history, the Walker installation comes across less as provocative and more like a temple-like tribute to ancestors, relying on its impressive scale (the sphinx measures 35 feet high and 75 feet long) for most of its impact.
The use of the sphinx image is oddly seductive. The figure, which is derived from racist mammy imagery, is an obvious thumb in the eye to an industry that enslaved millions. The sphinx is displaying the “fig gesture” with its left arm, which is a symbol that can mean both good fortune and “fuck you,” depending on your cultural perspective. Walking behind the sphinx, her genitals are prominent and, along with her feet, beautifully sculpted.
Walking through the space, you’re left considering the history of sugar and its role in class and culture. The title, “A Subtlety,” refers to the medieval taste for elaborately sculpted sugar treats that marked the beginning or end of a course. Is it perhaps ironic that Creative Time hosted their annual gala in this same hall? Is this the end? What comes next —condos?
Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” (aka the Marvelous Sugar Baby) is on view at the Domino Sugar Factory (S 1st Street and Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until July 6.