Kara Walker’s 75-foot-long, 35-foot-tall sculpture made of 160,000 pounds of sugar rests in the expansive, soon-to-be-razed Domino Sugar Refinery, surrounded by 15 five-foot-tall statues of boys coated in molasses and brown sugar. The rafters are still encrusted with the sweet crystal, and molasses sticks to the walls, slowly dribbling down to the floor. Of all the questions asked of the gleaming sphinx, from the intricacies of the artist’s message to the systems of labor behind its crafting, the most practical one is perhaps also the most mysterious: Where are all the sugar-seeking pests?
The towering sphinx is made of sugar and water churned in a cement mixer to produce a gooey adhesive that sticks to a styrofoam core, with no additional coating to preserve it. The sculptures are also left uncovered overnight, as one volunteer told Hyperallergic, and the team did not spray insecticides on the works or on the surrounding ground. The lack of pests, then, seems to stem more from the factory’s status as a construction site.
The historic sugar refinery, which closed a decade ago, came under the ownership of development firm Two Trees in 2012. With demolition then underway to clear the site for a residential project, Two Trees took measures during several junctures of the process to safeguard against potential vermin, the actions in line with the firm’s obligation to comply with laws affecting demolitions.
Last year, according to Two Trees representative Marina Trejo, the firm began spraying the site and laying poison as well as rodent traps to prep for demolition. Signs warning of these dangers still hang on the factory’s exterior, visible to all. Every visitor also has to sign a waiver before entering the hall, but this implementation is universal to all construction sites rather than specific to this warehouse-turned-art space, or even Kara Walker’s work. Furthermore, the document is not pest-oriented, using the catch-all phrase of “chemicals” to cover the perils of rodenticides and pesticides on site, along with more boilerplate construction hazards like asbestos.
Trejo also told Hyperallergic over the phone that they have not experienced any pest problems since the building’s purchase, a statement echoed by volunteers working the show. “This site has been empty for a number of years so there aren’t any pests,” a volunteer handing out waivers told Hyperallergic. “There aren’t really any rats or anything around here.” Trejo speculated that the area’s ecosystem may have achieved some sort of balance with the old factory, which operated from 1856 to 2004.
The team from Creative Time, the organization that commissioned the sugared sphinx, took its own measures to keep pests away, having rodent traps placed around the property during the sculpting process. However, the staff found no rats, as Katie Yook, a former intern who helped construct Kara Walker’s “Subtlety,” told Hyperallergic. Aside from the minor strings of ants running by the walls (also present at the show’s opening gala, according to Yook) and the pigeons flying through the space, the factory seems vermin-free. Public building records also do not reveal any pest-related complaints for the warehouse.
According to Ed McLaughlin, service manager for Regal Pests Management, which Creative Time called in to deliver estimates for preventative services last winter, ants are a cause for greater worry than rats. “Rats as a rule probably would not be attracted to a big amount of sugar, especially in an urban area,” McLaughlin said. “A rat can’t live on sugar alone. They’re going to need more palatable foods … basically anything they’ll find in the garbage. Things that are attracted to sugar are obviously ants, depending on the specific colony, roaches … bees.”
The sparse presence of ants, McLaughlin explained, may be because there aren’t any colonies near enough to the sugar factory. Donald Clark, the owner of Brooklyn-based Alley Cat Exterminating Co. whom Hyperallergic reached out to for comment, explains that the neighborhood in general has not had much of a pest issue, likely due to the demographic shift towards affluence. However, he expressed general concern for the consequences of the factory’s small pigeon population in the increasing summer heat. “I’d be more worried about pigeon droppings and the mold getting airborne,” Clark said.
Domino Sugar Factory, however, likely wouldn’t encounter such issues. “Unless the warehouse encounters a flock of pigeons … that’s not that big of a deal, especially in a big space,” McLaughlin said. “Not all birds have bird mites, but quite a few do. They’re more likely to have things like salmonella or any kind of more common bacteria. But … I don’t see a big build-up especially if nests are dealt with when they pop up.”
Similarly, McLaughlin explained that mold flourishes in areas with warmer temperatures, poor ventilation and high moisture levels. “A big open warehouse kind of place probably gets a lot of airflow to not make that happen,” he said.
Regardless of the potential threats from these critters (Clark also cites weevils as potential menaces), Two Trees will be covered by its iron-clad waiver, freeing its hands of any health disputes.