A Subtlety By Kara Walker
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I've never been to Egypt but I can imagine how the mystery of seeing the Sphinx rising from the desert is somewhat mitigated by all the trappings of the tourism industry around it--tour guides, the lines, souvenir stands, finding bottle water, etc. Postcards and pictures make it look like an Ozymandias experience of encountering ancient history amid the sands but I'm sure the real experience is more tightly managed. That's how it is with the mammy sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory, "A Subtlety" by Kara Walker, where you wait in a long line (fast-moving, but took me about 45 minutes to go three blocks on a Friday afternoon) and then sign release forms absolving the organizers of any guilt should you inhale an asbestos and then go inside, where there are guides observing you and you're surrounded by tourists, people posing and snapping the object, which is so huge and mysterious albeit somewhat detracted by all the hullaballoo I've just described. I've read a lot of articles about how, although this work deals with the legacy of slavery and racism, most of the people who go to it are white and they take goofy pictures pointing at the sphinx's ass and so on, but when I was there were a lot of people of color and though everyone was taking photos of the sculpture they seemed to me to be posing solemnly, not silly--I remember one man who dropped to a half squat and pointed a sober, thoughtful gaze at his friend's phone, holding it for two or three minutes while his friend staged the perfect shot. So, maybe reports were sensationalized, or maybe I just lucked out to be there on a day when the atmosphere was chill, and people were taking pictures not to make light of it but because that's all people know how to do when confronted with a monumental sublime moment, the enormity of an important piece of art that will later dissolve, the importance of it swells their longing to capture it in an image and tag themselves to that moment to think of it again later. I couldn't resist getting a photo either but it all seemed too big to fit on my iphone so I just got some details of the dirty sugar at the sphinx's feet, the lodes of impurities lodged in her sugary flesh like dirt in shoveled snow.
Something to witness, something to see. If you love art and have the opportunity you must see this. It's so overwhelming on one level but its also very subtle, not by size and form but in other ways much more difficult to describe. Peoples reactions alone are interesting and become part of the whole show. The smells and the sticky floors add to the whole experience. The building itself is visually stimulating.
An absolute success and an overall amazing installation.
Good Lord I thought I was approaching the Great Wall of China! We arrived in Brooklyn around 2:30pm only to find a line that stretched for blocks. It was almost 90 degrees and I don't recall a breeze.
After lunch we got on line Saturday the 5th , on the eve of the exhibit's closing. Oddly enough it only took us about 1 hour and 10 minutes; I was so relieved!
"Subtlety" also known as "The Marvelous Sugar Baby" exhibit is SOMETHING that you have to see with your very own eyes! 35 feet tall and 40 tons of sparkly white sugar sprayed on to a form, to create this astounding Southern American
Mythological creature who was birthed during a time when elder black men and women were referred to as "uncle" and "aunt" instead of the formal "Mr." or "Ms." The Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1856 and in 1870 it was refining more than half of the sugar in the U.S.
So Why Sugar?
18th century wealthy French would decorate their dessert tables with sensual sculptures and statues made of white sugar. If they did not use sugar they used matte porcelain, a close resemblance. These sculptures were called subtleties as artist Kara Walker took notice of and decided to recreate within this very tradition. For centuries, the lower classes had no access to sugar until the 1900s.
The smell of the sugar factory was both sweet and sour.
I first walked around to observe the little brown sugar boys strategically placed around the mammy sphinx. They were melting, deteriorating, and decaying right before our eyes, yet they still marched on with baskets on their backs and bundles thrown over their shoulders. At one point I walked around to watch how people were reacting to the images. One black woman walked over to each image and just stood there as though she were attending a funeral, walking to each figurine dropping her head in sadness, clutching her chest, while her white male friend rubbed her back and just held her hand. Others- rushed over to stand in front of the Sphinx grinning with 2-thumbs up and peace signs as though they were posing in front of the Grand Canyon.
( LOL--No Judgment )
It just amazed me at how something so striking as the Mammy Sphinx and her exposed derriere brought out a multitude of people and reactions.
I thought it was cool that some of the docents hired to work the exhibit were former employees. They talked about their good job that paid $17 an hour with over-time and appeared to be very proud of the experience and opportunity.
By June of 1999, when the International Longshoremen's Association began a 20-month strike, Domino Sugar was out! High-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners had cleared the competition!
Four years later, the refinery was closed. A few workers, transferred to the Domino plant in Yonkers, but more than 200 people lost their jobs. Yes. Both Sweet and Sour.
Well worth the journey on a most noteworthy occasion Independence Day weekend. For Kara Walker and " to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes" this was a major success.
A fascinating, free exhibit of sugar sculptures.
Came here on a whim whilst following others who had planned to peruse the installation... Nick T, Hillary, Jason S, Win C, Ryan M. I truly didn't know what to expect despite having read some of the reviews and the event description itself.
The wait was an seemingly long half hour wait in-line that moved rather rapidly, luckily in the nice, sunny weather. Attendants provided waivers to sign our life away as it was an active construction site, destined to be torn down upon the exhibit's conclusion. Yep, it was definitely not going to be anything more than temporary.
Upon walking toward the structure housing the exhibit, a sign alongside the structure explains the purpose. Upon entering, one can't help but be immersed by the strange odor of stale sugar. I've walked by an active Domino Sugar factory before. The air is typically sweet, giving passerby's a natural high. Not so here... it's quite rancid.
Randomly placed sculptures of melting molasses-like children are interspersed across the length of the factory. In the back/center is the GINORMOUS Sphinx. How in the world could such an object that large be crafted out of sugar? I took it all in for what it's worth- It is unique. It is art. ...And it makes a statement.
Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" is an art exhibit happening in the soon-to-be demolished Domino Sugar Factory. The Domino Sugar Factory is located along the waterfront in South Williamsburg.
The exhibit features a massive sphinx made of sugar (though according to the New York Times, is polystyrene in its core). The sphinx is about 75 feet long and goes from base to ceiling. The exhibit's theme is empowerment of the enslaved: in addition to the sugar sphinx, there are a dozen or so statues of children carrying products including bananas and sugar. It is deeply provocative and thought-provoking.
Its subtitle is "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." This should give you an idea of its messaging.
The site is a shed of the now-closed Domino Sugar Factor, which has been in the news of late - it will be demolished soon to make way for condos and affordable housing. In the meantime, though, the shed hosts this exhibit. It distinctly smells of sugar and molasses, which made the work that much more interesting.
The exhibit is absolutely free. To get there, you can either take the L to Bedford Avenue and walk about 10 minutes south, or the East River Ferry, which stops at both North Williamsburg and South Williamsburg (the factory is about equidistant from the two). The entrance is on Kent and South 1st Avenue. If you are trying to use an exact address, try Ms. J's Gymnastics across the street at 289 Kent Avenue. Aside from one enterprising juice cart, there is no food in the immediate area, so best to eat if necessary prior.
The line situation seemed worse than it was. When we arrived, the line was about two blocks long. They let 50 people in every ten minutes, so we had to wait approximately 35 minutes, which is nothing compared to the Rain Room. Granted, the exhibit just opened a week ago so it may get more popular and the line may get longer. You have to sign a waiver before you go in as it is an active construction site.
30 tons of sugar !! ' SWEET '
This is by far one of the best art installations I have ever seen in one of the oldest landmarks in Williamsburg .
The setting is amazing , The Domino sugar factory couldn't have been a better place to do this . Of course it all ties in with the inspiration of the exhibit .
So whether you like art or not prepare to be amazed .
Worth the wait and the paperwork. Release form basically says "I understand I'm entering a construction zone and I promise I won't sue." Wear sensible shoes that you don't mind getting sticky, and watch the floor for molasses prints.
I only wish there were some literature available for perspective, but you can find info at creativetime.org .
I came here a few weeks back with not much background on the exhibit other than the fact there would be a large sphinx-like statue and came away finding the totality of the exhibit quite interesting, if not strange. For those interested in coming and wondering where the entrance is, it's located on South 1st street and Kent Avenue. You can't miss it as a huge sign was posted on the gate and a few police officers were standing nearby. Surprisingly, there wasn't really a wait to get in after work on a Friday. A line formed outside of the factory, but it moved very quickly and the hold up was really due to everyone having to sign a waiver before stepping in (since the site is considered under construction).
Once inside, I immediately noticed the enormity of the place. The rusting of the walls and steel beams were evident too. The smell of sugar cane constantly played with my nose as I walked around. The first things I noticed were the "blackamoors" statues located throughout the factory. The "blackamoors" were basically statues of little boys carrying baskets, with most of the baskets filled with some sugary gelatin substance inside. It was actually a bit puzzling and disgusting to look at.
At the far end of the factory was where the Sphinx was located. This is where you'll find a majority of the visitors, some sitting on the side benches, others trying to get photos with or of the Sphinx. Although the front of the Sphinx is what is displayed in photos, the backside was the real buzz! After taking a look at the front, I walked towards the back to see the huge "backside" of the statue. I wasn't really sure what to make of it, but it was absolutely worthy of more than one photo. For those with kids, the image of the backside might be a bit inappropriate because it looks like a vagina is carved in between the 2 "cheeks". Nonetheless, it's still a site to behold!
Overall, I was probably at the exhibit for about 45 minutes to an hour and that was pushing it. It's a pretty cool and unique exhibit and best of all, it's free! Not sure how long it will be before a wait actually does form outside, but the factory is big enough where I think it'd be rare.
But first.... Lemme take a selfie.
This was my first Kara Walker exhibit, but I was prepared for the experience because I've seen some of her other works online. They are banal and deeply disturbing all at once. Images with depth and multilayered meaning. Thought this work is pretty straight forward... almost like a bludgeon, it did have a deeper context. Not that I think anyone having their picture taken throwing up duces quite got it.
When you first walk in the smell hits you. It was unexpected, shocking, nauseating and confusing. Isn't sugar supposed to smell sweet??? It was like a warehouse full of the dead. Apropos since so many died in the sugar trade. Riches were built on the corpses of enslaved black men, women and children.
Before you get to the main sculpture, you encounter smaller brown sugar forms of children toting baskets or bananas. I don't know what Ms. Walker called them, but my first thought was "Sugar Babies". Along with the sickly sweet smell of the brown sugar and walking through the sticky dried blood-like puddles that were oozing from the pieces, my childhood memory of that candy was ruined forever.
Some of the sculptures completely deteriorated in the non-climate controlled environment. It was like finding the remains of small children by the side of the road during high summer.
By the time I reached the massive white sugar "Mammy Sphinx", the smell wasn't as strong or I just got used to it. Sorry, I really should look up what Ms. Walker has titled these pieces, but these are my off the cuff impressions.
This is when the audience got weird. Put breasts and genitals around people and they strip the person or object of any meaning other than it being for their titillation. I guess that would be the explanation for the smiles and the numerous requests for me to photograph people with her. But that was at the front. At the rear, people didn't seem to know exactly what was appropriate or not.
She's a New World deity.
I'm currently reading "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman and the connection to this book seems fitting. She was brought over with her people on slave ships. Countless thousands of lives were sacrificed to her. She gave her acolytes wealth immeasurable on both sides of the Atlantic. But now her temple is a ruin, slated to become condominiums for the wealthy still benefiting from her largesse all these hundreds of years latter.
Okay... I'm going to stop here before I completely depress myself.
In my uncultured opinion, Ms. Walker has done it once again. Brava.
A unique art piece that makes living in NYC worth the crappy subways and all the other garbage you have to put up with. Subtlety is why we go through the bad so we can see the unique and beautiful.
I really enjoyed being a part of the history of this building. When your pictures to instagram they will be fettered in a future art piece connected to the piece.
Enjoy your time here and really appreciate the history of the building. Even though its all made of sugar there is a serious statement being made.
Great show with great concept for this perid.
It is open only on weekend between 12am to 6p.m. I would recommend to go there early.
There is long line in front of the factory, it would not take too long because there is only one masive space inside for public and they just want to control the amount of people inside to fully experience the exhibition, but expect to wait about 30 minutes at least there.
The entire factory is filled with the aroma of old sugar.
It is just a quite rare experience offered free to public.
If you are going there on July 5 and 6 (on July 4 it is closed), don't wear nice shoes. The floor is sticky from melting sugar.
I went there on the second weekend from the last. The brown staues of children were already little bit melting, but the main white sugar statue remained in beautiful condition. It was really huge and had a tremendous impact. I liked the idea of this work.
I had to wait in line to see this statue, but it was only about 20 minutes wait (I tought it would take more time, but didn't) and the admission is free, so it didn't bother me at all.
The plant it self had strong smell partially, but I enjoyed looking at the plant itself, too. I was imagining how it was like when the sugar used to be actually made. It was a great opportunity to see the plant which people cannot usually see, and to enjoy the great art on the same time.
Had a great time, the line was long but it went pretty quickly. You have to sign a safety waiver release form before you enter the factory. I would suggest doing a quick such on the artist, Kara Walker and Subtlety being that the exhibit just has her sculptors and not the meaning of the sculptors in the exhibit. I bought the poster of the main sculptor for 5$ to fame and display. A must see, a rare gem in Brooklyn.
"There were white bodies everywhere I turned; white bodies laughing, white bodies posing for pictures, white bodies giving me strange looks as I solemnly shuffled around the warehouse, white bodies overflowing the space, white bodies spilling into my physical and mental space."
"Then, at that moment, I became uncomfortable, realized that even though this was obviously a cemetery, a place of remembrance and mourning for how Blackness has been distorted and destroyed throughout history, the pain I felt would always take a backseat to the comfort white people seek in lies. In that moment, I began remembering what violation felt like."
The line went two blocks back, but it went quickly, I swear. 20 minutes, 100 people are let in at a time, and we were in. The waivers made my friend a little wary - but a chance to see the domino sugar factory one last time was once in a lifetime experience. (Plus, it's free!)
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