Sometimes, to make historical objects speak to contemporary viewers, you have to give them actual voices. Artist Christina Kelly and author Amy Sohn did just that with Gowanus Underworld, their collaborative project currently on view at Trestle Projects, which pairs cast concrete sculptures with monologues that narrate true stories about the neighborhood’s historic residents. An old porthole prompts the story of three Manhattan women who, in the summer of 1936, bought an old welding barge for $160 at auction and turned it into their private, floating cottage on the Gowanus Canal. A bent bulkhead nail — nearly a foot long — cues the story of Joseph Zappula, a longshoreman who, in 1950, was on the end of the human chain that pulled little Diana Svet from the Gowanus Bay.
“Christina selected these objects to cast from the collection of Proteus Gowanus, and then we dove into the photos from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection,” Sohn told Hyperallergic.”It was a matter of creating an emotional life for these real-life characters so that people can have a connection to these objects.”
As part of curator Melissa Staiger‘s group show Falling In, an array of four concrete sculptures by Kelly is paired with four portable speakers, each playing one of Sohn’s accompanying monologues. Most the stories are narrated by actors and last less than two minutes, just long enough to prompt an imaginative journey in the viewer. They lend the concrete sculptures a quasi-archaeological aura, filling out the details surrounding these fragments of yesteryear’s everyday. Under a tiny cast of a gas valve, a recording tells the story of a single mother who tried to kill herself and her children to get back at their father, who’d run off with another woman. A cast chunk of the historical Coignet Building is paired with the story of Dr. John C. Goodridge, Jr., the artificial stone enthusiast who constructed the building in 1873 to both house the offices of and demonstrate the capabilities of his business, the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company. The company filed for bankruptcy the same year the building was completed.
“We were interested in the theme of failure, which is an overarching theme related to Gowanus — the failure of industry; the failure of the environment; the failure, until recently, to redevelop the neighborhood,” Sohn said. “We all have this image of what Gowanus is becoming — this idyllic image of family life — so we were also looking for stories about families and failed families.”
The final monologue, which has no corresponding sculpture, guides the viewer out of Trestle Projects and onto 6th Street. Cued up on smartphones via a QR code, the story focuses on Detective Bernard Grottano, who, in April 1915, investigated a gruesome murder at the lumber yard at 167 6th Street — an address that, as luck would have it, is still home to a lumber yard (not all Gowanus industry has failed).
“You could do a whole series on murders, drownings, and suicides,” said Sohn, who hopes to expand the project with additional stories. “I’m also interested in uncovering the stories of the women who worked here. There’s a long history of women working in Gowanus, especially in the textile mills, and yet it is thought of as a very masculine area.” Or, as a policeman told the three young women in 1936 as they searched for their new barge: “That’s on the Gowanus Canal, and it’s no place for ladies!”
Christina Kelly and Amy Sohn’s “Gowanus Underworld” project is part of Falling In at Trestle Projects (400 3rd Avenue, 2nd floor, Gowanus, Brooklyn) through October 22. The gallery will have special hours, 12–6pm, during Gowanus Open Studios (October 15 and 16).
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.