The Marvelous Sugar Baby
May 16, 2014 8:18 PM   Subscribe

An NPR interview with the creator of a 75 foot long Mammy-Sphinx sculpture made entirely of sugar. Award-winning artist Kara Walker's latest work challenges viewers to confront the relationships between American history, racism, slavery, and industrialization. Her exhibition is held in the soon-to-be-demolished, historic Domino Sugar Factory. (New Yorker article)

Drawing on her historical research of sugar, sugar sculptures and the sugar industry, the full title of the work is

"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"
posted by warm_planet (34 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The early sugar industry was indeed a huge user of slaves.

But it wasn't in the US. Sugar was never a very large crop in the US in those days. Most of it was in Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. Sugar is a tropical crop. (In the US slaves were mostly used for cotton and tobacco farming.)

So how is a work made of sugar related to "American history"?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:32 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

American colonists bought the sugar produced with slave labor. (The NPR article says ..."the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade [...] helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.")

Thanks for linking to this.

That exhibit is amazing and disturbing. Some aspects of the mammy sphinx give me mixed feelings, but wow those melting sugar boys are effective.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:37 PM on May 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Rum is a beverage made from sugar cane. The rum trade was a part it the US economy. But so also, was the trade in table sugar.
posted by bilabial at 8:38 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Here is Wikipedia on the triangle trade, which shows how that economic structure tied the slave trade to consumption and processing of sugar in North America.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:44 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

So how is a work made of sugar related to "American history"?

As the interview and the article indicate, the historical and ongoing American appetite for sugar which fueled the "necessities" of slavery, which are symbolized by Walker's sculpture.

the interview's really cool, you should give it a listen
posted by warm_planet at 8:48 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

So how is a work made of sugar related to "American history"?

In case all the previous examples and the main link itself aren't enough: Hawaii, the Big Five, and the overthrow of the Kingdom. Here endeth my lesson.

The Sphinx is just stunning. I'd love to be able to see it in situ.
posted by rtha at 8:52 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

I gotta see it! Thanks for this post!
posted by sweetkid at 8:53 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I saw the earlier article about this, and wish I was close enough to see it.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:55 PM on May 16, 2014

There were and are sugar cane fields and at least eight refineries in South Louisiana. In the fall, the sweet smoke of burning cane is inescapable below New Orleans. Louisiana produces 1.4 million tons of raw sugar annually. I was told that threats to sell a slave 'downriver' meant to send them to the even more harsh and frightening conditions of work in the cane fields.
posted by Anitanola at 9:27 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

The Land of Sugar, a dispatch in the Los Angles Times, November 1896. from and about Leon Godchaux's sugar plantations.
posted by Anitanola at 9:37 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was all ready to come in to here and hate on this for its ham-handed focus on a rapidly dwindling past, ignoring a bleak and immediate present, and then this happened -

So how is a work made of sugar related to "American history"?

The next one needs to be 150'.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:37 PM on May 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

Now we need a giant Aunt Jemima pancake to go with it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:41 PM on May 16, 2014

i keep wondering about this, the dude who owns the plant is going to tear it down, making condos, and by funding this work about historical injustice, in this space, he is almost buying an indulgence, but a historically minded one.

i am never quite sure about walker's work, i worry that the spectacle and the historicization allows for a way out of current racial politics, but then i look at martin's shooting, for example, or the prison in angola, louisanna, and i think--nothing has changed.

so what could be a better example of this history repeating view of american racism, except for a sphinx, with its freudian heritage, its afrocentric origins, and its reputation for unsolveable riddles--that egyptomania had a revival around the time of napolean...

i really dont know
posted by PinkMoose at 10:35 PM on May 16, 2014

Sugar plantations cover southern Louisiana. When the slaves won their freedom, the land was never subdivided. Angola prison remains in 2014, to remind us how little has changed (the plantation now sells corn dogs at rodeo time).

Oil refineries and Chemical plants seeking cheap water and cheap transport of the lower Mississippi River now own the plantations. These comprise America's Industrial Corridor. Oil coming from Offshore in the Gulf and down from Canada is refined, makes fertilizer at the CF Industries plantation near Donaldsonville, which nourishes much of the corn in Iowa. This cheap, cheap corn is then cheaply exported all over the world out of massive grain terminals that own many more former plantations in southern Louisiana.

What does sugar have to do with american history?
posted by eustatic at 1:37 AM on May 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

The part of this that leaves me scratching my head is "industrialization". I mean, yeah, you can call the sugar trade in the 1700 an industry in much the same way we talk about the industry of Clovis culture. But when you say "industrialization"...I mean, the Romans were the kind of the Ur example - there's not a whole lot you can point to as Roman innovation because rather than build water powered mills their solution to nearly every problem of power and production was to throw more slaves at it.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:35 AM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The setting for the piece is a sugar factory in Brooklyn. A place where paid workers used machines to process raw product into finished sugar. Is that industrial?
posted by kokaku at 5:37 AM on May 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

What a gorgeous terrible nightmare.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:13 AM on May 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well that's an interesting sculpture.

Any more clues about its construction?
posted by notyou at 7:26 AM on May 17, 2014

Not many, but a few.

Be sure to see the artist's sketches.
posted by notyou at 7:34 AM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by IndigoJones at 8:43 AM on May 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

So how is a work made of sugar related to "American history"?

Instead of simply dismissing the artist based on an assumption that you already know more about the subject than she does, this is the sort of question that presents an excellent opprortunity to self-educated about a tremendously important contemporary artist. I suggest starting with the links provided in the FPP.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:12 AM on May 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

I just saw this, and man. You can see the echoes of the structuring of the building itself in the body of the work, and upon noticing it, that aspect of it immediately and profoundly upset me, in the sense of it hitting home that for 300 years, human beings were simply of use from head to toe, like the building was, to make a very few people a lot of money, to project their baser impulses upon, and to enable them to dump their existential shit as required.

I already have conflicting feelings about Ms. Walker's use of 19th century stereotypical American tropes of black people. I'm not sure I get it, or what I'm supposed to get, but her work makes me confront my feelings not only about what happened to some of my ancestors, but also about how I can slip into thinking of those ancestors as symbols of oppression and not human beings like myself. The way that history is taught in the US can trip you into that mode of thinking if you're not careful.

About 15 minutes into my being there, though, after overhearing a young man tell someone on his phone, "Dude, you should come on down! We're seeing some, like, crazy art shit! You know, that thing that was in Time Out by the black lady!" I had to leave. I'm not about to police anyone's experience of art, but I daresay I found my temper rising. I will try to go again during a weekday morning, when it's not so crowded, and the "What's in Time Out this week?" gang has moved on to the next Thing They Must See This Week To Be Considered Cool.
posted by droplet at 3:53 PM on May 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

No discussion of the modern sugar industry is complete without a discussion of the Fanjul Family, actually who are pretty interesting if you're into things like undue influence over governments both foreign and domestic. Stuff of airport novels, really.

And of course Congress is helpless, helpless against the implacable power of the sugar barons.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:00 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The part of this that leaves me scratching my head is "industrialization"

Sugar in the Americas always involved factories because turning cane into sugar is an industrial process that was mechanized wherever possible. Sometimes small factories on individual plantations, sometimes large ones that took in the cane from a large region, especially as the industry modernized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The labor organizing in those later factories helped lead to independence in the Caribbean and was a factor in the first big waves of emigration.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:29 PM on May 17, 2014

A place where paid workers used machines to process raw product into finished sugar.

That's kind of thin on the ground in terms of thematic linkage. I mean, if someone were to hang their art in a space that used to be the women's restroom before the remodel and then claimed to be investigating the relationship between whatever the theme of their art was and women's issues, well, then I'd be actively nonplussed. Here I'm kind of just feel like the idea of industrialization was just kind of tacked on.

And I think there's a pretty strong argument to be made for slavery's effect on society, particularly on industrialization. In science fiction there is a line you hear sometimes, "It steam engines when it's steam engine time", that suggests that when a civilization has the magic mixture of need and precursor technology, then suddenly, POOF!, someone will invent a new and revolutionary technology - the competing patents for the telephone are often cited for this. Slavery, both in Rome (which I mentioned before) and in the Americas, kind of puts the lie to that. Europe, which was somehow managing to survive without slavery, had their industrial revolution decades before the United States got around to theirs, despite the fact that the classic argument for why the south so desperately clung to the institution of slavery was that they had absolute need of the kinds of work force multiplication that industrialism provided.

Once upon a time I saw an image titled "If the South had won the Civil War" that was a satellite photograph of the United States that had been given the North Korea / South Korea treatment. I can't help but wonder if that little joke wasn't more prescient than its creator could ever know.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:04 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Europe, which was somehow managing to survive without slavery,

Because they wither carried it out in their colonies, or virtually outsourced it through trade.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:21 PM on May 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just want to point out that the Sugar Sphinx isn't actually made up entirely out of sugar.
posted by I-baLL at 11:12 AM on May 18, 2014

Any more clues about its construction?

I'm on the board of Creative Time, the organization that helped Kara Walker realize this magnificent project. I know a fair amount about its construction and I'd be happy to answer any questions if I can.
posted by The Bellman at 6:48 AM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know so little about constructing monumental Aunt Jemima Sphinxes out of sugar that I don't even know what questions to ask.

But I guess this is a good place to start: Assuming it is not made entirely out of sugar (inferred by one of the job titles of the crew), what's under the sugar coating?

There seemed to be a large crew involved (not counting all the fundraising, marketing, promotion and administrative stuff) -- how far back in the piece's genesis was a crew involved? Did the production crew have scale models from which to work? Drawings? Was the artist onsite to supervise construction? Have artist and crew worked together previously. With respect to administrative stuff -- what's the relationship between Creative Time, property owner, artist, and crew like? Who brought whom together?

I think you can see where I'm headed -- what is the thing made of and what was the process of its making? Because the work asks us to think about the social reality of the production of refined sugar, I think the details of the social reality of the production of the work itself are relevant, and provide an opportunity for observers to shift their gaze forward, too.
posted by notyou at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is what art should be. I am arrested.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:24 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

A bunch of those questions are answered in this article, which makes for interesting reading. The sphinx herself is made out of huge blocks of (recyclable) polystyrene which were fabricated in New Jersey, brought to the site for assembly and there coated with a sort of pour-on sugar slurry. The sugar babies (the little boys "attending" the sphinx) are made of pure melted sugar, or in some cases resin.

The crew had various drawings and models to work with, including a scale model that was used to guide the machines that cut the polystyrene bricks. I have pictures of that I could post, if you're interested. Some of the "crew" are Kara's studio assistants and have worked with her for years, but the construction crew has been working on the project for the last several months. Kara was on site constantly, supervising and working on the production. I don't actually know how much she was up on the crane pouring the slurry, but this was a totally new kind of work for her, so she was very hands on throughout the process.

The process of "getting together" was driven by Creative Time as the producer. Creative Time is an organization that produces public art in New York and around the world. We had wanted to work with Kara Walker for years because she's a spectacular and fascinating artist whose work fits very well with our mission. Our board co-chair, Jed Walentas, is the developer who is developing the Domino Sugar Factory space, and he offered us the opportunity to use the space for a project before it is converted to residential use. Our chief curator, Nato Thompson, approached Kara Walker and showed her the space, and she was blown away by it and agreed to create a new work for it. We dealt with all of the fundraising, the administration the site issues and similar details, leaving the creative process entirely to her. She ran through a great many ideas and did a great deal of research to come up with her final design, and that process itself is another long post -- particularly because the entire concept of a monumental sculpture is so different from what she usually does.

As to the relationship between Creative Time, the artist and the crew, it's not a very interesting story I'm afraid -- every single person at Creative Time has said, on and off the record, that it was one of the best experiences they ever had. On a project of this scale there are a million things that can go wrong, and the stereotypical artist personality -- mercurial, egotistical, unyielding, unconcerned with the realities of production, etc. -- can make all of those things worse. Kara Walker was none of those. She and her studio assistants were, from what everyone has told me, a joy to work with and the challenges of the project (from uncooperative slurry to shattered sugar babies) have only made it that much more incredible. Obviously I have a certain bias here, but if you possibly can, go. No words, and really no pictures, can describe what it's like to actually be in that place with the work.
posted by The Bellman at 11:37 AM on May 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

From The Bellman's linked article

It is unclear what will become of Ms. Walker’s massive sphinx when the installation closes on July 6...

“We fantasized about floating it out on to the East River,” said Ms. Walker, “watching the tide turn it around and send it off to the ocean.”

that would be so amazing...sort of a funerary rite by water

Thanks for the additional info!
posted by warm_planet at 8:14 PM on May 19, 2014

For anyone who is interested (and still watching the thread) Kara Walker will be discussing the work at the New York Public Library tonight. The event is sold out, but can be live streamed here. Enjoy!
posted by The Bellman at 8:20 AM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Domino Sugar Refinery and the Art of Real Estate
Soon, thanks to the development company Two Trees (the people who invented the neighborhood of DUMBO), Domino will be transformed into 3.3 million square feet of condos and offices with the design help of SHoP Architects. The boxy towers of the new five-building complex will become a perfect symbol of the new Brooklyn—corporate, but with a thin veneer of luxury-hipster signifiers fit for European ex-pats. And, following a familiar pattern, Brooklyn visual art is just another selling point.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:53 PM on May 24, 2014

« Older drugs   |   The fabulous and lesser-known exploits of John Z.... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments