What becomes apparent as you examine the exhibition, Like Sugar, is that the exhibition is all around us, all the time. What Skidmore College’s Tang Museum has done is isolate a number of elements – sweet, bittersweet, and merely bitter – to resonate with our sugar-infested world, and remind us of its loathsome past.
I’ve always been aware that sugar had a powerful draw for me, says Sarah Goodwin, a Skidmore professor of English who helped organize the show. It must have been a good twenty years ago, there was a women’s study group that used to hold brown bag lunches where we’d discuss something of interest to us. I proposed the topic of sugar, and there was a very lively discussion that day from different disciplinary perspectives. So when the Tang Museum was opened as an interdisciplinary space, about sixteen years ago, I thought we should do a show about sugar. But I wasn’t thinking about it being so informed by contemporary art. I didn’t realize how much there would be!
Like Sugar opened February 9, 2019, and runs through June 23. It’s a show that sneaks up on you, welcoming you with appealing-looking confectionary portraits while Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee sing the 1926 standard Sugar. And then you look closer. Here’s a stretch of eight magazine ads that ran between 1940 and 1956, featuring bright colors and happy faces, plugging products like Log Cabin Syrup, Baby Ruth bars, and Whitman’s chocolates. It isolates the persuasive rumble of our existence, during which few waking moments seem to pass without some manner of advertisement appearing.
Here’s a toothsome-looking doughnut with a thick pink glaze, leaning atop another doughnut and about to be penetrated by still another, in a 2016 painting by Emily Eveleth incisively titled Big Pink.
As Goodwin notes, The Tang tends to be heavy on contemporary art, which means there is a heavy dose of irony, and also complexity and ambiguity. Which meant this was not going to be a message show. This was not going to be about ‘sugar is evil.’ It was going to be more textured than that.
But the message began to creep in as the exhibition developed. According to Goodwin, many in the medical community reject the idea that sugar is an addictive substance. But that view is increasingly challenged.
One of the paintings on display came from the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, but when asked to borrow it, they were reluctant. They had to consult with their board, and it turned out that one of the members is a doctor who specializes in obesity. He said that the health issue has to be part of the show. Goodwin credits this doctor for the focus on the addictive nature of sugar: He’s the one who got us the posters related to the diabetes epidemic, and he kept sending me reading assignments, and the more I read, the more I realized he was right. And it’s not just that we have this health epidemic right now in the U.S, but it’s spreading as we export these sugary processed foods we make here.
The painting from the LSU Museum, Sugar Cane Harvest, 1937, is by Swedish-born artist Knute Heldner (1877-1952), created seventy years ago under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. It’s an attractive piece, or so it seems at first: A wide, impressionist view of a plantation field includes a distant sugar factory, and, like an altarpiece, the view is flanked by a closer view of nameless African-American harvesters toiling in the field. Its seeming innocence teems with irony from a contemporary standpoint, but I suspect the more enlightened of its original viewers could see that as well.
Artifacts adjoin the paintings, showing us the elegance of 19th-century service in the form of spoon, tongs, caster (for granulated sugar service), and even a 20th-century cube server. Alongside is a rugged wooden box and cutting knife for dealing with the stuff in its rawer form. A 19th-century kettle reminds us of the intricate processing required before evaporative technology arrived, and Jessica Halonen’s Confectionary Units abstracts the issue into 69 two-pound cubes, constructed of sugar, adding up to what’s recommended as her ideal weight.
There’s a small bookshelf in an alcove sporting a number of sugar-related titles, from the scholarly to the incendiary (and sometimes simultaneously both). Among them is the book that first opened my eyes to the dangers of refined sugar: William Dufty’s Sugar Blues.
Goodwin also has a history with that book. I picked it up about ten years ago and it fascinated me – it’s such muckraking prose. He knew that he was on to something, and he was on to something, and then the book did a kind of deep dive into oblivion. But now, especially with the type-2 diabetes epidemic, people are sitting up and saying, ‘Whoa. We have a massive problem here.’ I’ve been astonished to learn, since we’ve done this show, how many people in my circle have type-2 diabetes. One of the gallery monitors has it, and she has to stand there and smell that sugar all day long. It’s real.
Five curators worked to assemble this show, adding to the broad range of material on display. Says Goodwin, There were two artists I knew I wanted to have in the show. One was Julia Jaquette, who had a solo show at the Tang earlier in its history. She did a series of wedding cakes that just blew me away – they’re ironic, and the irony is chilling, and at the same time they’re really beautiful. They do this marvelous thing that contemporary art can do, where it can mean two different things at once. It can be saying that there’s a sweetness to sexual desire, and there’s a sweetness to sweet foods that is genuine, while at the same time it can say that it’s corrupting, and it’s mechanized, and mass-marketed.
Jaquette’s painting, from 1997, is titled Two Tiered Cookie Platter, and presents a compellingly realistic view of a dessert presentation – but a carefully lettered caption below the platter reads, To Inhale the Scent of Your Skin as I Kiss the Nape of Your Neck.
The other artist I wanted, Goodwin continues, was Kara Walker. She’s the point person for the way that the sugar industry is connected with slavery. Walker created a display at the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, in which she constructed a massive Sugar Sphinx. In our exhibition there’s this five-foot-tall brown-sugar-and-molasses child, which is one of the many tiny figures that surrounded her eighty-ton sphinx. People said it was awe-inspiring – and chilling, because of all the racist stereotypes it portrays. She dedicates it to sugar laborers. There’s an interesting texturing of the historic past of slavery with the recent past of the sugar factory, because there was a protracted strike at the Domino factory that ended in 1997, and they decided to close the factory. She put the exhibition up in 2014 after working on it for about five years and Domino provided all the sugar for it!
There’s also work from the Skidmore community, including Sweet Talk, a video presentation by Skidmore student Sanjna Selvarajan (Class of 2021) about honeybee behavior, based on a study by Skidmore Associate Professor of Biology Monica Raveret Richter and featuring the aforementioned jazz recordings. There’s a wall of photographs offered by faculty, staff, and students, all featuring celebratory events where some manner of sugar is offered. And there’s a wall of comments, as visitors are prompted with questions like How does a history of slavery inform our modern understanding of sugar? and Has sugar lost its connection with the natural world?
As Goodwin observes, One of the things that became an important concept for us is that sugar is powerful. We have a biological drive to consume it, but the sugar industry has exploited that drive, and that started from the earliest days. There’s been a continual push forward to develop technologies that allow for producing more and more sugar. And to find new lands on which sugar cane could grown, and, later, sugar beets could grow. I thought it could be kind of compelling for students. I suspected that sugar binges are a real thing for them. But they’re not coming out about that. I’ve only had one student admit to an eating disorder. But students have been flocking to the show – and they come back!
(B. A. Nilsson, 5/9/19)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): Fed Up (2014), the powerful documentary film, reviewed here a few years ago, makes clear that sugar consumption has spawned the obesity epidemic that has spread globally.]