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Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” at Domino Sugar Factory

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For weeks, I’ve been hearing about how fascinating the exhibit by Kara Walker at the former site of the Domino Sugar Factory (soon to be converted into housing) is, but I hadn’t had an available afternoon to make it over to Williamsburg to get on line to see it.  This past Friday, I managed to carve out the time to take it in.  The show is in honor of the people who worked to refine and make the sugar that we’ve all enjoyed over the generations, with the centerpiece of the program being “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.”

“A Subtlety” – long view

Walking into the decaying structure, I was hit headlong with a smell that triggered a long-ago memory of my mother’s hobby of decorating cakes and making candy in our home kitchen.  A burnt-ish aroma of caramelizing sugar combined with an overpowering scent of fermenting sweetness in the air.  Remnants of the space’s former use were still in evidence, with piles of leftover sugar having accumulated on pieces of the factory’s support structures, which are still intact all around the space.

Sugar on the base of the columns

The scents and the remains of this industrial history emphasizes the starkness of the sugar structures dotted around the floor – the children with their baskets for collecting the harvest.  These pieces also share the effects the physical changes taking place in the space due to exposure to the strong seasonal sunshine.  They and the remains of the industrial infrastructure, along with the lingering aromas, are like long-ago ghosts whose hard work continues to echo in the vast, empty chamber, even now after the factory has been closed for so many years.

Statue of a child slave

Grains of sugar are bunched around the statues, as they are breaking down, while the baskets they hold seem to be filled either with the refined substance or a molten version of it, highlighting the different stages of production for this crop as it reached these shores.  There’s something sad and beautiful about these sculptures.  The largest piece seems to be looking over them, perhaps trying to guard them from a harsh fate or maybe she’s powerless to stop it.

A transforming sculpture

Unfortunately, however, the chemical effects of the sugar plus the heat plus time (something that we learn quite a bit about in cooking) means that these statues aren’t immune to collapse and crumbling.  Several of the smaller works were already in pieces when I saw them.  From a culinary point of view, it was also fascinating to see the several stages of disintegration of the works.  Some of the sugar turned to pools of syrup decorating the factory floor, while shards of sweet film seemed to resemble shredded cloth.

Sugar melting

More detailed aspects of the pieces had become obscured during the melting process.  The impermanence of it all and the decomposing of a few of the sculptures as a result of the environmental decay was a little disturbing, especially in a few cases where you could still recognize the humanity of the subject.  It was almost as though a worker had collapsed in the steamy, hot fields, mid-workshift.

The main piece

Even with the largest sculpture, the “Sugar Baby,” time exposed to the elements of this industrial space has made it more transparent.  Drips of sugar hang from her headpiece, like saccarine beads of sweat.  Between her breasts you could see where the grains had fused together, as happens when moisture gathers in that spot on sweltering summertime days.  The statue kneels down on a bed of fine white grains, further tying together this exhibit with the former nature of this space.  Is it a statement on our dependence upon this import and its role in our society?

Factory exit

This is definitely not an exhibit to be missed for the works and their medium as well as for the space itself.  With so many of the older, industrial spaces in the city, especially in parts of Brooklyn, on the chopping block, it was also a unique chance to look inside the factory and to experience it un-retouched.  Below is a longer slide show of the pictures that I took, including some shots of the crumbling walls of this building, which seem to ooze sugar, a reminder of its previous existence.

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