Above photograph by the author. Depicts the back of Walker’s sphinx, Sugar Baby (2014).
You could say that Kara Walker’s latest exhibition, 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– is anything but subtle. I attended the show today, and it is about a half hour wait getting in, although beneath the blazing Williamsburg sun it feels like longer. Ice cream and beverage vendors walked by continuously during this purgatory period, and one peddler even said something meaningful and humorous about art. He expressed that after all, he, too, is an artist, using his own creativity to mix sugar syrup drinks. The interaction was typical New York, but it also made me wonder who we define as artists, and what we define as art, a pertinent question considering our context of an ‘art’ installation comprised of molasses-based structures and a monument made from sugar.
When I finally reached the exhibition’s entrance gates, I found myself in a field of rubble with a dilapidated Domino Sugar Factory situated in its center. Because the factory is so physically imposing even as it is falling apart, walking towards it felt cinematic and climactic. The acridity of the factory where the show is housed was the first thing I noticed when I came in; it smelled like a combination of sugar and urine. The second thing I observed were the spread-out wooden or brown plaster sculptures of naked children, some of them mauled and mutilated. These children, with their huge round heads and carrying large baskets, were drenched entirely in sugar crystals and syrup. On the floor beneath them were oily saccharine spills. The ten or so figures were meant to be African-American slaves working on sugar plantations and bruised or beaten; wounded and near death. As you walk through the space, the irony here is obvious: sculptures that speak out against and to the tragedy of slave labor are presented in a site where menial blue-collar workers once toiled. The works troubled me because of their brutality: the limbs laid out on the floor, sugary coats of skin peeling off lesion-marred bodies.
My mood resurged upon peeking through a little whole in the factory’s steel walls from which you could see a brilliantly lit East River and the buildings of lower Manhattan. This natural setting jarred with what was to come: an entirely artificial edifice, in the form of a ginormous sculpture of an Aunt Jemima-style, kerchiefed and bosomed, sugar sphinx, stood in the back, erected on top of a wire or styrofoam base. By the time I saw it, it had already been up for a little while and seemed to be melting. There were also hints of yellow tinting/discoloration, in contrast with Creative Time, the installation organizer’s, many promises that there have been no animal incidents involved in maintaining the project (one would conjecture otherwise).
Prior to visiting A Subtlety in person, I had come to the conclusion as I read up on the exhibition in magazines and newspapers that it was overrated, too associated with and tinged by Walker’s political agenda. The simple beauty in the proportions and the enormity of her works (not just the sphinx but also the other sculptures, as well) nonetheless makes for a jaw-dropping experience. The line is worth the wait. Her show is an important cultural event that is interesting and strays from the norm.
Want more information about A Subtlety (its ethos being already summarized aptly by its lengthy subheading)? Read up on the artist and works via this NY Times article by Roberta Smith and this Vulture version by her husband, Jerry Saltz. Now get over there (or, alternatively, build your own digital sphinx or Sugar Baby, and read Creative Time’s curatorial statement). Either way, enjoy!
Also, here’s a really cool video of Creative Time employees assembling the sphinx: