BY JULIE SEYLER
A couple of weeks ago I took the L train to Bedford Avenue, the first stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I became enchanted. It reminded me of a time past, before things became so homogeneous in Manhattan. It has the vibe of the East Village, 30 years ago, when I was someone who finished the night at 5:00 AM with scrambled eggs at Kiev. However I am definitely late to the Williamsburg game and whatever vibe I sensed is no doubt on its way out as Brooklyn morphs to the dance of money.
In any event, I had a mission. I was in search of the Domino Sugar Factory, once the processing source for DOMINO brand sugar, and now, an unused warehouse with one last purpose to fulfill before it undergoes semi-demolition. It is currently home to the artist Kara Walker’s show:
En route, I discovered the Metropolitan Pool, a lap lane pool built as a Public Bath in 1922 that is still in use today, and got a close up gander of the Williamsburg Bridge, which opened in 1903 with the distinction of being the longest suspension bridge in the world.
After 20 minutes of meandering, I found my way to the sugar factory. This 19th century tome to the production of sugar, immense and obsolescent, is a work of art in itself. From its chipped and peeling paint to its rusted pipes there is texture, color and form to take in, and while a part of it is doomed to redevelopment as condominiums with riverside views of Manhattan, the exterior of the central refinery is landmark protected.
As soon as you walk inside, you smell sugar, even though it has been 10 years since the building stopped operating as a refinery. Your eyes adjust to the dimness of the natural light streaming in through the windows of this 90,000 square foot space and you take in sculptures, about three to four feet high, made of resin, with a shiny translucent reddish cast. Look closely and you see the cherubic, angelic faces of children. What registers is dissonance because the sugary benign-ness of their expressions underscores the horror that once it was a fait accompli that children were put to work, all day, picking sugar cane under a blazing sun.
When you turn to the left, you see that the sugar baby children are overseen by a gigantess, a Mama Sphinx, made entirely of sugar, lying with her haunch in the air.
The immediate association is ancient Egypt, not only because the size and pose of the work evokes the Great Sphinx at Giza, but because her mien is as inscrutable as a Sphinx. However, she cannot be confined to the world that existed 4000 years ago when Egypt’s grandest monuments were erected on the backs of slaves. She is also an icon of pre-Civil War America, when a great deal of commerce and trade and growth in the American economy was accomplished because it was legal to own another man, woman or child. What I see in this sculpture is that the Mama Sphinx may have been a slave by circumstance, but she was never a servant. She is regal and rules with serenity and fearlessness.
Kara Walker has captured history and beauty, sweetness and bitterness, in a way that I have never seen before. It is an amazing show because it works on so many levels. There is the sheer technical artistry and then there is the simplicity of the lines and the fullness of color created by an absence of “color”, the symmetry and the way the space is filled. Even the title, “A Subtlety or 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 on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant“, is packed with layering.
The show made me think and reflect and ponder, and even now I keep finding new and different connections. A work of art so powerful that it requires nothing from the viewer but to be astonished, moved, and educated is fabulous.