Refining, as Creative Time's Chief Curator Nato Thompson reminds us inside this 30,000 square foot former Domino Sugar facility, is a process whereby coarse cane is decolorized, and brown is turned powdery and crystalline white.
Armed with such loaded symbolism, internationally renowned artist Kara E. Walker unveils her Subtlety installation this week, completely commanding this steel girded chamber of the industrial north and jolting you from your sugar haze. Towering over our heads is the resolute and silent face of a kneeling nude polystyrene white woman with African features, posed to resemble a 35 foot sphinx encrusted with sugar and to receive your questions. Subtlety indeed.
Kara Walker. The artist portrait in profile with her sugary sphinx in the background. (photo via iPhone © Jaime Rojo)
"I'm grateful to Creative Time for inviting me to create work in a place like this that is so loaded with histories and questions," says Ms. Walker of the nonprofit organization that commissions and presents public arts projects like this one. She describes the turbulent process of creating her new mammoth piece, and all of them really. She says that her work often makes even her uncomfortable, which is somehow comforting.
The left hand gesture of the mysterious sugary Sphinx captures the eye of artist Mike Ming who asks Ms. Walker what it signifies. The artist fingers her necklace and displays the charm hanging from it - a forearm and a hand forming the same fist-like pose.
"It means many things, depending on the source," she explains, and she lists fertility as one and a protective amulet as another. Our ears perk up when she says that in some cultures it is a signal akin to "fuck you" and she has also heard that it can mean a derogatory four-letter term for a part of the female anatomy. And what does this thumb protruding between the index and middle finger mean here? "You'll have to ask her," she says smiling and nodding her head upward to the bandana crowned silent one.
Speaking of female anatomy, Ms. Walker deliberately and remarkably screams silently in the face of sexual stereotypes that prevailed and dehumanized women of African descent for the majority of North American history with this exaggerated caricature and her arching back quarters hoisted to the heavens. We only use past tense in that sentence to reassure ourselves that those stereotypes are distant and not at all connected to us today, but this may require a healthy helping of sunny denial to maintain the perception as we travel throughout the land.
The spectacle here is pushed by the extended pelvis, the protruding nether regions, the amply plump breasts rather pressed together. The presentation may summon pleasant perturbations in some viewers, while setting off murderous riots of horror in others, but we'll all keep our associations to ourselves, thank you.
This is the giant white sphinx in the living room, sparkling white and sweet. Congratulations to "Subtlety" for at least partially hushing a PC crowd of normally chatty New Yorkers who struggle to make cocktail talk in the shadows of our heritage, and for that matter, our present. We feel lucky that this sphinx does not speak, for she would likely slaughter much with her tongue.
Accompanying the sphinx are more human scale children of molasses coloring, "Sugar Babies" standing before craggled industrial walls that are coated with the thick, dark brown syrup obtained from raw sugar during the refining process. She says the five foot tall figures are based on the trinkets of porcelain once sold widely, featuring adorably cherubic slaves carrying baskets into which you may place colorful hard candies for special guests of some refinement.
On a technical note, she offers special thanks to the fabricating sculptors who struggled with the amber candy material as it reacted to changes in temperature and humidity. The floor itself had to be power-washed to loosen and dispel an inch of thick goo, and as we spoke she pointed to the dripping of a molasses type of liquid from the ceiling onto the sculpture. Asked by the CT team if the sphinx should be whitened each time there was a drip, the artist decided that she likes the dripping effect so they will leave it as is and watch how the piece ages with the history of the building.
For those who will be drawn like bees to honey to this unprecedented monument of site specificity in a place directly welded to Brooklyn's maritime history, America's industrialization and its slave economy, Ms. Walker now transforms into a stomping giant before our eyes. To those who prefer the truly subtle, this show will be overlooked as too obvious.
Kudos to Creative Time, its director Anne Pasternak, and Ms. Walker for putting our face in it, even as we bemoan the loss of this soon-to-be demolished building and its connection to our history.
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:Kara Walker - 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.
The exhibition will be open on May 10 - July 6, 2014. Free and open to the public - check here for more details.
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