Not So Subtle

Vertical panorama of Kara Walker's 35-foot sugar-over-styrofoam Mammy

The Domino sugar refinery, a defunct building in Williamsburg, is on Kent Street all the way to the bank of the East River. Of course it would be located here, as ships would have had to arrive by water to disgorge the molasses and pick up refined sugar. This is the location of an imposing sculptural installation organized by Creative Time, conceived by Kara Walker, and executed by a team of engineers and carving robots.

The installation, a giant Mammy of refined white sugar, is titled A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. A subtlety is a molded sugar sweet. In the days when sugar was an expensive commodity, subtleties were only for the well-to-do. 

There is nothing subtle about Walker’s sculpture, nor should there be. For starters, the sculpture is a big black Mammy that’s white. She’s enormous, making you insignificant before her. Posed like a sphinx, she’s anything but mythical. Her considerable breasts and exposed vulva make her a sexual being, neither an inscrutable totem, nor a maternal Aunt Jemima.

Walker’s subtitle tells you more:  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. Yes, sugar brought to you by slavery and indentured servitude.

View from the entrance

Your eyes need a bit of adjustment when you enter the cathedral-like space, which is illuminated by high clerestory windows and skylights above them. When the pupils  have dilated sufficiently, you can see the figure in the distance. My point-and-shoot captured it as a numinous presence, featureless and aglow. On your way to the figure, you encounter a number of cast sugar figures, slightly-larger-than-life-size little boys bearing enormous baskets. Ambient heat makes the cast sugar melt so that treacle pools at their feet. Yes, it looks like blood. 

Sugar babies of cast sugar . . .

. . . treacle at their feet

. . . translucent in the light overhead

The walls of corrugated iron, reinforced or patched in sections, are dripping with what looks to be patching tar. But, no, it’s molasses. There’s a lot of dripping, a lot of sticky in that place. 

You could spend the afternoon looking at the walls

When you get closer to the figure, the numinous glow gives way to form and feature: a four-story Mammy with drifts of sugar between her breasts. I walked clockwise around the  sculpture, which is about 80 feet long, pausing at her prodigious backside. Personally, I feel the exposed vulva makes her appear too vulnerable. But sexuality is also power.

Light and scale

Walking clockwise around the sculpture

View from the back

And continuing around the statue

Rain from the night before has dripped molasses onto the figure's neck and shoulder

The building is neither insulated nor water tight. You can see where a soaking rain from the night before has drenched the figure with a mix of  molasses and grime. I don’t know if Walker could have anticipated that particular indignity, but there sits the figure--sexual, powerful, dwarfing everyone around her, in a cathedral-like building dripping molasses surrounded by melting sugar babies.

Go ponder all those layers of material and meaning. 

The installation is free and open to the public until July 6. Bring sunscreen or an umbella, as there can be a line with an up-to-30-minute wait.

The wait to get in. Screen grab from Art21 video

If you can't get there
. There's a good video by Art 21 in which you can see the figure being constructed, with Walker on site
. Roberta Smith's review for the New York Times  

. Jerry Saltz's review for New York Magazine 
. Hrag Vartanian's review for Hyperallergic  

. Kara Rooney's interview with the artist for The Brooklyn Rail

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