Fool child, you’re never gonna make it.
New York City just wants to see you naked
(And they will).
Though they’d never say so.
Wise, old, black and dead in the snow:
My southern sister…
– Destroyer, “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” 2011
On October 24th, 2007, a private reception for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch is held in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ancient Egyptian collection. The event, thrown in celebration of the launch of Fox Business Network one week prior, turns the cavernous concrete void of the museum’s north wing into a veritable who’s-who of the entertainment and media circuit. Guests drink and dine on small tables arranged along the banks of the pavilion’s placid reflecting pool, mood lighting echoed back off the water’s penny-lined depths. The Counting Crows conclude their set with a solemn rendition of “Long December” as a Gawker paparazzo scurries about and catches a ghostly photograph of Vanessa Trump and Lauren Bush, the neck of the president’s niece fashionably wound in the black and white gauze of a chic Palestinian keffiyah. Outside, beyond the expansive glass and steel curtain wall of the wing’s north facade, Central Park lies hidden in black.
Towards the back end of the wing, a collection of large sandstone blocks have been awkwardly arranged, the ancient stones resting upon their concrete pedestal in incongruous metonymy. The guests have all flocked to mingle contiguously with this alien structure, yet none of them seem to pay it much mind. It simply sits there, its weathered facade awash in red and blue light, like a gaudy yet forgotten conversation piece. Inside the small temple, past the crumbled colonnade and glass museum partition, a slender-wristed limestone woman peers out from eyes long since lost to time’s erosion. Her severed torso lingers in the dark, a delicate leg poised forward in proto-contrapposto. A white-gloved waiter passes by the Temple of Dendur in silence bearing a golden tray of chocolate bars with FOX BUSINESS embossed in congealed confection.
Seven years later, on the opposite bank of the East River, a sphinx is erected in an abandoned sugar factory.
II. IN THE SHADE OF THE SUGAR PLANT
Here are three landscapes, landscapes “complete” and broken from one another as a paragraph is. And at the edge of town, the camp of the gypsies.
— Susan Stewart, On Longing, 1993
On May 10th, 2014, the first sculpture installation by artist Kara Walker was unveiled on the corner of Kent Avenue and South 1st Street in the New York City neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Commissioned by the public arts organization Creative Time and housed within the decaying, gothic nave of the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory, the sculpture bears the following unabridged title:
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
or 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
Measuring 75 feet long and molded out of 160,000 pounds of refined cane sugar mounted on a polystyrene core, Walker’s sculpture depicts the massive nude caricature of a black woman poised in the evocative feline repose of an Egyptian sphinx. Head bound in a kerchief and buttocks exploding almost pneumatically behind her, Walker’s sphinx speaks at once in two parallel languages of black female identity. On the one hand, there is the figure of the “mammy:” the 19th and early 20th century trope of the matronly black caretaker tasked with raising the children and minding the homes of her affluent white employers. On the other, there is the play to the haunting and ongoing objectification of black women as little more than sexual objects. It is no coincidence that Walker chose to compose her sphinx’s breasts and thighs so that they billow out like eroticized zeppelins, sugar-coated nipples and vulva orchestrated provocatively at eye-level with the viewer, as if daring us to take a fatal taste.
This tantalizing, nauseating sweetness is as much Walker’s medium as it is her message. From the moment one enters the Domino Sugar Factory, it is immediately clear that the sculpture and its setting are deeply and irrevocably intertwined. Rebuilt in 1882 on the foundations of the original 1856 factory, the 90,000 square-foot complex of the Domino Sugar Factory was, for a time, the single largest sugar refinery in the world. Situated squarely at one vertex of the old triangle trade route — the network through which slaves, sugar, and liquid capital were once circulated from Africa to the Indies and back to the Northeast United States — the Brooklyn plant was by 1870 producing upwards of three million pounds of sugar a day, at that time more than half of the sugar consumed in the entire United States. Over a century later, visitors to Walker’s installation are still assailed by the acrid fumes of burnt sugar and insecticide, trails of petrified molasses clinging like amber fossils to the rusted walls.
By placing sculpture and setting in direct dialogue with one another, Walker has crafted her Sugar Baby as a shrine to our collective consumption in all its twisted facets. The sculpture’s exaggerated and eroticized curves lay bare our lust for the carnal consumption of bodies; its visual association with a system of racialized domesticity, our impetuous consumption of service and labor; its sugar-coated body, our insatiable and infantile consumption of processed commodity and raw material. As Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of the installation, writes in his Curatorial Statement on the project, “[the Sugar Baby] speaks of power, race, bodies, women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining, sugar consumption, wealth inequity, and industrial might that uses the human body to get what it needs no matter the cost to life and limb.”
And yet, while so much of the press and commentary surrounding Walker’s exhibit has focused on the sculpture’s provocative deployment of the iconography of black labor and racial caricature, critics seem to have missed what’s right in front of them. Why a sphinx? That is to say, how can we understand the Sugar Baby’s Black-ness in the puzzling context of its equally apparent Egyptian-ness? How might we see Walker’s invocation of the sphinx as a statement not simply on the racial violence of antebellum America and Jim Crow, but on a broader system of violence leading all the way back to the very foundations of the Western aesthetic tradition? However, to pursue this line of thinking and draw out the subtle threads Walker seems to be weaving, we must turn our attention back across the East River to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the cavernous concrete pavilion of its Sackler Wing.
III. AFTER THE DELUGE
I own somewhat similar things to this, and I have always liked them. This is a rather more sophisticated version than the ones that I’ve seen, and I thought it was quite beautiful…. the total composition has a very contemporary, very Western look to it. It’s the kind of thing, I think that goes very well with … contemporary Western things. It would look very good in a modern apartment or house.
—David Rockefeller, in the catalog for “Perspectives: Angles on African Art”, 1987
Around the year 15 B.C.E. Emperor Augustus commissioned the construction of a small temple honoring him along the west bank of the Nile in the southern region of Egypt, then known as Nubia. Two millennia later, in 1965, threatened by rising floodwaters in the wake of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Temple of Dendur was removed from its resting place 50 miles south of Aswan and shipped block by block across the Atlantic to New York City. In 1978, the temple debuted in the newly completed Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Designed by the then fashionable architectural firm of Kevin Roche, John Dinkerloo & Associates, the 400-foot-long postmodern pavilion engulfs the temple like the unscalable sandpit in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film adaptation of Kōbō Abe’s The Woman In The Dunes — the sandstone structure pathetically imprisoned within its yawning cavity. The effect was not lost on critics. As Paul Goldberger phrased it in his 1979 critique of the installation for the New York Times, “The finished Sackler Wing has turned out to be an uncomfortable, vast space, much too big for the temple it houses… The ancient Egyptian building cowers in the huge modern space, looking as awkward as a person dining alone in an enormous banquet hall.”
But the Temple of Dendur has seldom had to worry about dining alone. Indeed, what might have initially seemed a gross excess of space has since proved a great utilitarian benefit. For those who can afford it, the Sackler Wing can be seamlessly converted into an entertainment venue, the otherwise vacuous space easily adapted to accommodate dinner and dancing for as many as 800 guests. And so, whatever its original purpose may have been, the Sackler Wing has come to find itself the unlikely host of some of Manhattan’s most lavish social events, the Temple of Dendur conveniently serving as an exotic, impossibly rare adornment.
What the story of Dendur ultimately lays bare is the powerful entanglement of preservation, ornamentation, and canonization undergirding the Western approach to a certain strain of African art. Just as the imperial nations of the 19th century made a hobby of erecting stolen Egyptian obelisks in the grand capitals of Europe, the “preservation” of Dendur marks a more modern chapter in the Western colonization of Egyptian culture through its very assimilation into the Western canon. By placing Egyptian artifacts within the meticulously curated enclosure of a museum — shielding them from the corrosive effects of the African sun and the dangerously unpredictable Nile — the West has not simply removed Egypt from Africa, it has removed Africa from Egypt in an unspoken ritual of purification, cleansing these objects of their African origin and refining them into something collectible, something Western, something safe, something white.
So it is with sandstone, and so it is with sugarcane. “Sugar crystallizes something in our American Soul,” Walker notes in her interview with Blake Gopnik of The New York Times. “It is emblematic of all Industrial Processes. And of the idea of becoming white. White being equated with pure and ‘true’ it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure.” Just as the Sackler Wing provides a space for the purification of artifact into high art, the Domino Sugar Factory provided a site to enact the same cleansing process on the byproducts of luxury agriculture and slave labor. If raw sugarcane can be said to still bear traces of its harvester’s sweat and blood, the refinement process washes it all away, polishing the pulp to a crystalline glisten and rendering it at last suitable for enshrinement in the meticulous catalogue of the family pantry.
In spite of this reality, in the face of this reality, the Sugar Baby does not hold her tongue. If, as Tom Wolfe argues in his biting 1984 essay “The Worship of Art: Notes on a New God,” the Temple of Dendur stands as an unwitting tabernacle to high art as modern religion, where medieval tithes have been replaced by the corporate sponsorships of museum wings and pious pilgrimages by the migratory herds of camera-toting tourists, Walker’s statue is rather a totem to the bloodthirsty Hauka demons of Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous. Like the Nigerian cultists in Rouch’s documentary, Walker’s Sugar Baby acts as a conduit for the instruments of European colonial and industrial power, bringing them forth in a grotesque performance of madness and violence. The Hauka ceremony of performing the instruments of Western power through the language of African mysticism becomes a means of embodying the forced hybridity of the colonial subject: the Hauka is the manifestation of the colonist’s precarious position as neither entirely Western nor entirely African, but rather some unclassifiable hybrid of the two. If the Western demons of Rouch’s Hauka are the locomotive, the British general, and the colonial commissioner, Walker adds to the list the industrial sugar factory, the Egyptian sphinx, and the institution of Western art itself.
Taking this idea of embodied hybridity a step further, we see how Walker’s jarring synthesis of both Black and Egyptian imagery serves also as a sort of adjectival unlatching in the vein of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. By unhooking the tightly bound package locking noun and adjective into a single linguistic token — Homer’s insistence, for example, that blood is always black, that the sea is always unwearying — Carson’s coupling of nouns with new and unconventional descriptors serves as a sort of semiotic liberation, opening up subjects to new modes of identification, new modes of being. What Carson does for the West’s Greek and Homeric heritage, Walker does even more violently for our adopted and re-appropriated roots in Egypt. For Walker, the supposed liberation we see in Carson’s work is no cause for optimism, but rather a means of forcing us to lay our cards on the table. By taking the figure of the Egyptian sphinx and translating it into the distinctly American language of the domestic and hyper-sexualized Black stereotype, Walker insists that the sphinx not be Egyptian, but Black in the most horrific and offensive terms possible. Walker is demanding that viewers defile the sphinx, undo the process of canonization, and come to grips with our complicity in the system of racial violence and subjugation that has made this supposed refinement of black bodies into art seem so necessary and so natural in the first place.
The Factory, Photo Credit: Rebecca Segal
IV. CURRENCIES OF CARNIVAL AND QUOTATION
I would rediscover the secret of great communications and great combustions. I would say storm. I would say river.
—Aimé Césaire, 1939
At this point, there still remains a missing piece to the puzzle: Why Williamsburg? Why did Kara Walker choose for her Sugar Baby this bohemian nursery? What nourishing pap might we find in the burnt molasses soil of the East River’s banks? In essence, what happens when we recognize the sculpture’s installation in Brooklyn not simply as an arbitrary and innocuous choice — as if an artistic choice is ever truly arbitrary or innocuous — but as an active participant in the discursive web Walker is weaving?
In his 1992 novel Texaco, Patrick Chamoiseau uses the setting of the industrial shantytown as the stage for what he calls a Creole discourse: a discourse whose hybridity thrives in the labyrinthine corridors of industrial sprawl precisely because it opposes the work of the urban planner, the organizer of urban networks, the layer of grids. Articulating the divide between Fort-de-France and the imagined squatter village of Texaco, Chamoiseau writes,
In the center, an occidental urban logic, all lined up, ordered, strong like the French language. On the other side, Creole’s open profusion according to Texaco’s logic. Mingling these two tongues, dreaming of all tongues, the Creole city speaks a new language in secret and no longer fears Babel. Here the well-learned, domineering, geometrical grid of the urban grammar; over there the crown of a mosaic culture to be unveiled, caught in the hieroglyphics of cement, crate wood, asbestos.
This Creole language — this mosaic and hieroglyphic tongue — is the language of the urban bricoleur. It is the heteroglossic discourse of the industrial sprawl, of the belching smog and oozing brick of the sugar refinery. It is the language not of Olmsted’s park or Roche’s pavilion, but of their invisible custodians, of the hidden gears and limbs which ensured the machinery of Manhattan’s bourgeois urbanity kept running, pumping electricity into every home and sugar onto every table. It is the language of the periphery, of the industrial Brooklyn jungle which once lay a world away across the East River.
Taking up this notion of the city outskirts as teeming with an untamed hybrid discourse — of Williamsburg as the birth place of an unrestricted language that would otherwise be impossible in Manhattan — we fast find ourselves at the doorstep of the asylum we’ve been tentatively circling all this time: that of the avant-garde. In his 1993 book Avant Garde Theatre: 1892-1992, Christopher Innes notes that, “perhaps paradoxically, what defines the avant garde movement is not overtly modern qualities… but primitivism.” Drawing on the writings of the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Innes notes that this avant-garde project of recovering the primitive, of overturning contemporary means of expression and reverting to an earlier, more essential mode of communication, is ultimately an exercise in the carnivalesque, in the saturnalian inversion of power dynamics and the ecstatic transgression of social boundaries. As Innes paraphrases Bakhtin, “this carnival spirit is expressed in gargantuan themes of physical appetite and excremental or genital imagery, corrosive parody, and abusive language, together with violent shifts of tone or the juxtaposition of contradictory fragments, inversion and materialistic hyperbole.”
Corrosive parody. Contradictory fragments. Gargantuan physical appetite. In almost all respects, Walker’s Sugar Baby exemplifies the carnivalesque to the syllable. In its exaggerated scale, its grotesque language of racial caricature, its play to carnal appetite, the Sugar Baby stitches together a tapestry of transgression from the scraps of carnivalesque selvage strewn across Brooklyn’s landscape. Off the grid and rooted in the filthy soil of industrial labor, the Sugar Baby thrives and bursts out of the polluted earth like some hideous carnivorous plant. Brooklyn is sustenance for the monstrous sphinx, its polluted biome offering the promise of a liberated existence where the filth is finally brought to the surface and exposed for all to see.
Like nested matryoshka dolls, Williamsburg, the Domino Sugar Factory, and the Sugar Baby seem interlocked in a dialogue operating on three scales at once, connecting together the artistic, the industrial, and the urban such that each level becomes necessary to the construction of the others. And yet, while it would be deceptively easy to see the relationship between Walker’s sculpture and the bohemian jungle of Williamsburg as one of complete correspondence — of perfect symbiosis between organism and habitat — there in fact exists an enormously powerful tension at work between the two. Indeed, the ecosystem of Williamsburg lies not in some stable equilibrium with the primitive, but rather in a precarious balance slipping inch by inch. And it’s here that the sweetness of our optimism for the Williamsburg avant-garde quickly begins to leave a chemical aftertaste.
The tension lies in the very atmosphere of carnivalesque liberation Brooklyn so seductively offers. In her 1993 book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart notes that the motif of the Bakhtinian carnival finds its discursive partner in the world of repetition and hollow quotation. Stewart argues that carnival and quotation function as two sides of a dialectical coin: the former serving as a mechanism for disillusionment and upheaval; the latter, a device for the restoration of meaning through the reestablishment of clearly delineated boundaries. “The quotation,” Stewart writes, “lends both integrity and limit to the utterance by means of its ‘marks.’ In detaching the utterance from its context of origin, the quotation marks contextualize the utterance, giving it both integrity and boundary.”
If Williamsburg is the carnival where we are allowed to enact the ultimate transgression, the breaking of grids and the liberation of discourse, the quotation is its currency. Like admission tokens, quotations serve as the minted units of language tethering us to a subterranean economy of meaning. The carnival of the Sugar Baby is not exempt. By situating her within the industrial enclosure of the Domino Sugar Factory, Walker’s invocation of the instruments of industrial exploitation and the cruelty of commodity is at the same time an invocation of the factory as quotation. The Domino Sugar Factory — not unlike a vintage graphic tee or a mason jar of Crystal Pepsi — is a bracketed utterance, “a severed head, a voice whose authority is grounded in itself,” as Stewart writes. Walker did not sculpt the factory, but rather quotes it. The factory’s power as a statement lies in the saccharine patina of its brick, in its confinement of a racial and industrial history within the irrefutable solidity of its architecture. The carnival of the Sugar Baby thrives because the factory gives it form, its anguished cries amplified in the echo chamber of a colossal set of quotation marks.
But what happens when this balance between carnival and quotation finally slips? What happens when the carnival finally skips town, when the circus tents are whisked away and we find ourselves alone in the abandoned parking lot of an empty fairground, our pockets still jangling with this now meaningless currency of quotation?
What happens when they tear down the last sugar factory?
V. THIRTY-THREE REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE
Since he deserted the concert stage in 1964, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has confined his work to records… [His work] is fixed on a mechanically repeatable object, which controls the most obvious signs of immediacy (Gould’s voice, the peacock style of a Litz transcription, the brash informality of an interview packed along with a disembodied performance) beneath a dumb, anonymous, and disposable disc of black plastic.
—Edward Said, 1983
Ten blocks north of Domino, near the intersection of Kent and North 9th, the Rough Trade record store lies hidden behind the corrugated industrial shutters of a once abandoned Williamsburg warehouse. Racks of records trace labyrinthine coils across the store’s 15,000 square-foot concrete floor, rows periodically punctuated by the bolted stalks of upright listening stations, designer headphones dangling off like ripe fruit. An elevated iron catwalk along the perimeter peddles limited-release zines and imported lifestyle magazines. Overhead, massive industrial shipping containers cantilever above the checkout kiosk, glass windows revealing the fashionable managerial offices within. A large poster advertises the upcoming shows for the store’s adjoining 300-person concert venue, bar, and coffee shop.
Tucked off to the side of the store, a small gallery hosts a rotating series of album promotions and art installations. The month of the Sugar Baby’s debut, the gallery hosted a small exhibit on the New York City band LCD Soundsystem to commemorate the vinyl release of the band’s 2011 farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. Five turntables arranged around the gallery played the uncut four-hour recording on repeat, sounds of recorded applause and crowd hiss leaking from unused headphones, slabs of petrified petroleum locked in perpetual needle-guided rotation.
We find in the manicured halls of the Rough Trade record store Domino by way of Dendur — a Sackler-esque mausoleum to the industrial primitivism of a long-departed carnival, now refined into the figure of a curated quotation. As if rescued and shielded from time’s rising floodwaters, each record is displayed like a little shrink-wrapped relic; each spontaneous outburst, each moment of artistic transgression, locked in the infinitely repeatable groove of a crude, finite plate of sludge. Sealed at last in tarblack amber, LCD Soundsystem’s final show is now made perpetually final, a death infinitely reiterated on five glossy plastic discs, enacted over and over again at the drop of a needle.
If the bloodshed of the triangle trade is the Sugar Baby’s past, the refinement of black bodies through bourgeois canonization, its present, then it is here that we begin to see its future. Carnival transgression evacuated and reduced to mere quotation, Walker’s Sugar Baby is a time bomb doomed to self-annihilation. For like all works of the avant-garde, it is only a matter of time before this subversive primitivism is itself made the object of a cleansing, before its toxic reek is sealed off behind the climate-controlled partition of a museum and made into a banquet ornament for some future Rupert Murdoch and his cohort. Before it becomes infected with Stewart’s “social disease of nostalgia” and the evidence of atrocity is reduced to so many fashionable collector’s items and tchotchkes.
This is the self-annihilating fate of Williamsburg. This is the fate of the jungle after the factory is demolished and the waterside condominiums have taken its place: molasses bricks enshrined somewhere across the ocean in a Kevin Roche pavilion. By effacing the industrial object as a tangible monument to its own congealed labor, by replacing it with the repetition of a repetition — the hollow quotation of an industrial aesthetic ripped from the catalog of some chic design magazine — Williamsburg is doomed to silence. It is doomed to a history whose unpaid stewards rot in unmarked graves beneath waterfront high-rises. Glossed over in the vinyl sheen of newly laid asphalt.
And so the Sugar Baby is consigned to suicide. It resists the curator and the grid layer in death, in the absolute finitude of its mere two-month lifespan. Better to melt away in sweet oblivion, the Sugar Baby cries, to cast my puddle of syrupy runoff into the turbid throws of the East River, to die before a concrete and glass pavilion can be erected around me. Before the cruel rigor mortis of our collective nostalgia seals its limbs in pretty sphinx-like permanence.
And so we will offer a final elegy to the drowning Sugar Baby, whose rusting helmet of a factory was stuck too tightly around its suffocating mammy head. And we will sing a funeral dirge to all the voices that drown with it, wrought perhaps in the sonorous poetry of Jean Toomer’s Cane,
Lets call him great when the water shall have been all drawn off. Lets build him a monument and set it in the ooze where he goes down. A monument of hewn oak, carved in nigger-heads. Lets open our throats, brother, and sing “Deep River” when he goes down.
— Gabriel Samach ’15, May 2014