Before it dies, before it is razed to the ground and replaced with skyscraping glass towers of luxury, the Domino sugar refinery has been turned into a work of art.
In "Subtlety," Kara Walker's colossus, the sugar mountain of mammy, commands the space, attended by a retinue of boys molded out of candy in the style of "pickaninny" figurines. The caricatures are familiar to viewers old enough to recall the more blatant racist days when Aunt Jemima still wore a kerchief, and Looney Tunes were filled with goggle-eyed black children ("Inki" comes to mind).
With these lurid, cartoonish characters, Walker is reaching deep into Domino history, when slaves harvested cane for sugar. (Similar practices continue to this day.) "Basically, it was blood sugar," Walker told NPR. "Like we talk about blood diamonds today."
In the heat and humidity, the sculptures are melting. The boys are coming apart, their arms and legs collapsing into sticky puddles. The mammy oozes. Shiny pustules of sweetness form between her bare breasts and along the exaggerated mountains of her buttocks. Beneath her chin, sugar stalactites drip. In whole, it is a startling, soul-shaking sight to behold.
All around the art, the factory is decaying, too. On every rusted beam, gathered sugar remains, clinging like dirty old snow too stubborn to melt. Still, it sweats, glistening in its filth. Overhead, chunks of sugar lose their grip and fall to the floor with a hard crack, shattering across the concrete. The walls of Domino weep. Molasses pours down everywhere.
It's impossible not to step in it, breathe it, maybe even stick your finger into a gritty drift and taste it.
The sculptures speak of deep history, but the building weeps for yesterday and today. Domino was once a processor of sugar, turning brown into white, refining the rough stuff into something uniform and smooth. The coming luxury buildings are factories in the process of hyper-gentrification, turning brown into white, refining neighborhoods and populations into something uniform and smooth.
This is nowhere apparently referred to in the art show. Luxury and wealth are mentioned in Creative Time's curatorial statement, but not the sort connected to gentrification. While Walker's achievement is great, it seems an opportunity has been missed.
Creative Time has long shown art in spaces about to be destroyed and taken over for the purposes of gentrifying neighborhoods, a fact that their president, Anne Pasternak, freely admits. As she told Gallerist, “Our whole history as an organization is to use sites of transition. We know this is going to be a problem for people and that they’re going to be examining our ethics.”
Two Trees, the mega-developer that owns Domino and will be demolishing it, filling the site with massive, glittering towers, is listed prominently on Creative Time's page of supporters for the Walker show. Infamous for turning Dumbo into a luxury neighborhood, Two Trees is led by Jed Walentas. He also happens to be co-chairman of Creative Time's Board.
In 1993, when Creative Time and the 42nd Street Development Corporation installed the works of two dozen artists in evicted buildings along 42nd in Times Square, critic Peter Schjeldahl called the show a "deathwatch ensemble," explaining, "Urbanistically speaking, the artists are crows to carrion." Another reviewer in Montreal called the project “Bread and circuses for the tourists. Diversion for the masses. Cultural camouflage for a neighborhood in transition.” And we all know the refined, white-washed, Disneyfied Deuce that came next.
Regrettably, painfully, the presence of art often heralds the death of a neighborhood. It can be used by developers to make the medicine go down--like a spoonful of sugar.
What kind of influence, overt or subtle, did Two Trees have over the art chosen and shown at Domino?
This is not to criticize the work of Kara Walker. Her show is impressive and not to be missed. Nor is it to criticize the act of installing art in buildings about to be demolished. I was moved by the 1993 show on 42nd Street and I was moved by the Domino show. But New York needs artists and art organizations, especially powerful ones like Creative Time, to be courageous enough to buck the corporate sponsors and bring large-scale attention to the issue of hyper-gentrification, a devastation that is happening today and impacting all of us.
Walker herself said of the Domino demolition, “It makes me very sad, actually. It’s so deeply embedded with meaning, and to just bulldoze that for the next phase of development is inevitable but it’s tragic.” As to her position on gentrification, she said to Animal NY, "I don’t have a position on gentrification necessarily... Cultures come and go. Condos come and go..."
The tragedy goes beyond the demolition of one landmark building. The hyper-gentrification that rises on Domino's dust will ripple across Williamsburg, binding with already existing strains and growing stronger, expanding to nearby neighborhoods, across the entire borough of Brooklyn, onward and outward until it swamps the whole lot.
Along the way, as we have witnessed, that refining process whitens and sugarcoats the city, scouring away history and culture with the grime, evicting the non-rich, people of color, and artists as it blankets a once vibrant city in dull uniformity--one that will certainly taste sweet to some.
We need art like Kara Walker's. We also need big, attention-getting works that comment on, criticize, and shine a fiercely bright light on the major human tragedy that is unfolding all around us, every day, right now. Creative Time had the chance to do that at Domino, but they didn't. When arts organizations depend on the deep pockets of developers, they will never bite the hand that feeds them.
Read: "On Hyper-Gentrification"