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Artist Kara Walker Says Farewell to the Domino Sugar Refinery

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits artist Kara Walker's exhibit in the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Refinery.

[Thousands of visitors line up in the rubble of the half-demolished Domino Sugar Refinery, waiting for a chance to visit Kara Walker's Creative Time installation. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Over the past few months, the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg Brooklyn has slowly been destroyed. Its warehouses have been torn down, its catwalks stripped, and its iconic glass tower denuded, while graffiti has covered nearly every surface. The grounds of this once-proud factory are being prepared for a massive new Two Trees development that the City Council approved on May 14th. In the coming years, most of this 132-year-old complex will be replaced by residential towers, some up to 55 stories high, which will hold over 2,200 waterfront apartments. Aside from one Landmarked building on the campus, the old refinery will disappear, added to a long list of historic industrial structures on Brooklyn's waterfront that have been demolished over the past decade, including forgotten icons like the Revere Sugar Refinery, the Kent Avenue Powerhouse, and the Todd Shipyards.

But the Domino Sugar Refinery is not going quietly. Since May 10th, a line of thousands of visitors has formed each weekend outside the construction fences, waiting for a chance to go inside one of the last remaining warehouses on the grounds. The line winds its way past the shuttered Pan House and through the rubble of the Specialty Sugar Warehouse, which has already been torn down, before ending at the Raw Sugar Warehouse. "This is an active construction site," volunteers shout out, while handing out waivers to guests. "We are at full capacity all day," said another volunteer. "We had 4,500 visitors on Saturday!"

The lure is a temporary installation of sculptures created by artist Kara Walker, which were crafted from 80 tons of sugar donated by Domino. Visitors to the installation—titled "A Subtlety"—are invited to stay as long as they like, and many have spent the entire day inside the Raw Sugar Warehouse, savoring the sights and smells of the building. Molasses drips from the ceiling, pooling on the floor, and guests seem to be equally enthralled by the rusted walls coated in old sugar as they are with the new sugar sculptures placed nearby. "We did not touch the walls. This is how we found the space," said Anne Pasternak, the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, which organized the exhibit. "We want people to think about our industrial past and the breakdown of our empire."

While Kara Walker's creations for this exhibit are monumental in scale and provide an interesting commentary on the historical sugar trade, the installation does little to engage the specific history of Brooklyn's transformation from an industrial stronghold into a haven for luxury condominiums. The Domino refinery was shuttered in 2004, with equipment and paperwork still inside, and many of its former workers still live in the neighborhood, despite skyrocketing rents. Their stories are not included in the exhibit, but some observers have pointed out that installation has helped provide a bonanza of free publicity for the developers at Two Trees Management, whose principal Jed Walentas is also co-chair of the board at Creative Time. "I cannot help wondering about the "subtlety" of inviting an African American artist to highlight the historic past of labor exploitation in the sugar trade before erasing one of its monuments and replacing it with a monument to gentrification," wrote Filip Noterdaeme in the Huffington Post.  

In the meantime, the demolition of Domino continues. On the other side of the campus, the Adant House and the Packaging House have already been destroyed, while the towering Bin Structure, where the iconic Domino sign hangs above the East River, has been gutted. "Some of the buildings have been landmarked, but almost all of them have been demolished," said Anne Pasternak, while talking with visitors in the Raw Sugar Warehouse. "This building will come down immediately after this installation." Kara Walker's work will be on view until July 6th, providing one last chance to visit this unique piece of Brooklyn's past.

Despite long lines, the wait to enter the exhibit was relatively short. Visitors to A Subtlety had travelled from around the country to see the installation, some flying in for just one day.

At the entrance to the installation stand several sculptures made from resin. Initially, they were to have been made from sugar, but most collapsed or melted. "There are three sugar ones that have survived," said Anne Pasternak. The broken ones are collected in the baskets. 

Many visitors were equally interested in the machines of the old refinery, some of which are still on display. "The sugar here never went below 15 feet high," said one volunteer. "It was piled up like a salt pile."

Rusted walls and beams coated in old sugar drew photographers in like flies. Nearly everyone in the exhibit had a camera in hand. Little context was provided, however, to explain the history of the building they were in.

Pooling molasses, dripping from the ceiling. The entire Domino complex once smelled of musty brown sugar. The floors here had been cleaned before the exhibit opened. 

The bones of the Raw Sugar Warehouse impressed many visitors, who questioned why the building was scheduled to be destroyed. There are very few large scale warehouses like this left in New York City.

The centerpiece of Kara Walker's work is a giant sphinx-like sculpture made from 330 blocks of styrofoam coated in 40 tons of sugar.  "Please don't touch it," said one volunteer. "And don't lick it! I know you want to lick it."

Kara Walker has also expressed her sadness over the ongoing demolition of the Domino refinery buildings. "It's so deeply embedded with meaning, and to just bulldoze that for the next phase of development is inevitable but it's tragic," she told the Observer.

Elsewhere on the campus, the demolition continues unabated. This is the former site of Adant House and the Packaging House, which were completely demolished in the past month.

The interior of the Bin Structure is now exposed, as the building is gutted.  Many artifacts and records were left inside after the refinery closed in 2004, but the history of Domino has since slowly faded away. 

The former parking lot of the factory has been replaced by a temporary dirt bike track and pop-up park.  Children play in the ruined shadow of the once-thriving factory. 

The future of Brooklyn's waterfront is still being shaped. Although industry has largely been driven from the area, Williamsburg has managed to maintain some level of diversity. But how will the arrival of thousands of new residents transform the neighborhood?
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Domino coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]