I'd declared it in so many words in the Editor's Note to the inaugural issue of the C77 Design Daily, but I must admit I was expressly thinking of the Kara Walker installation at the Domino Sugar Factory when I wrote the first sentences of that short text:
We live in an age of spectacle, and so too does it seem like reality is more spectacular than ever before. Between the endless airspace of social media and the inconceivably powerful devices we carry along with our pocket change, we are all but expected to express ourselves at every turn—who can fault us for indulging in the collective narcissism? Instagrammability is an unspoken criteria for the barrage of phenomena that surround us, and product, furniture and exhibition design are among the many things that will be captured, filtered and liked by thousands of eyeballs and fingertips... most of which will never come in contact with the actual things or places.
Cheeky not only for its title—"A Subtlety" is ostensibly ironic but is actually an allusion to a medieval confection—Walker's highly photogenic (albeit often blown-out) room-sized sphinx has high cheekbones and a prodigious posterior, among other unsubtle traits. That, and the fact that the massive, 35ft-high, 75ft-long mammy lords over her adoring public, her exaggerated mammaries and genitalia more cartoonish than obscene. Reportedly sculpted from some 40 tons of sugar (it's not solid), non-profit arts organization Creative Time commissioned the piece from Walker, which is accompanied by attendants scattered throughout the turbine hall-like space of the former sugar refinery; it also happens to be the first three-dimensional work for the New York-based artist, who is best known for her silhouetted cut-outs.
In the interest of providing context (both for those of you who are planning on visiting and those of you who will vicariously consume it via the Internet), some recommended reading: Hrag Vartanian's take includes with a brief history of the site (partly adapted from an October 2013 Times article) alongside his photo essay; Audie Cornish's helpfully descriptive NPR story; and Hilton Als' erudite yet accessible blogpost for The New Yorker.
Much has been made of the subtitular wall text, printed in foot-high letters on the exterior of the building (and reproduced in the video and all of the articles above), but loaded rhetoric aside, there is indeed a certain subtlety to the craftsmanship behind the piece. It's hard to tell from the time lapse video above, but the Art21 segment below nicely captures both Walker's myriad reference points and the actual fabrication of the work, which was assembled and hand-finished in situ. Self-styled scholars can read up at their leisure; the makers among you might be more interested in the middle section of the video:
It's a sugar rush, to say the least. Just as the sticky-sweet ambiance is viscerally associated with the taste of the substance itself, the sculptural forms are bluntly symbolic, and the pointed themes of race and sex charge the air of the space as much as the saccharine smell. I might be stretching a bit, but I see it as a kind of inversion of Kanye West's music video for "Bound 2"—it's the Janus-face of kitschy (re)appropriation, one a surfeit of meaning and the other a void—but to the same effect: The message is so overwhelming that it's barely worth talking about it. (I'll just kind of throw that out there...)
Even so (as I proceeded to state in that Editor's Note), the point is not to see it on a screen, as 'content,' but to experience "A Subtlety" in the flesh. Here I'll reprise my line (from a later issue of the Daily) about waiting in line with well-brunched hipsters, which is to say that the temporary installation, organized by Creative Time, is only open for the next four weekends—Fridays from 4–8pm; Saturdays & Sundays from 12–6pm; through July 6—and you can expect a wait. After all, those art-selfies won't take themselves.
A final bit of armchair art criticism: another quip (misattributed to Marie Antoinette), one degree removed from the granular stuff, also applies here. Let them eat cake, as the saying goes—and now that everyone and their mother has a camera in their pockets, the proverbial 'they' can have their cake and eat it too.