Images: Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Photography by Jason Wyche and Tim Daly, Courtesy Creative Time.
On Saturday, May 10th, Williamsburg's legendary Domino Sugar Factory will open its doors to the public for the first time since factory operations ceased in 2004. In a highly-anticipated public art collaboration between Creative Time and artist Kara Walker, the abandoned factory will house a massive, sugar-coated sculpture that resembles a combination between the mammy archetype and the sphinx. Resting at 75-feet-long and 35-feet-tall, the massive piece is fully titled, 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.
If Creative Time's project with Nick Cave at Grand Central last year is any indication, it's almost a guarantee that the installation will be enthralling (and busy). Additionally, visiting A Subtlety may be many New Yorkers' last chances to tour the inside of the 132-year-old building (legally, anyway) before it finally makes way for a $1.5 billion reconstruction plan.
While the inspiration behind the sculpture is undeniably fascinating, The Creators Project was curious about how exactly Walker and her team built the boat-sized figure inside the mythological warehouse. Was it built in a studio and brought inside, Trojan Horse-style? Is it actually a colossal piece of candy, molded to look like an African-American archetype? And if so, how exactly does one go about sculpting a piece of sugar that big? For comparison, the Guinness World Record for the largest piece of marzipan was 53-feet-long and 40-feet-wide.
To gain insight into the project, Creative Time connected us with several of the project's collaborators, including artist Tim Daly of design company Dalymade Inc., casting expert Mike Perrotta of Sculpture House, lead modeler and milling guru Jon Lash of Digital Atelier, and artist Eric Hagan, the project's "Director of Sugar" ("It’s probably the best job title I’ll ever have," he told us).
The production team clarified several aspects of A Subtlety that could be easily misunderstood: first off, the sphinx is not a giant piece of candy; it's a colossal foam sculpture that's been encrusted in a layer of powdered sugar. Resting beside the sculpture, however, there are fifteen smaller statues that are, in essence, giant lollipops. All together, this might be the world's largest creative experiment with sugar.
Walker was approached about a year ago to collaborate on a project inside the factory. It was the space itself that caught her interest, and it inspired her to make a sketch of an iconic sphinx, modified to look like a stereotypical image of a female laborer:
"[My sketch] came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning," she said in an interview with Brooklyn Rail.
After Walker shared her sketch with the production crew, Art Domantay (the project consultant and director of fabrication), Tim Daly, and the rest of the team made a physical mock-up and gave the copy to Digital Atelier. The laser scanning/CNC milling/coating technology experts were then able to manipulate the body on a computer using various 3D-analyses, in order to perfectly prepare the shaped foam blocks needed for the very-curvy design.
"They wanted us to hot wire [the foam blocks]" said Jon Lash of Digital Atelier. "We kept saying it wouldn't work well because we needed the radius of each form. If you start having compound curves in all directions and you have to stack these blocks, you can't see the composition and have to guess about the building process. The last thing you want to do is interpret the artist's idea yourself." Lash and engineer John Rannou instead milled the structure's entire bottom instead of hot wiring it, which takes three times as much time. This process laid the entire foundation, and the team could work their way up from there. Eventually they milled 440 bricks at 3' x 4' x 8' each.
"The good thing is that [the main sculpture] was made just like the real sphinx," said Lash. "Instead of stone blocks it was foam blocks, but it really was the same kind of construction." After two and a half months, the crew had a sphinx of their own in Brooklyn. Walker eventually dusted the entire statue in over 30 tons of sugar by spraying it with a hopper gun and using some good old fashioned shovels—yielding a goddess-like sculpture that's bright white.
Off to the side of the sphinx, however, there are fifteen statues of little boys. Each is 60-inches-tall and weigh 300-500 pounds a piece. Five of them, called the Banana Boys, are made of solid sugar. They are, in essence, giant lollipops shaped to look like fruit-picking child slaves. The other ten—five that are boys holding banana-holding baskets in front of them, five with baskets on their backs—are made of resin and coated in molasses.
Tim Daly, the crew leader of the figurines, explained that they were made after Walker bought ten-inch-tall tchotchkes she found on Amazon. These figurines were laser-scanned by Jon Lash's team at Digital Atelier, and then they were blown up so silicone molds could be made by Mike Perrotta at Sculpture House.
The team used white granulated sugar, light corn syrup, and water heated to 300 degrees with turkey fryers before getting poured into the molds. While the Banana Boys could stand on their own, the boys holding baskets were weak at the wrists and ankles, and would either break or melt due to a lack of structural integrity. "The first one melted into the pallet," Daly told us. "It disintegrated after a week, and we realized the only way the [basket-holding sculptures] would last was if they sat in a refrigerator." Thus, the ten basket-holding boys ended up getting made with polyester resin and coated in molasses, white sugar, light brown sugar, and dark brown sugar, which explains the color inconsistency among the children.
This might be the largest creative endeavor with candy in the modern age. Walker told Brooklyn Rail that in the 11th century, people in the East began making marzipan structures. Royal chefs in Northern Europe began following suit, and would present the sculptures, called "subtleties," as gifts. According to Eric Hagan, the project's director of sugar, there's been few (if any) sugar sculpture pieces this century that rival the size of the Banana Boys or the 30 tons of sugar used to coat the sphinx. He did mention German artist Joseph Marr, who also makes granulated sugar works, but at a smaller scale than Walker's children sculptures, and not inside an actual sugar factory.
"Sugar is a temperamental thing," says Hagan. "It's not uniform, it's going to decay, and as a fine art piece you can't say how long it will last or if it will change over time." Walker echoed his statement in her Brooklyn Rail interview, but added the positive note that "[Sugar is] such a fragile and volatile substance that doesn’t like to take on too many forms, which is fine. I keep trying to tell everyone that I’m not a stickler for conformity, so if each piece is wildly different, then that’s an attempt at freedom I guess."
"A Subtlety" is on view at Domino Sugar from May 10th-July 6th, Fridays 4-8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 12-6pm. For more information, visit Creative Time. A special thanks to Tim Daly, Mike Perrotta, Jon Lash, Eric Hagan, and everyone at Creative Time for helping with this article.