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Giddy Discomfort

By (August 1, 2014) 5 Comments


The Domino Sugar Refinery operated on the Brooklyn Waterfront for more than a century, and is about to be demolished and turned into luxury housing, with a portion set aside for low- and middle-income residents. The oldest building still at the site dates to 1882, but sugar has been processed on that spot since the 1850s. From May through early July of this year, however, the defunct factory featured an installation by renowned artist Kara Walker, hailed by many as the art sensation of the season.

The installation, dedicated to those exploited in the industrial processing of sugar, and seen more broadly a statement about slavery and sexual exploitation, was sponsored by a public art consortium called Creative Time. The developer of the site, Two Trees Management, is owned by one of Creative Time’s board members, and Domino Sugar donated the 40 tons of sugar used to create the project, leading some to cry foul.

“This is art packaged to look like radicalism while supporting capitalism at its worst,” wrote Carol Diehl, who in addition to being an artist and writer, is also a former Director of Communications for Creative Time. On her blog she suggested that the installation provided advertising for the development (which had been opposed by community groups and some City Council members) and enabled Domino, through its donation, to whitewash its own connection to the exploitation the work critiqued.

Entitled “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 installation consisted of a 35-foot-tall by 70-foot-long Sphinx-like sculpture, surrounded by small figures arrayed around the open floor of the old refining plant. These statues depicted children made of burnt sugar, molasses, and resin, engaged in the hard labor of harvesting and processing sugar. In a few places, shattered and half-melted “sugar boys” lay where they fell, either because of the heat, the unstable materials used in their production, or perhaps because they were too young for this work. They were small, yet still seemed enlarged — four to five feet tall but with the frames of six- or seven-year-olds. Most stood amid sticky rivers of black and reddish-brown sugar effluent, as though sweating themselves away.

Sugar BoysThe “Marvelous Sugar Baby” towered over everything, a woman with African features, a kind of “Mammy/Aunt Jemima” character, with a kerchief and exposed breasts. Her arms lay forward, like the classic pose of the Sphinx, though her arched back raised her rear end almost as high as her head, revealing a vulva the size of a armchair. The sculpture appeared to be made entirely of sugar, though in fact it consisted mainly of shaped polystyrene, coated with the sugar donated by the Domino Company.

This installation fit the themes and style of “classic” Kara Walker, but also marked a departure from her previous work. Throughout her 20-year career, Walker has played with stereotypical images from America’s racial history, creating silhouettes (sometimes full-room murals) depicting racial crimes, including murder, rape and other forms of slavery’s violence, all in the slightly baroque style of Victorian-style design. Frequently, she gives the scenes a surreal twist: role reversal, gender confusion, other distortions that only draw attention to the horror of America’s historic truth. (Walker has said she wants to produce a “giddy discomfort.”) It’s our history brought back to us as nightmare, including the sorts of jokes our subconscious mind puts into dreams. Imagine a shadow puppet show of the Antebellum South, written and designed by Franz Kafka.

The term “subtlety” refers to sugar sculptures that graced the tables of the Renaissance era economic and political elite, Europe’s precursor to the Robber Barons of the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. Walker’s’ “Subtlety” is a sculptural work by an artist who has up to now been working in two dimensions. The shift from two to three dimensional art did not diminish her vision, however; if anything, she exploited the details of the space and its historical context as though she had designed them herself.

The meaning of the piece is contingent upon its location’s history: by the 1890s, the Domino plant processed half of the sugar consumed in the United States. The space also represented the might of industrial power and coercion (one of the longest strikes in American history took place here in 2000) as well as its decline (operations ceased in 2004). Given that the site had been home to sugar processing since before the Civil War, however, and since that industry (including Domino) has been exploiting people in slavery-like conditions up to the present day, some activists called for the factory to be preserved as an historic “slavery site” not unlike concentration camps in Europe.

Second, the drama of the space itself: the vaulted ceilings, charred walls, and pervasive odor of burned sugar made “A Subtlety” visceral. History literally permeated the air — you could not help but breathe it in — and it was not pleasant. This art got in your face in a way that Damien Hirst could only dream of.

In addition to being Walker’s first site-specific installation, “A Subtlety” represented her first major foray in sculpture. Walker made meaning out of the process by which she created the “sugar boys.” Their posture and overall aspect seemed a natural extension of her earlier silhouette work, they were also intrinsically fragile — both as exploited children and as sculptures made of sugar. The broken and melted figures interspersed among the “healthy” boys, and the shards of the early casualties placed in the baskets they carried, emphasized the vulnerability of the statues themselves as well as the lives they represented.

VulvaComing around behind the central figure, however, one suddenly encounters the undeniable bodaciousness of the Mammy Sphinx, as well as her simultaneously provocative and submissive posture. Walker’s metier is provocation, and clearly the woman’s facial features, breasts and buttocks are as unsubtle as most of her other work. But a closer look at the left hand reveals a surprise — a subtlety in “A Subtlety”! The fingers are arranged in a “figa” (sometimes called a “fig”) — the tip of the thumb poking from between the index and middle fingers. This gesture has numerous meanings, from “good luck” to fertility, to “fuck you” in a number of different cultures (including Brazil, where sugar is still a major industry), to a representation of female genitalia. (A recent NY Times article about the dismantling of the work noted that the left hand was the only part that Walker kept as a memento of the project.)

Speaking of female genitalia, there is the matter of the vulva, which drew accusations of crass exploitative intent. But while the Sphinx’s breasts and buttocks might be considered vulgar, the appearance of the vulva is more humanizing than pornographic. Yes, this sculpture is symbolic, metaphorical, exaggerated, but she is also a woman, not an denatured illusion.

The initial reaction, from established art and cultural critics, was generally positive; most were familiar with Walker’s work and style, and they all commented on the unique nature of the location itself. New Yorkers have always witnessed the final days of one landmark or another; as Colson Whitehead (like Walker, the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship) wrote, you become a New Yorker when you can point to a place and remember what used to be there. Sometimes we witness these changes in horror, but more often they evoke wistful nostalgia. Goodbye, Lenox Lounge, goodbye, Kentile Floors sign, goodbye Big Nick’s, affordable housing, CBGB’s, and of course, goodbye North Tower, goodbye South.

At the site, after one saw the warnings about rat poison and other chemical hazards (everyone had to sign a waiver to gain entry), numerous signs invited visitors to share their photos on social media (with the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino). Photos began to surface on social media of people taking selfies standing under the massive ass, or gesturing lewdly at the breasts, or the genitals. Accounts appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to the Indypendent, describing or showing photos that, while not sexually suggestive, still seemed disrespectful to the ruined lives indicated in the title. Inevitably, this behavior was considered in a racial context.

While not all the offensive selfies were posted by white people, and not all the outraged reactions (to either the selfies or the Mammy-Sphinx itself) were written by black critics, there was an unfortunate if familiar breakdown. Ultimately, it made “A Subtlety” a Rorschach test, one that revealed (not entirely in black and white) what meanings we project onto the bodies and lives of those depicted and referenced in the work: bodies of color, bodies of women, bodies of children, bodies of those exploited in the pursuit of industrial agriculture. Or whether we see them at all.

My first visit to the space was a warm, dry Friday afternoon. The crowd (which had its own hype — the line extended to the Williamsburg Bridge, more than ten blocks away) consisted mainly of people who came to witness, and those there to consume. I saw more people of color who seemed to be behaving as witnesses, or seemed more cognizant of the political and historic aspects of “A Subtlety,” while most of those who seemed to be behaving like consumers shared a European background. Although I did not witness the more appalling misogynist behavior, I did see one woman (young, thin, and blonde, with a German accent) pose in front of the big Sphinx with her arms outstretched and one leg kicked back, a gesture of carefree frivolity. She might have been standing in front of a gushing fountain.

On my second visit to the exhibit, we’d had a week of hot weather and some heavy rain, and the molasses scent in the air had a heavier tang, with more than a hint of fermentation and putrefaction. This time, the crowd seemed less clearly differentiated; whether it was the molasses-becoming-rum air, or that the mad rush was a little madder (it was the final weekend of the show, and the line extended beyond the Williamsburg Bridge), behavior was less demographically predictable.

HeadOver by the hand making the “figa” I overheard a group of white visitors talking about real estate (investment, not injustice), but around back I noticed a Creative Time volunteer speaking to an interested (and racially diverse) group about the history of exploitative imagery in art, no doubt an attempt to give the Marvelous Sugar Baby’s vulva a little more context.

Walker’s work has always been about race-based injustice; until now it has usually appeared in academic or gallery settings, before a predominantly white audience. Progressive white people, myself included, have grown comfortable saying “yeah, America was founded on slavery,” and either stop there or continue with “but….” (Less progressive-minded friends of mine say “it’s 2014! Time to get over it!”) However, even among those willing to concede the horror of the past, the statement rarely prompts any deeper consideration. Some will throw in the genocide of the indigenous population, because hey, why not? It’s not like anyone’s doing any real accounting, right?

Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his article “The Case for Reparations” which appeared in The Atlantic just after the opening of Walker’s installation. It is a systematic accounting of the historic and ongoing injuries, primarily the economic discrimination and exploitation (he frequently uses the word “plunder”) that grew out of slavery, but remain with us today. (Coates focuses on the stories of a few individuals, but the one he returns to throughout is Clyde Ross, who escaped oppression in Jim Crow Mississippi only to be taken advantage of in Chicago, specifically in his attempts to own a house.) The article makes a compelling case that, based on the economic injustice as well as the psychic wounds, our society needs to address the question of compensation for our past sins (which he traces from lynching to red-lining housing discrimination, right up to the sub-prime loans of the most recent banking crisis). While he does not propose any specific plan of what a reparations package might look like, Coates suggests that even the discussion would go a long way to helping our nation heal and grow. “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

There is something about all of Kara Walker’s art that feels like an airing of family secrets, and the revival of old ghosts. “A Subtlety” brought viewers into the process, physically in the space where historical injustice and human suffering got refined and transformed into sweetener. As complicated and fraught as those issues are, the Coates article’s focus on the injustice in policies of government and financial institutions brings us back the uncomfortable ties between the artist’s sponsors and the developers, on the one hand, and the industry whose exploitation the art indicts on the other. As far as the Domino connection is concerned, one could say that it gave an artist 40 tons of sugar and she threw it in the company’s face. The housing question is a bit thornier, because some have argued that the Walker exhibit was underwritten to give a luxury housing development some cultural cache, or at least reduce the resistance of locals. Community organizers who had been fighting Two Trees Management claimed a partial victory when Mayor Bill de Blasio convinced the developer to increase the number of affordable units at the site. While better than a reduction of affordable units, this will come as little comfort to families forced to move by this latest wave of gentrification.

But Walker’s installation did enable viewers to move beyond our stock responses, all designed to avoid uncomfortable discussion of our history, and of what might be owed to those who still suffer. Giddy or not, the discomfort raised by her art might keep the questions we tend to shirk burning a little longer in our consciousness. In the meantime, if developers decide to follow the trend of having separate entrances for the higher-income and lower-income residents, I hope Ms. Walker will donate the sugar-coated “figa” for the luxury lobby. They can tell themselves it means “good luck.”


Brendan Costello Jr.
teaches creative writing at The City College of New York, where he earned his MFA. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Salon.com, ep;phany magazine, Promethean, and smokebox.net. He is also the producer and co-host of “The Largest Minority” on WBAI radio in New York.