Some friends who used to live in Brooklyn drove in last week and we all thought it would be fun to see what we could see in the penumbras emanating from Corporate Art these days. Kara Walker, a big-time artist known primarily for skewering the U.S.’s dismal history of race relations, fortunately fit the bill: a huge opening in the hulking Domino Sugar Factory on the banks of the East River. It was the kind of installation you knew would get raves in the press even before it opened.
A big art installation in Williamsburg posits a kind of dilemma: can the work be judged on its merits apart from the accompanying hullabaloo of twentysomethings in rompers and Ray-Bans? Not to mention the gobs of money that surely tumbled down various craws to make it happen? I don’t know the answer to these questions, except to say, these events are not good for my soul.
There is a sideshow element in these things, something perverse and weird. You turn up to see the spectacle just as much as you do to see the statues. I wasn’t disappointed: the line, by the time we got there, extended far down Kent Avenue, almost to the Williamsburg Bridge. See them there, these iPhone-burdened laborers of Instagram, these servants of the feed, snapping up shots to give their digital lives a shot of New York cool. Feel the hangdog air, the knowing sheepishness—being seen, my generation pleads through every online artifact they share, is just as important as seeing. Maybe more so.
So it is fitting that the work, too, is about being seen—a canny choice on the part of Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit that specializes in big public art displays, because we can all relate. The installation bills itself as “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 on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” In other words: to see those who remained unseen for so many years—the black faces upon which the gears of commerce turned.
Like much of Kara’s work, the racial elephant in the room is brought squarely center: no chance of diverting eyes here, no glossing over. In this case, literally: a giant mammy sphinx dominates a large portion of the space, dusted in lily-white sugar. Sugar, the sweetest of commodities, was for centuries dependent on a bitter system of black labor. The contrast of the stereotypically black features coated in refined whiteness exhibits Ms. Walker’s heightened sensitivity to the many cruel ironies of history.
Unfortunately, the overall effect is reminiscent of “some corporate idol you might find outside a hotel in Singapore,” in the words of critic William O’Leary. Even if this garishness is part of Ms. Walker’s point—the vicious banality of sanctioned greed built on a foundation of white supremacy—I am not sure it is particularly successful beyond that of a stencil of Ronald McDonald with an AK-47 swapped into his hands. Is this revelatory to anyone anymore?
Curiously, despite a brave attempt with the giant sugar-sphinx, it is the space itself that ends up being the main attraction. The walls drip with the collected decades of sugary detritus from molasses production and refinement. The effect is oddly beautiful—the inimitable abstract brushes of rust and oxidation and sea air painting the walls ocher and brown and tan in huge gradients and slashes. Ultimately Ms. Walker’s sphinx diminishes when placed against these geologic forces.
For all its larger-than-life bravado, Ms. Walker’s installation is best viewed at an intimate scale. Tucked among the steel beams and supporting braces, the artist has placed four or five-foot high statues of plantation boys in various poses of molasses production. These small sculptures of harvesting boys were to me strangely moving, even creepy, in their forlorn positions tucked away at random in the space. Cast from sugar and matching the mottled factory walls in hue, these sculptures seemed plaintive and almost weeping as they melted, their trails of deep brown and taupe running in little melancholy channels across the floor. Like the walls of the factory, they seemed to perspire, as though the space itself was alive to its own history, remembering still down through the long years its dark saga of suffering and sweetness. Sweating ghostly children reflexively working invisible sugar fields and leaking out dark blood onto the floor of the factory that once refined the fruit—well, the fructose anyway—of their labors. I have to admit there is something lovely and aching about that image.
Anyway, the whole kit and kaboodle will disappear into the maw of capitalism and inexorable market forces this summer once the wrecking crews come bulldozing in. The insatiable appetite for millionaire housing will soon consume it whole—from highest I-beam to lowest brace bar—and spit out luxury condos. Take the chance to see the inside of this incredible industrial building before it is gone forever. There is not a lot of seeing to be done here otherwise. Although the people watching promises to be pretty good. You can rest assured they’ll be watching you back.
Meanwhile, the molasses children will continue to melt until they are no more.