precedent: A SUBTLETY

Title: A SUBTLETY, OR THE MARVELOUS SUGAR BABY AN HOMAGE TO THE UNPAID AND OVERWORKED ARTISANS WHO HAVE REFINED OUR SWEET TASTES FROM THE CAN FIELDS TO THE KITCHENS OF THE NEW WORLD ON THE OCCASION OF THE DEMOLITION OF THE DOMINO SUGAR REFINING PLANT

Authors: Kara Walker

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Year complete: 2014 (temporary installation)

Description: 80′ long by 40′ tall sugar and styrofoam sphinx and 5′ tall boiled sugar figures sited in former sugar refinery

Primarily, the project is a repurposing of racist caricature of the oversexualization of black women and the exploitation of their domestic labor.  It was a controversial installation because the imagery is undeniable racist and sexist, but the artist’s intent was to make the viewer feel uncomfortable in its presence.  As the title suggests, it also memorializes people laboring in the sugar industry.  It is in this aspect that it is architecturally significant.  Its location in the site of manufacture of sugar, and how the state of the building affect the installation is a great example of how a memorial (homage, in Walker’s words) can be critical of an institution, idea, person, event, etc.

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The piece was made to answer the question of who the intended audience is, “Who is looking?”, with a question:  “What is the right way to look at a piece that is full of ambiguities and ego and all the other things that go into making a monumental sculpture?”  Critiques of the installation were often centered around the idea of a white audience ogling the heavily stereotyped figure of a black woman, and whether the artist’s intent was obscured by the audience.  However, Walker recognized that her audience would be mostly white, and part of the installation was documenting the reactions — insensitive or otherwise — of the audience.  The identity of the intended audience allowed the homage to function as a statement on the “white gaze” as well, so in effect, the installation was critical of the viewer.

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Architecturally, the most interesting factors are based on the sculptures’ interactions with their space.  The sugar refinery ceased to be used in 2004, and by 2014 had fallen into disrepair.  The condition of the building meant the sculptures were exposed to conditions that deteriorated them, and this is literally how the memorial interacted with its surrounding.    

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The memorial (homage) also interacted with its space symbolically.  As a critique of the sugar industry, the sculpture repurposes the space of exploitation by taking ownership of it.  Its design is meant to show the destructive nature of its surroundings.  Walker uses the physical conditions created by an institution to critique the effects of its practices.  The impending demolition allowed Walker to have the last word, in a sense, on the site.  A permanent memorial, or a memorial built after the demolition of the refinery, would not have been as powerful of a statement.  This project is also interesting in its “use” of water.  It represents a different way water is used than other monuments.  Water seems to be a common element in memorials, usually in one of two ways, either as the natural setting of the event being memorialized or as a design element, like a fountain, or reflecting pool.  This project uses water as a destructive force.  The water from the leaking roof leaves traces of stains on the white sugar sculpture, and melts away the sugar, changing the form.  The humidity in the air, a departure from the environment in which sculptures are usually kept, melts the candy structures, mirroring how the sugar industry inflicted harm on the labor that supported it.  

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SOURCES:

Creative Time website

Contemporary Art Daily website

  • Miranda, Carolina A.  (2014, October 13).  Kara Walker on the bit of sugar sphinx she saved, video she’s making.  Los Angeles Times.
  • Gopnik, Blake.  (2014, July 11).  Fleeting Artworks, Melting Like Sugar.  The New York Times.
  • Rooney, Kara.  (2014, May 6).  A Sonorous Subtlety:  KARA WALKER with Kara Rooney.  The Brooklyn Rail.
  • Corbett, Rachel.  (2014, November 19).  Kara Walker Secretly Filmed You Taking Selfies in Front of Her Sphinx.  Vulture.
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