Built in 1865 by the Havemeyer family, the Domino Sugar Factory on Brooklyn’s Williamsburg waterfront was once the largest sugar refinery in the world. But the factory has been shuttered for the past decade and many of the buildings on the abandoned site are being demolished to make way for a $1.5 billion mixed-use development.
With construction scheduled to start at the end of this year, the site has recently become a hive of weekend activity. A monumental public art installation by artist Kara Walker is drawing thousands of visitors.
The work is formally titled “A Subtlety,” after the sugar sculptures that decorated royal banquets of the Medieval era, when sugar was a luxury commodity. The installation is situated in the refinery’s massive storage shed and consists of a 75-foot long sculpture constructed from 35 tons of sugar. The massive white figure is shaped like a sphinx and is surrounded by a series of small candy boy sculptures. The subtitle of the piece is “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.” The installation was commissioned by the public art nonprofit Creative Time.
“When I was approached by Creative Time to, you know, maybe work on something like this, a big project, Domino space, loaded with history […] Well, let’s say I was a little cautious, ambivalent, until I saw the space. And then I saw all of this potential, and I felt my whole potential as an artist expand,” Walker told Abumrad.
Walker is primarily known for creating installations, drawings and paintings which focus on issues of race, power and violence. In 1997, she was the youngest artist to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “A Subtlety” is her first attempt at both sculpture and a large-scale public art project.
Despite the dark history behind the sugar trade, Walker said she ultimately opted for a more optimistic route for the piece and took on the “chutzpah of the industrialists.”
“To only look at the underbelly and the blood, it elicits vengeful angry feelings, but not necessarily art that I would want to look at or make. To have the other side of it meant that I could bring these two opposing universes together, and I think that they’re percolating in me in different forms anyway.”
The exhibition is free and open to view on Fridays from 4–8pm (excluding July 4), Saturdays from 12–6pm, and Sundays from 12–6pm through July 6.
LET’S TALK: Is public art a good way to tackle controversial social issues? Share your thoughts and join our follow-up conversation here.
Watch Kara Walker’s full interview with Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad on LIVE from the NYPL: