Magazine article Artforum International

Kara Walker: The Former Domino Sugar Factory

Magazine article Artforum International

Kara Walker: The Former Domino Sugar Factory

Article excerpt

Astringent and overwhelming, like the weird burned-sweet tang that harshed the air inside the decommissioned Domino Sugar Factory warehouse where it hulked, A Subtlety, 20 14, Kara Walker's first large-scale public project, was the uneasy blockbuster of the New York art world's midsummer. The artist's crouching, house-size mammy, made from forty gleaming tons of bleach-white sugar molded onto foam blocks, stoically presided over a clutch of baby-faced blackamoors in a vast space literally coated with the auburn residue of a century's worth of processing the sweet stuff. And she drew huge crowds to the Williamsburg coast of the East River, where Walker's celebrated knack for strategic agitation was on colossally unsubtle display.

The gargantuan sculptural scenario--commissioned by Creative Time--may have represented a formal departure for Walker, whose work has typically stuck to the two-dimensional plane across her twenty-year career, but she mined the same appalling vein of racist caricature she always has, here riffing on two historical figures that propose enslaved black women and men as contentedly servile helpmates. A disorienting mix of seduction and menace, the thirty-five-foot-high, sphinxlike sugar baby--half Hottentot Venus, half devouring monster--was a welter of conflicting signals and gestures. With her rump in the air, gigantic genitalia exposed, she functioned as a frank monument to the mix of sexual and commodity fetishization that has long characterized Western society's relationship to the black body. Seen square on, she loomed full-breasted on a bed of soft sugar, her left hand forming the figa, a gesture that in various cultures and at various times has been understood to refer to both the penis and the vagina; to both conjure fertility and ward off the evil eye; to mean, as the artist has said, "both good luck and fuck you." Meanwhile, the brunet worker boys with their baskets were scattered around the long, high-ceilinged industrial space (soon to give way, along with its neighbors, to a sprawling high-rise commercial/residential complex), their smiles frozen in resin (and, in a few cases, cast sugar) like anthropological specimens prepared for some horrific premodern Kunstkammer. …

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