Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx is Monumental

May 09, 2014 at 11:12 AM ET

This is the second in our series on the artists and work making waves during this year’s Frieze New York art fair. Monday: Frieze greatest hits.

There’s something curious about a three-story sphinx in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Especially one that’s concealed in a decaying former factory—Domino Sugar’s refinery of yore—and framed by barely there wooden beams. But for artist Kara Walker, this is integral to her latest project.

“‘Ruins’ was the key word,” Walker says to a small audience at a Thursday evening preview. “Ruins that evoke time gone by and would echo what’s essentially a modern-day ruin—this factory site. And making something that feels grand and legendary and instantly recognizable, but then turned on its head and repurposed for a new-world audience.”

The female sphinx, in all its intentional irony, is called Subtlety (or the Marvelous Sugar Baby). And its color—a uniform, chalky white—is exactly that. Its size, on the other hand, is anything but understated; the piece measures a whopping 75-feet long, 35-feet high and 26-feet wide—about the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.

The factory’s long and relatively narrow space pinch the sphinx on both sides, just like the sculpture itself compacts many interconnected ideas. Namely, allusions to slavery, ephemerality, gender and race. “I can’t say as much as she’s saying in the form,” Walker says. “It’s too much at once.”

Walker constructed the piece, commissioned by creative agency Creative Time, in only seven months. Per the name of its home, the work is made of polystyrene, a synthetic resin, and lots and lots of refined sugar—160,000 pounds of the sweet stuff, donated by Domino and dumped on top of the Styrofoam while wet. Subtlety‘s body is shapely, but its surface is coarse, flecked by innumerable tiny grains of white crystals. “Dessert experts must know a lot about this process,” jokes Creative Time’s chief curator, Nato Thompson.

For the most part, Walker isn’t one to build tall and wide. She’s made a name for herself in two dimensions, most notably in her cut-paper, black-and-white scenes of the sugar plantations of her imagination. Her vignettes, often wrapping a museum exhibit’s four walls, portray myriad, often sexual, interactions between masters, mistresses and slaves—all told via silhouettes.

Subtlety, too, comments on these sorts of relationships, ones whose themes Walker lays out in full on her website. And if the full name of the piece—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—is any indication, the size of the work calls even more attention to its twisted genesis. Walker’s sphinx wears a giant knotted mammy’s kerchief, one The New York Times recently called “a racist’s nightmare,” and per a statement by Creative Time, the piece is a tribute to “raw sexual power, to oppression, to empire, to the historically inextricable role of slavery in the sugar economy.”

But of course, the underlying piece is also a nod to the power of sugar, which lies in pools and clumps beneath the sphinx, as if the piece (like the Pyramids) is slowly crumbling over time. “I think a philologist could spend all their time on the references of sugar,” says Thompson. “Sugar related to race, related to labor, related to gender.” Walker chimes in, “To sex.”

The sculpted confection, on display May 10 through July 6, is also a last hurrah for the building itself. The factory, built in 1927, will be demolished soon afterward to make room for apartments.