"In 500 years the tastes of the Western world altered completely around this one commodity."
The Setting
Credit: Photo © Lawrence Marcus

The walls are dripping with molasses at the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, and in a decaying corridor, a moat of the thick, dark, goopy stuff swallows at least a foot of stairs. This is the setting for artist Kara Walker’s profound and provocative new exhibit: A Subtlety: 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. Presented by Creative Time, the (free!) show runs through July 6 and allows voyeurs a peek at a storied waterfront space before it’s demolished in the name of development.

“When I was trying to understand the space, I fixated on the molasses as this waste product, a byproduct of the refining process that’s still edible and more nutritious but darker and undesirable, with allusions to plantation lore,” Walker told us during a preview. Her work explores race and history, and the focal point of the show is a massive sphinxlike figure with uncomfortably exaggerated “mammy” features.

“It seemed important to me to let it all be woman and bottom and vagina and toes and imposing and silly and serious and ridiculous and sexy all at once,” says Walker. The piece, constructed out of foam blocks and sprayed with pure white sugar (donated by Domino), represents “empires past... Even as she’s enormous, she’s speaking about the impermanence of our place and time.” Walker’s timing is impeccable in multiple ways.

The setting itself is ephemeral and the show examines sugar at a moment when we’ve never seemed more obsessed with it (Hostess! Cronuts!) and conflicted (see: Katie Couric’s Fed Up, a new documentary about how the government obscured ties between sugar and obesity). But as its title explains, Walker’s installation represents the power that sugar has held over us for centuries.

“There are just so many histories: the sugar history and the slave trade, which dovetails with the lust for acquisition of sugar," says Walker. "In 500 years the tastes of the Western world altered completely around this one commodity—several, if you think coffee, tea, sugar. Whether or not it's nutritious doesn’t really matter. It gives you this added boost of energy that was apparent hundreds of years ago and part of what made it such a desirable food agent. It was considered a spice, there were philosophers and theologians who debated its merits, whether it was a food, or godly, or evil, or a medicine…”

After a year of research, from making sugar blobs in her own kitchen to construction that left her covered in sugar every day, Walker’s takeaway—and one of the messages for the viewer—is reverence: “You’d think I wouldn’t eat it anymore, but I kind of love it.”