One may wonder, how do you carve a 35 by 75-foot sculpture out of sugar? To say the least, it is not something that you do alone. With the help of 3D modeling software, experimentation and a skilled team of problem solvers, Kara Walker’s sweet vision came true. Sponsored by Creative Time, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby is on view at the Domino Sugar Factory through July 6.
By Megan Guerber
Sugar is a finicky medium. As Eric Hagen, Director of Sugar told the Creators Project, "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." Sugar molds can only bear so much weight and are sensitive to heat, among other things.
Knowing this makes A Subtlety all the more stunning. If you put the crucial historical, racial and economic themes aside, and if you let go of the tremendous emotional impact created by a space coated in over a decade of residual molasses and let slide the sweetened hard-truths of the iconic figure, you are still left with the overwhelming awe that such an enormous, semi-permanent sculpture was ever built with such a fine, temperamental substance.
It took teams of innovators to figure out the seemingly impractical notion of constructing a 35-foot tall, 75-foot long white sugar sphinx. Building a figure with such rounded, complex shapes required the help of 3D modeling software. After months of research, sketching and model building, Walker turned everything over to Digital Atelier. This New Jersey-based company uses 3D modeling to translate small sculptures into duplicate works at a much greater scale. Lasers expertly cut the required curves, angles and lines out of rock, or in the case of A Subtlety, styrofoam.
All together, 440 styrofoam bricks were cut to shape, then fitted together in an intricate design until they became a sphinx. The process took about two and a half months. Using spray guns, shovels and their hands, Walker and her team then worked to coat the figure from 30 tons of sugar.
Fifteen life-sized figures of young slaves also lace the factory floor, each weighing 300-500 pounds. Called the Banana Boys, some carry fruit over their shoulders. These five figures are 100% candy and were formed by a mixture of water, white sugar and light corn syrup that was heated in turkey basters, then poured into molds. The remaining 10 figures, each of whom carry heavy baskets filled with indiscernible mounds, were cast in resin, then coated in molasses and different types of sugar that provide both depth and texture. While from a distance these boys appear inviting, the sticky decay of their bodies is all too haunting.
Thanks to technical innovations, collaboration and playful use of materials, a tremendously complex and lingering work of sugar came to life. Before visiting A Subtlety, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from the experience. I had seen the great sphinx in endless photographs, yet there was no comparison to her physical presence. She is not simply a sculpture in sugar; she is living. The incoming sunlight reflects off her confected whiteness, spreading her presence beyond her form. Through stark contrasts of scale and color, she inhabits the entire space. The scent from Domino’s walls, from the Banana Boys and from the sphinx herself saturates you to the point of nausea. There is a sticky decay here that refuses to disappear. As molasses melts down the walls, it sinks to the floor, gets caught on your shoe, and travels with you for many miles.
View more about the process behind A Subtlety on ART21.
"A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" through July 6
Domino Sugar Factory
South First Street at Kent Avenue
Fridays: 4-8 p.m.
Saturdays and Sundays: Noon-6 p.m.