Walking into the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, you immediately notice the overpowering smell of molasses — a sweet reminder of the industry that once churned inside its walls. It’s here that Kara Walker, the artist known for her black cut-paper silhouettes and tableaus, has erected a huge sculpture — a female Sphinx made of sugar. Titled “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the piece includes the 75-foot high sculpture and 15 smaller, molasses-colored figures leading up to it.
It’s an almost overwhelming monument to the history of sugar and the plantation labor that undergirded the sugar trade, but also to female sexual power and Greek and Egyptian ruins. There’s much to decode. The Sphinx is made of white, not brown sugar. (Hilton Als at the New Yorker called it “a mammy-as-Sphinx made out of bleached sugar.”) It has breasts, and, around back, a vulva. It is a modern-day Sphinx in what is essentially a modern-day ruin: a decommissioned factory set to be demolished.
Walker referred to the “too-muched-ness” of it on Thursday, saying it was important to her to create a form that “embodies multiple meanings, multiple readings all at once, each one valid, each one contrasting with the other.”
“A Subtlety” brought to my mind another, very different, site-specific installation: last year’s “Gramsci Monument,” by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. A dedication to the work of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, the installation was a sort of educational village that Hirschhorn constructed in a South Bronx housing project. It featured a philosopher-in-residence as well as a library and, to boot, offered live music and barbecued food. (One critic thought it succeeded more as a cultural center than as a piece of art.) At the time, it seemed to me an admirable, if unrealized attempt to enter a community and bring to life Gramsci’s idea that “everyone is a philosopher.”
Walker offers a different sort of invitation with “A Subtlety.” Located though it is in a factory in privileged Williamsburg (and certainly not viewable to all who might wish to see it in person), “A Subtlety” draws from the history of the site in an admirable way — in its materials and its references — and explicitly seeks to be recognizable rather than arcane. Whereas Hirschhorn sought to show people that they could themselves be philosophers, Walker, with “A Subtlety,” would seem to want to give viewers the freedom to become them.