The Sphinx and Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory: “Sugar Comes and Goes, Condos Come and Go”

May 9, 2014 | Marina Galperina

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby is not subtle. Dusted with 40 tons of bleached sugar, it stands nearly four stories high and lays 75 and a half feet long across the gutted cavern of the Domino Sugar Factory, which will soon to destroyed and replaced with a glossy condo complexThe New Yorker called the work, unsubtly, “Mammy-as-Sphnix.”

“She’s Sphinx-like,” Kara Walker specified to ANIMAL at the site of the installation last night. “This was a culmination of many thought processes about monumentality, about empire, about labor and public art, the sort of structures that people visit and reflect upon the culture that produce them.” She adds, “A New World Sphinx, something that envelops the sugar empire, the slave empire. The rise of sugar and the rise of slavery happened at the same time.”

But The Marvelous Sugar Baby isn’t a half-lion creature from Ancient Egypt. Walk around her and you will see her perched, tucked, no longer standing but crouching down to the floor, with the visitors strolling behind and right up to her exposed genitalia. And yet, from any angle, it is overwhelming and massive, incredibly impressive in person.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)

Like Walker’s other work — most famously, cut-out silhouettes of the physical, sexual and psychological violence endured on plantations, and then, fantastical, gloriously gory slave rebellions, and, my favorite, some poignantly slaughtered Southern belles — this one is authentically disturbing and all too human. But what about the space?

How does Walker’s mythology fit into this raw space, the artwork commissioned by Creative Time whose board co-chairman is Jed Walentas — the principal at Two Trees development firm who will be “renovating” this building into an extravagant condominium complex? A residential project that only recently was forced to add additional affordable housing units?

“I don’t have a position on gentrification necessarily,” Walker says. “I think that the thing about this piece, and the site, and this building, you know…”

The artist spent eight weeks constructing the polystyrene core from its digitally cut, hand-assembled parts, coating it with 40 out of the 80 tons of sugar Domino provided, with a rotating team of between 8 and 10 people. She says there’s also someone assigned to the duty of keeping the rodents and roaches from eating the sculpture. “Rat poison” signs can also be seen dotting the outside of the building.

She made clear what she wanted to say, even in her initial announcement: “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.”

Domino is coming down. The fancy condos are going up. This is going to happen, no matter how many of us are sentimentally attached to the history of this place and some ephemeral idea of a time it represents. But the building itself has a history of labor abuse and the beginning of its industry was nurtured by slave labor. Walker’s Subtlety is a towering reminder.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)

But it too will be destroyed, behind those walls that street artists have been commissioned to paint, awkwardly doted on by some outlets, as if it was something philanthropic in garlanding a construction fence. Then there was a celebrity-attended gala event that raised $1.3 million for Creative Time and Freedom for All, a charity working to end slavery world-wide, started by former CEO of Ford Models Katie Ford. Domino’s hollow corpse has had quite the going away party.

This is a space with a conflicting present. Kara Walker’s gleaming, immense, historically-referential, site-specific work speaks loudly, and hopefully, it will echo loudly too.

“Cultures come and go. Condos come and go,” Walker says, before being shuttled off to give remarks to the press. “Sugar empires come and go. Bodies come and go… Sugar comes and goes.”

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)