Life is short, and life is sweet. Artist Kara Walker reminds us of the beauty and ephemerality of life and its comforts as we know them today with her show “A Subtlety,” also known as the “Marvelous Sugar Baby,” a sculptural installation inside the Domino Sugar Factory produced by Creative Time. The exhibition opened this past weekend, coinciding with Frieze New York.
Walking into the Domino Sugar Factory is a delightful experience on its own. Not many structures boast the charm and history of a warehouse built in 1882, when it was the largest sugar refinery in the world. There are stairs and ladders that lead to large doors that go nowhere, odd windows and holes that must have opened up to something at some time, and colors that can only be formed by rust, age, and a beautiful decay. The dark atmosphere welcomes beams of natural light that pour in from skylights and large windows that sometimes host purple or yellow glass panels. There’s a strong and unmistakable saccharine scent that fills the air before you even turn the corner into the space, already awarding viewers with a childlike sense of wonder that has been so lost from our lives for such a long time.
The “sugar baby” isn’t so much a baby, but a massive sphinx like structure, coming in at 35 feet high and 75 feet long. It is made of stark white sugar, and pulls you through the space as it invites you with its size, smell, and contrast with the dark atmosphere. As you walk toward it, you pass rows of smaller figures of boys made of brown molasses that drips and drops under their spotlights. This is the artist’s first public work, but explores common themes in her ouvre such as gender, race, sexuality, identity. Her sphinx plays on the “mammy” archetype, emphasizing a darker period in black history and identity, and uses the context of the space to remind us of the culture’s —and the world’s— harsh history of sugar mining and production. The woman’s large facial feature, bosom, and dramatically curved and enlarged behind. Her hands are placed in a way that symbolize a number of different gestures based on your cultural predilections. In some cultures the “fig” fist, or clenched fist, symbolize fertility or good luck, in others, they symbolize everyone’s favorite phrase “Fuck You.” One thing that is not so subtle, is the woman’s genitalia. From the back, her beautifully carved feet are tucked under her spectacular derriere, housing a vulva that Roberta Smith so perfectly describes it as though it “might almost be the entrance to a temple or cave,” allowing us to acknowledge where we all came from, “innocent and unrefined.”
Sugar has always played the role of a treat, a delicacy, a special refinery that gets taken for granted. “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette is famed to have said, upon hearing her kingdom was starving and without bread, obnoxiously oblivious to the fact that sugar was a delicacy, and not within the reach of the poor townspeople. Sugar cane fields are also almost synonymous with slavery, a dark and awful part of our history where slaves would harvest this delight for rich, white, and free America. How fitting for the substance then, to highlight how special life is, and how we simply cannot take our freedoms and comforts for granted? When considering the ephemeral nature of the melting boys, the ultimate demise of the beautiful building, which had such an important role for such a short lifespan, and the sphinx’s display of the beauty of life and creation, it’s hard not to remember that life is short and sweet.
“A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby” runs through July 6 at the former Domino Sugar factory, and is free and open to the public Fridays 4–8, Saturdays and Sundays 12–6.