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Sugar Metropolis Built from 500,000 Sugarcubes Is Pretty Sweet

Photo credit: Courtesy of Brendan Jamison

What would you do with half a million sugar cubes? If you’re artists Brendan Jamison and Mark Revels, the answer is easy: You bring in 5,000 people, and build a futuristic metropolis out of them

The Belfast, Irelandbased duo are coming to America in May to set up an interactive, open-to-the-public exhibition in—naturally—the Sugar Hill district of Harlem in New York City. They’ve got a Kickstarter campaign going to help fund the project, but have a long haul over the next sixteen days till they reach their goal (which will help cover the cost of those 500,000 sugar cubes).

They’re also looking for a sugar daddy: “It sounds like a lot, but for a sugar company, that’s $2,000-$3,000 worth [at wholesale]. It would cost more if we went in and bought it.” Sugar manufacturers, you payin’ attention? Does “We Built This City on Dom-i-no" not have a certain ring to it?

We got Jamison, who has been building sugar-based sculptures for 12 years, on the phone to talk sugar, rats, kids, and what sort of glue he used. The answers—especially to that last one—amazed us. 

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Brendan Jamison

What’s the history of this project? 

The first [sugar metropolis] was in Belfast, which ran from October of last year to January of this year. The idea was to make it a collaborative project, from very young children to the elderly, across the spectrum of life. Basically [I wanted] something that absolutely everybody could get involved with, not just an artist creating one big sculpture, but a collaborative process. 

It’s art made from sugar. Were the artists all children? 

It was 30 to 35 percent children; the rest would have been adults, and teenagers. Teenagers would come up together in little groups of two or three. Also, a lot of architects [showed up]. They really really loved it; it’s kind of mind-blowing for an architect, in a sense. And the beauty of the Ulster Museum [where the first sculpture was built] is that it attracts people from all over the world. 

Was this torture for the little kids building with sugar? Did they eat the sugar? 

We did have rules about eating sugar. We did say to the children, ”don’t eat it,” but then at the end of the day we would find half-eaten sugar cubes. Parents would come up to us and say, “my child has their pockets completely filled with sugar cubes.” Some kids got so into it that they would start screaming and crying at the end of the day, and had to be dragged away. 

How do you keep rats and bugs away?

We’ve never actually had any problems with that in all the places over the years; we’ve been very lucky. [But in New York] we’ll need insect repellant. 

What sort of glue do you use to keep the cubes together? 

We don’t use glue in the sugar metropolis project because that complicates things. It’s not good for health and safety, especially for kids, so we build them free-standing. We build up several layers of walls. It creates a certain tension in the room. At times people knock things down. There was one chap who was able to build a tower that was six feet tall. 

How will the United States sugar metropolis be different than the Irish one?

I’m really hoping that it’ll be very different from the first one we did. The first piece has a European feel to it. New York is a metropolis itself, so New York will feed into what people build. 

How did you end up in Sugar Hill, Harlem? 

That was the [idea of the] organization there [No Longer Empty], who are all about revitalizing an area. They wanted to build a project in an empty space, and said the new building on the ground floor will be empty. They approached me to see if I’d be interested in it. 

The exhibit opens in New York in the Sugar Hill Building, on St. Nicholas and 155th Street, on May 22nd, and sweet tooths can support the Kickstarter here.