It is not often that an art exhibition radically alters one’s understanding of, and orientation within, a major urban landmark. Rowan Renee’s multifaceted The Perimeter Path in Brooklyn’s renowned Green-Wood Cemetery is definitely one of those times.
Numerous well-known people are interred at Green-Wood and many visitors flock to their graves: Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets (of Brooklyn Dodgers’ fame), Governor DeWitt Clinton, among others. There are also many costly gravestones, monuments, and mausoleums, which, not surprisingly, memorialize overwhelmingly White, often wealthy people.
But what Renee, Green-Wood’s 2022–23 artist-in-residence, has focused on are the inexpensive and easily ignored public lots, historically for working class and low- or no-income people, and the many people buried there, often in unmarked graves or beneath gravestones that have eroded or disappeared over time. These lots are largely at Green-Wood’s perimeter, next to the metal fence separating the cemetery from streets. They are marginal sites for people who, very likely, were marginalized during their lives.
How Green-Wood incarnates — physically and spatially — the whopping inequities that have plagued the United States since its origins, chiefly those involving class and race, is at the core of The Perimeter Path.
Most visitors will probably start at Renee’s site-specific sculptural installation in the neo-Gothic Historic Chapel built in 1913, Green-Wood’s most famous and iconic building. The installation consists of a multitude of small objects thoughtfully and exquisitely arrayed on an upright, 18-foot circular metal structure. The objects — which Renee gathered, redirected, and often transformed — are composed of materials (marble, glass, rocks, metal, organic stuff) that connect with the cemetery and its normal procedures. This installation functions as a distinctive, decidedly idiosyncratic memorial, not for a single person, but for the many non-memorialized people at Green-Wood.
It is important to consider the two remote public lots that figure so prominently in this marvelous installation. Crucial to this project are walking tours to these seldom-visited sites, either self-guided (by following a hand-drawn map on Renee’s website) or, occasionally, led by the artist.
Lot 88 is one of Green-Wood’s so-called Freedom Lots, public lots reserved for public lots reserved for people of color. It appears to be largely empty and remote, with just a few weathered gravestones. In fact, hundreds of people are buried here, just not visibly so.
Extensive research has long been a big part of Renee’s practice. They and their assistants delved deeply into the cemetery’s archive, along with historical publications and records when available, to identify and provide narrative biographical information on several of the people in these lots, many of whose lives intersect with major events in US history, including slavery, racial and other discrimination, immigration, economic disparity, and women’s empowerment.
John D. Munroe (Sr.) (1846–1918), a Civil War veteran and trustee of the prominent Bridge Street AME Church, known to this day for its focus on social justice, has a grave marker, but five others in his family, buried in the same plot, do not: his wife Maggie (Washington) Munroe (1862–1925), a Bridge Street deaconess, and four of their six children. Nothing identifies where husband and wife Silas S. Higgins (c. 1799–1876) and Harriet Higgins (c. 1827–1886), both of whom may have been born into enslavement, are buried with their daughter, Lena Higgins (1859–1894).
The artist’s project is full of care. These people have been acknowledged and memorialized, treated with dignity and respect, rescued from historical oblivion.
After reading the narratives on Renee’s website, visiting these lots can be profoundly impactful. Slowly walking or standing above the remains of these and so many other unacknowledged people of color was, for me, both humbling and shattering. Who gets to be remembered, and who doesn’t, is also at the core of this project.
Buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 5499 is Norwegian Carl Johan Heidenreich (1828–1880), who immigrated to the US, only to become a patient in a private insane asylum, one of many individuals in such asylums, often for simply not fitting into societal norms, in Victorian America.
Renee’s website discloses that Heidenreich is interred with someone he never knew, the young German Bernhardt Forsst (1867–1885), who died by drowning at a Brooklyn public bath (basically a barge in the river).
The main and most visible part of the project is the tour-de-force installation in the Historic Chapel. This installation, and indeed the whole project, arose from Renee’s months of intimate, focused, much-inquiring engagement with Green-Wood: its layout, history, natural history, workshops, materials, tools, economics, employees, visitor experiences, and — importantly — archive.
Over several months, Renee, who has not previously identified with sculpture, or with marble for that matter, carved and sculpted marble fragments from the decommissioned Receiving Tomb, where incoming bodies were once stored. While semi-abstract, these marble pieces suggest bodily forms, decorative gravestone motifs, and even cemetery tools. Some are printed with snippets of written information culled from the archives, including notations about repairs and vegetation. Pieces of kiln-fired glass, resembling fragile artifacts, also present photographic images of graves and sites. The installation embraces breakdown and decay, which abound in the cemetery, as well as rejuvenation and repair.
Seeded throughout are stones, soil, twigs, and other organic substances. We, as humans, have for so long fantasized that we are lords and masters of nature, but in cemeteries we converge with the earth.
Renee subtly situates human lives within natural cycles of regeneration and decay. The many stones — maybe millions of years old — are potent reminders of the vast scale of time, which dwarfs our human lifespans, and the immense power of geologic forces. Green-Wood opened in 1838 on what was then rural Brooklyn farmland, but its environs were formed by retreating glaciers some 22,000 years ago, and there were many other glaciers and Earth-shaping upheavals before that, and long before humans.
It is excellent to take in Renee’s complex yet elemental installation from a distance, registering how it sensitively responds to the chapel’s architecture and stained-glass windows, how it subtly shifts with changing natural light. This is all quietly mesmerizing.
It is also worth immersing oneself in its details, all these eventful combinations of materials, textures, colors, shapes, and archival information. Renee has thoughtfully and sensitively collaborated with the materials, letting them have their own vibrancy and history — even mundane stones, even small pieces of marble or glass. Fully encountering this installation feels like a voyage of discovery.
Nothing about the installation is overtly religious, yet it projects a sense of spiritual power. When I visited, viewers tended to be uncommonly hushed and contemplative, even reverential. A bit further into the chapel, visitors can add stones in memory of someone to an ample cairn behind the installation. Before heading out to the two remote lots, it is best, in my opinion, to be with this installation for a good, long while.
Rowan Renee: The Perimeter Path continues at Green-Wood Cemetery (500 25th Street, South Slope, Brooklyn) through September 4. The exhibition was organized by the artist.
A walking tour with the artist will take place on Sunday, September 3.