Monday, December 22, 2014

Best of 2014: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory

Kara Walker's A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

When I called Ai Weiwei's show at the Brooklyn Museum the most impressive exhibition of the year, I may have misspoken. That title might more rightly be given to Kara Walker's incredible installation this spring and summer at the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg. For two months, at no charge (other than the price of standing in a reliably blocks-long line), the public could visit "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the upaid 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."

Entrance to Walker's installation at the Domino Sugar storage shed

Using the soon-to-be-demolished sugar storage shed as an integral actor, Ms. Walker's immense exhibition drew on centuries of the sugar trade's ugly history to explore themes of oppression, exploitation, stereotypes and the objectification of African-American bodies. Dark walls caked with decades of molasses residue, resembling stalactites, imbued the cavernous space with an overpowering scent of sweetness. Light streamed in from clerestories high overhead to illuminate Walker's focal point, a 75-foot-long by 35-foot-high sphinx fashioned from polystyrene coated in bleached sugar. Lording over the warehouse, the head of the sphinx took cues from imagery of the Mamie stereotype of America's not-so-distant past. Her body represented an exaggeration of the overtly sexualized objectification of black women, a depressingly familiar presence in contemporary popular culture, but just the latest strand in a thread that can be traced back hundreds of years. After a month and a half of existence, the sphinx showed signs of discoloration due to sun, leaks in the roof and exposure to hundreds of visitors per day.

Scattered throughout the warehouse and around the base of the sphinx, were molasses statues of children carrying baskets of raw sugar. By the time of our visit, near the end of the show's two-month run, the sculptures were found in various states of decay. Sticky puddles of melted molasses had formed around the children--on the floor, on walls; in low light, one could be forgiven for mistaking the result for pools of blood. The head of one figure had separated from its body, left to melt on the ground.

The show's ephemeral and evolutionary nature gave it a powerful sense of vitality and urgency. Its transience also instilled the feeling that the characters that composed its whole were decaying, and along with the institution that birthed and contained them, would soon be lost to history. But the remarkable impression left by Walker's show will not soon be forgotten.

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