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Kara Walker, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby"

Video by Art21. This episode provides an in-depth look at the creation of Kara Walker's monumental public project, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" (2014), at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, NY. Seated in her Manhattan studio, Walker explains how the molasses-covered space, along with her extensive research into the history of sugar, inspired her to create a colossal sugar-coated sphinx, as well as a series of life-sized, sugar and resin boy figurines. A team of artists and fabricators are shown constructing and coating the sphinx, which, as Walker says, gains its power by "upsetting expectations, one after the other." Commissioned by Creative Time, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" is the first large-scale public project by Walker who is best known for her cut paper silhouette installations, drawings, and watercolors. "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" was on view until July 6, 2014. Thereafter, the factory is scheduled to be demolished to make way for condominiums.

Kara Walker explores the raw intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in her work, crafting vivid psychological narratives from a contemporary perspective on historical conditions. Over the past two decades, Walker has unleashed the traditionally Victorian medium of the silhouette onto the walls of the gallery, creating immersive installations that envelop the viewer. Walker's multi-media work—which includes drawing, watercolor, video, and sculpture—often reconsider grotesque caricatures, probing their persistence in popular culture and reclaiming their subjugating power to alternative ends.

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/kara-walker

CREDITS: Producer: Ian Forster. Consulting Producer: Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Interviewer: Ian Forster. Camera: Ian Forster, Rafael Salazar & Ava Wiland. Sound: Nicole J. Caruth, Wesley Miller & Ava Wiland. Editor: Morgan Riles. Music: Pinch Music. Artwork Courtesy: Kara Walker & Creative Time. Special Thanks: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Theme Music: Peter Foley. "Exclusive" is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; 21c Museum Hotel, and by individual contributors. Kara Walker, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" at Creative Time http://creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

Kara Walker: "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" [WALKER] "Kara Walker's work deals with history..." [Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY] Embedded in that statement, "Kara Walker is dealing with history," is this kind of desire for a hero who can fix this problem of our history and racism. And I don't think that my work is actually effectively dealing with history. I think of my work as kind of subsumed by history [LAUGHS] or consumed by history. [MAN #1] Alright, what we want... we want to work from the back, forward. [MAN #2] Go the back... the layout... 14, 24, 34, 44. [MAN #1] Okay. [WALKER] Nato Thompson from Creative Time, he said, "You have to see this." "This place is totally filled with molasses." Molasses on the walls, molasses on the rafters, globs of sugar fifty feet up in the air, just left over from this refining process. It was such a cathedral to industry, and such a cathedral to this one commodity. The whole project is predicated on this space being demolished at the end of the run of the show. I had to learn more about sugar in the process of trying to understand this building. Sugar comes from sugar cane. Sugar cane is grown in tropical climates. Sugar cane is, and has been, harvested by slaves, underpaid workers, and children possibly. It's a fascinating and very long history. I started putting down all of my free association ideas, starting with sugar and molasses. And molasses is a by-product of the sugar processing. What other by-products are there? And I got to the end, and I was like, "Ruins!" You know? It was just like, "Ruins," everything was just in ruins. And I couldn't just produce ruins. In this book I was reading about the history of sugar, contemporaries described something called a "sugar subtlety". I loved this term. A "subtlety" is a sugar sculpture made out of sugar paste, marzipan, fruits and nuts, that was sculpted to portray royalty, and only could be consumed by royalty, nobility, clergy. The subtlety presents this opportunity to make a figure that can embrace many themes that is representative of power in and of itself. [WALKER] Wow! I was sort of grasping at too many different ideas that I wanted to bring into the piece. [WOMAN] Like, what don't you want it to look like? [WALKER] I don't know how to answer that. [LAUGHS] I mean, I've never done anything like this before [LAUGHS] So I don't really have, like, a really good opinion, you know? From ruins to the sugar subtlety lead me to think about the... you know, what sort of figure, and what sort of position would she occupy. I think there was a moment of stepping back and...ding! You know? "Oh, what about a sphinx?" You know, it was very subtle, actually. [LAUGHS] It's not a kind of Egyptophile relic. This is someone from the new world. I was not at all secure about doing sculpture. This was one of those things that was so out of my league that I hung back during the sculpting process. [MICHAEL FERRARI-FONTANA] We started with a clay model. The model was scanned and digitized and created into a file that could be read by carving robots. It's simply one layer that goes on top of the other. You always hear about sculptors [Michael Ferrari-Fontana, Sculptor] liberating the figure from the block. We go back in with the bow wires and basically drag the bow wire across the blocks at angles in order to achieve the curvatures that we're looking for. No matter how incredible robotic carving is the hand is an element that you can't get away from. And it's beyond the hand. It's not just the hand-- it's what's driving the hand. [ERIC HAGAN] We're in the process of doing our first test, so we're still very much in the discovery phase. I've done a lot of smaller tests-- some twelve-inch figures-- [Eric Hagan, Sugar Artist] but nothing five-feet tall. So it's a mixture of corn syrup, sugar, and water. Kind of like what you would use to make caramel, or lollipops. So we're boiling it up to between 265 and 290 degrees Fahrenheit. We're pouring them into a rubber mold to let them set. So when we de-mold them, they will be covered in the sugar and water mixture similar to the sphinx. [WALKER] I highly recommend a fifty-pound bag of sugar for personal therapy. But if you mix it with a couple of gallons of water... it's very fun. I mean, it's the most fun I've had since kindergarten, I think, making art. I think it was very important to me to have figures made out of a substance that is so temporal-- it's so subject to change. I really recognize what a privilege it is to be working in that space, because I can think of a thousand other artists who could take on the challenge of that space. I really love the fact of these figures kind of melting and dripping. And they're very much like the interior of the Domino Sugar Factory which is also still dripping, still producing molasses from its interior, still sort of weeping this substance. The mammy, although she's bent over in this gesture of, sort of, supplication, I don't feel like she's there to be taken, or satisfied, or abused in any way. She's sort of withholding. I don't want to make her into a non-sexual caretaker of the city. She's powerful because she is so kind of iconic in a way. And she is so monumental and so unexpected. If I've done the job well, then she gains her power by upsetting expectations one after the other. I think it's very important to look back. I don't think we do it often enough. I think sometimes looking back leads to, kind of, depression and stasis, which isn't good. But, looking forward without any kind of deep, historical feeling of connectedness-- it's no good either.