Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Best Thing I Saw This Week: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory

If there are two things Brooklyn hipsters love, it’s highly anticipated cultural events and cleverly repurposed old sh*t (why do you think the Brooklyn Flea is so popular?!), so I anticipated quite a long wait for this much buzzed-about art installation in a legendary decrepit building. To my pleasant surprise, however, we were in the doors within 15 minutes of arriving (after signing an amusing waiver acknowledging the possibility for any and all types of bodily harm incurred within the slowly crumbling structure). As I expected, Walker's installation was incredible, and so was the opportunity to wander around the old factory. 

Entrance to the exhibit. The installation's full title, as stenciled on the factory's brick wall, is "A Subtlety 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"

Relics from the sugar-processing days. This remaining machinery, mostly rusting and decrepit, adds an extra layer of significance to Walker's works, as we view her ode to exploited workers alongside the decay of the very factory which exploited them. 

While much has been said (and, more importantly, Instagrammed!) about the massive sugar sphinx which looms over the factory floor, I was equally taken with Walker’s smaller statues. Made from molasses, the strikingly realist works commemorate the children whose labor went into harvesting the ubiquitous sweetener which eventually found its way, via this factory, into the desserts and morning coffees of sweet-toothed Americans. 

An initially unplanned feature of the installation was one I found most interesting.  After some first versions of the sugarbaby sculptures deteriorated, Walker placed their crumbled parts into the baskets of the new ones, alluding beautifully to both the artist’s own process and the inevitable decay which will claim her work. The symbolism of these laborers eventually crumbling down into the very product they toiled to create cuts even more deeply in a room where years-old leftover sugar can be found covering most surfaces. It’s a tragic allusion to the unyielding (quite literal) consumption of the western market whose nagging sweet-tooth left the workers who fulfilled it worn down and broken, and the factories who replaced them as easily as the parts of machinery now rusting alongside them.

As the molasses withstands the summer heat, layers of it run off, leaving a pattern across the concrete floor that is oddly reminiscent of the silhouettes for which Walker herself is best known.

And of course, the pièce de résistance: Walker's looming Sphinx, created with 40 tons of Domino sugar, confronts stereotypes of black female laborers quite literally head-on. As Roberta Smith at the Times says, "It all but throws possible interpretations and inescapable meanings at you." 
Her exaggeratedly big lips and headscarf call to mind the stereotypical "Mammie" trope, while her bare chest and exposed genitals turn her into a sexualized object. Such objectification, of course, is made all the more pronounced by the fact that she is made up of a substance meant to be literally consumed, often (as we know from the demands placed on this very factory) greedily and without much reflection. Yet the sculpture carries an undeniable aura of authority as she looms large over the enormous room, her blank white eyes seeing all, or nothing at all. She's difficult to categorize, as perhaps was Walker's intention. The glittering behemoth is powerful in her objectification, hulking but temporary, rising from her surroundings and also inseparably a part of them. In speaking of the project, Walker has referenced the high value of sugar as a commodity. Here, then, the sphinx is a jackpot;  tons and tons of the perfect crystalline substance molded into a shrine for the many lives its very production could have impacted. But she's also decaying as the exhibit goes on, gradually breaking down into the piles of forgotten sugar that line the factory walls. 
In any case, she's a statement. Massive and multi-faceted, she can't help but provoke exploration, and that's what the very best art is about. 

Roberta Smith likens the back view of the sphinx to a temple and its steps,
further blending objectification and glorification. 

Beyond Walker's stunning exhibit, entry into the factory itself is reason enough to make the trip. The building exudes an almost sickeningly sweet smell, and layers of rust and sugar create a striation on the factory walls that calls to mind a Richard Serra sculpture. Piles of decades-old sugar line the floors and beams, tethering Walker's sculptures even more closely to their environment. 

A Subtlety is on view through July 6. 

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