Artist Kara Walker’s installation “A Subtlety” is sugar-coated — with an estimated 40 tons of sugar — at the Domino Sugar factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

 

“Ours is a time of connection; the private, and we must accept this, and it’s a hard thing to accept, the private is gone,” muses the Homebody, a middle-aged British woman who is one of the main characters in Tony Kushner’s 2001 play “Homebody/Kabul.” “All must be touched. All touch corrupts. All must be corrupted.”

In that drama, the thing that is touched, is corrupted and corrupts the toucher in turn is Afghanistan. But Kushner’s sentiment seems a perfect description of what is taking place at the Domino Sugar refinery on the waterfront in Brooklyn, where Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, 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” is on display until July 6.

The title of the piece is a reference to the sugar confections that were served at medieval feasts and that are the predecessors of contemporary wedding cakes. Walker’s vision is massive by comparison to those treats, and explicitly engaged with the violent traditions of sugar production. This is no treat to be doled out sparingly at the end of the meal. It is a volume of sugar — and history — that would choke even the volume of visitors who are permitted into the former factory at any given moment.

The centerpiece and conclusion of a “A Subtlety” is a massive sphinx, crafted from white sugar, with the head of a mammy and the intensely sexualized body of a black woman as she might be visualized by one of the slave masters in Walker’s paper cutout exhibits. She looms over the exhibit, which also includes refining equipment, a peephole onto the river and a number of figures of small children carrying baskets on their backs and in their arms.

The sphinx, coated in gleaming white sugar, draws the eye all the way across the warehouse, and she has gotten much of the attention in writings about the exhibit. The statues of the children may be even more disturbing.

“Scaled-up versions of tchotchkes that Walker came across on Amazon, they have big, sweet eyes, and they carry bananas and baskets. Typically for Walker, they are both racist objectifications and strangely cute and compelling,” wrote Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time, which commissioned “A Subtlety.”

They also exhibit decay that has yet to visibly mar the sphinx. The figures are made of resin coated in molasses, and sugar has melted into their eyes, obscuring their features and pooling out around them, like blood or effluvia. The children began falling apart early in the exhibition. One lies along a wall, the resin distorted by the heat. Walker told NPR’s Audie Cornish in May that in a gesture that was “maybe a little bit hammer-over-the-head … some of the pieces of the broken boys I threw into the baskets of the unbroken boys.” Sugar has eaten these children, rather than the other way around.

It is not new that Walker has created intensely powerful images. But while in the past we could only observe her cutouts, visitors to “A Subtlety” can interact with the installation. The factory may be plastered with signs that warn the site has been laced with poison to keep animals and insects away, but humans are enthusiastically invited in and encouraged to use their cameras. Because the space is so large, and the figures placed at some remove from each other, it is inevitable that what is on display is not only Walker’s sculptures, but our own reactions to them.

Much has been written about the way visitors to “A Subtlety” have behaved in the exhibit, particularly the sorts of pictures they have taken of themselves and each other with Walker’s creations. As with the much-maligned pictures teenagers take of each other at Auschwitz, some visitors have been disconcerted by the sight of people snapping leering selfies near the sex organs of the sphinx, or puckish pictures with the smaller figures in the warehouse.

Those interactions are undeniably strange to witness in person, as I did this weekend. A young white family stopped at one of the statues of the children, the father trying to get a picture of his wife and son with the statue, the toddler resisting the project all the while. A black man took a picture of a young white woman pulling a pout next to one of the statues of a child, her expression approximating the one wrought in sugar. A young black woman posed, hip cocked, at the foot of the sphinx. An older white couple in white, flowing clothes paused at the far end of the hall so that the man could take a picture of the woman.

There have been plenty of attempts to reckon with these sorts of pictures, and the even more provocative snapshots that have proliferated on Instagram and Facebook. Some writers see these sorts of images as proof that many white people see African American women as toys or props and are so unashamed of that sentiment that they are unafraid to act on it in public, and for public consumption and distribution.

I think this is true. But there is something subtler at work in the less-sexual shots that many visitors took with the statues.

“A Subtlety” is a monumental statement of a monumental history, from the scale of the sphinx to the heavy sugar fug in the air. For some people, visiting the exhibit is an intentional choice to witness that history. For others, like the woman who stood in front of me in line, it was simply an opportunity to do something that had an air of excitement attached to it. Inside the building, though, that history is choking, however prepared you might have been to encounter it.

To pose with the statues is to try to restore a human scale to them. We are taller than the small sugar babies. The sphinx, if taller than any person, can at least be reckoned with in human scale. These sorts of attempts at bringing proportion to something like “A Subtlety” rather than regarding it in awe and humility are silly, an effort to distract from ideas that Walker is so bluntly communicating.

That does not mean it is a very human thing to do, as ugly and ridiculous as many of the spectacles that appear in Walker’s paper cutouts. I can see some of those poses appearing in one of Walker’s future shows. Cast in shadow, the lack of dignity on the part of the contemporary photographers would be undeniable.

If we reveal ourselves to be corrupted, immature or unprepared at “A Subtlety,” the exhibit itself reaches back to corrupt us, too. You can get very close, and even touch the statues, but you do so at cost. To look inside a basket, to pose with a small figure or to try to ascertain the outline of an eye or mouth under dripping, molding sugar, you have to step in the zone of the statues’ ruin.

Even when our intentions are to come into close contact with historical horrors as a way of standing witness, we come away dirty, the story sticking to the bottom of our shoes.

 

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.