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PHILADELPHIA — Just before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and institutions across the US to close indefinitely, I was fortunate to visit Karyn Olivier’s recent exhibition, Everything That’s Alive Moves, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. A Philadelphia-based artist whose work addresses memorials, monuments, and public space, Olivier’s projects concern the physical, psychic, and material relationship to history in our everyday lives.
Upon entering the galleries at the ICA, the first work you encounter is “Fortified” (2017–20), a 15-foot wall made of repurposed bricks, steel rods, with pieces of used clothing overflowing as mortar. Despite its size, “Fortified” does not convey the foreboding impression of the past typically encountered in monuments; instead its materials evince both the random and the familiar, the ephemeral and the constant.
History insists that we understand walls as evidence of ideas of separation, as racist and xenophobic protections against those deemed outsiders. To that end, Olivier is clear: “Fortified” is not a typical wall. To experience the work is to ponder life — its spaciousness and its liminality — via bright layers of protruding sleeves and socks. Like many of her works, it is an analysis of monuments, and a sharp contrast to traditional conceptions of these objects.
I stood closely to “Fortified,” teetering on my heels to get a good look. My friend, who is a foot taller, stood next to me. We craned our necks, allowing our eyes to float upwards, taking note of how little space there was between the top of the piece and the ceiling. Almost immediately we grew quite petrified, recognizing that the stability of the object was partially dependent on us and our stillness.
This overwhelming aesthetic can also be found in “Car Cover and Export Shoes” (2018). This sculpture is a “car” made of used shoes forced inside a cover, resting on piles of more footwear. Naturally, the stack of worn shoes carried a smell, signaling the bodies who had once worn them. An indoor merry-go-round sits in the corner of the gallery. With just one rider chair, “It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over” (2004) exudes an eerie discomfort for an object intended for communal play, amplifying the emphasis on individual experience, and the histories contained in objects, which persist throughout Everything That’s Alive Moves.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Olivier has mounted works less immediately palpable in the galleries. At various points every hour, “Summoned” (2020), plays the recorded sound of the noon church bells from San Giovanni Crisostomo in Giuliano di Lecce, Italy — a deliberate subtlety easily missed if one isn’t paying attention.
With May 12, 1985 (2020), Olivier commemorates the Philadelphia Police Department bombing of the Black liberation group, MOVE, which occurred on May 13, 1985. The title of her work acknowledges Mother’s Day of that year, recognizing the often overlooked sweetness of the day before the horrendous incident by offering carnations to visitors in place of the museum’s admission buttons. Olivier’s celebration of mothers alongside stories of Black resistance works to expand notions of history and its complexity.
Likewise, with “Moving the Obelisk” (2019-20), a single-channel film and sculpture, Olivier further subverts the formal seriousness of monuments. The piece is one of three commissioned by curator Anthony Elms during Olivier’s year of study in Rome. (She was a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize in 2018.) The film portrays the dismantling and transport of the sculpture from Olivier’s studio in Rome to its installation in Philadelphia. Olivier’s use of cardboard and other unconventional materials for a large-scale sculpture counters the sturdier materials traditionally used for public art meant for memorial concerns. Here and elsewhere in Everything That’s Alive Moves, Olivier suggests that if history retains its half-truths and borders, ignoring the souls and spirits that sustain us, it will always fall away.
Karyn Olivier: Everything That’s Alive Moves is scheduled to continue through May 10 at the ICA in Philadelphia (118 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA), after which it will travel to the University of Buffalo Art Gallery. The exhibition was curated by Anthony Elms.
Editor’s note: Physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cognizant of the continued importance of discussions of art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore the show virtually via the ICA’s website, which includes Olivier’s film, “Moving the Obelisk,” and Harmony Holiday’s “Until That Morning Comes,” a film and suite of poems and writings which is being presented in conjunction with the exhibition.