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Karyn Olivier by Michelle Lopez
Michelle Lopez

At the heart of Olivier’s sculptural inquiry is the fate of our existing and future monuments. How can they teach, and change us?

Let’s consider for a moment the current cultural conditioning when registering identity in a work by a BIPOC artist. In figurative painting, recognize the symbolic Black or Brown body in the center of the frame and the race-related historical and material markers in the background. In sculpture, note the primitivist depiction of Other bodies perpetuated in contemporary art. I would argue that this type of representation and perception continues the essentializing of Black and Brown experience and maintains the status quo of Western society’s claim to its ownership.

Karyn Olivier makes her work move reversely. In her sculptures, installations, photographs, and interactive works, she finds agency outside and beyond figuration—although her work is very much about lived experience. Encountering her art, we’re encouraged to slow down and perceive the absence of the human figure. Through that lack we find the body and its social conditions brought into focus all the more urgently and powerfully. It’s as if our act of looking is pushed through a phenomenological filter that forces us to ask how, what, and whose.

In Olivier’s ICA exhibition, Everything That’s Alive Moves (2020), red carnations pinned to museum goers’ lapels traveled with them into the outer world; a carousel with one lone chair rotated achingly slow; and a “recycled” obelisk—imbued with ancient history and present-time migration—had literally traversed continents and now rose as a monolithic installation. Movement, passage, and transition are central to Olivier’s work. Yet, motion is more meaningful here than the mechanics of A to B. By mapping phantom gestures through sculpture, Olivier crushes inertia and evokes movement in every sense—physical, cognitive, and emotional—including the passage of time.

The vestiges of physical bodies can be felt in all of Olivier’s works and most literally in Fortified (2020), where countless articles of used clothing are integral to a built brick sculpture. The collective history of anonymous individual lives becomes mortar for a wall—or barrier, or divider. Olivier undercuts the monumentality of the structure by humanizing it with the intimate and recognizable.

In the same vein, her Obelisk is fragile, made of cardboard and dirt, and her Car Cover (2018) is held up by thousands of shoes. Monuments are at the core of the artist’s inquiry. What kind of memorial, statue, column, or shrine will truly honor our complex experience, instead of furthering discrimination and objectification?

Discovering Karyn Olivier and her work was like finding a long-lost sibling. I relate to her process of searching for alternative forms and vocabulary for female Black and Brown object-makers. We began our conversation during a Zoom talk hosted by ICA Philadelphia last summer on the occasion of our respective exhibitions there. The transcript of that dialogue was adapted and expanded to focus on Karyn’s work as she prepares for her upcoming solo exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery this summer.

Michelle Lopez You and I have been talking about our shared interest in thinking about absence and invisibility, displacement, movement, and how our works separately try to expose power and dismantle it at the same time, particularly in relationship to monuments. The title of your ICA show last year was Everything That’s Alive Moves. How did this title come about?

Karyn Olivier I had recently read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and kept thinking of the words wake and move. Each work in the exhibition confronts, enacts, or speaks about movement in both literal and metaphoric ways—the carousel endlessly moving in circles, the wall of clothes, the obelisk, the expired shoes, the carnations. Each in a sense is a witness and bears witness to our complicated past, present, and precarious future. The carousel’s rider sat on the lone chair, on the excruciatingly slow-moving platform, watching what felt like a tidal wave of discarded clothing, of shaken-off histories, full of present absences—harkening to the atrocities and despair of the migrant crisis. The red carnation piece, May 12, 1985, acknowledged and honored those killed in the city-sanctioned 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. The wall. And the car cover veiled from our view thousands of expired shoes deemed no longer fit for the journey. The obelisk spoke to imperialism’s reach crossing the Nile River, then the Mediterranean Sea, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean and, of course, the Middle Passage. I was also asking, What are we imagining through movement? What are we hoping for on the other side of a door or a wall?

ML When you talk about the work of acting as a witness, it makes me think of the work as an indiscriminate ledger; it witnesses life, it witnesses crimes. The idea of movement is also about the recognition of humans making things, that labor. This is what the obelisk is all about for me, the labor of moving stones and bodies, markers of existence.

KO Yes, but then there’s also the stasis I feel we’re all going through. We think we’re moving forward, but culture moves cyclically—we’re often repeating, or in a holding pattern. With the title of the show, I also wanted to recognize MOVE, the Philadelphia Black liberation group, because of their proximity to the museum. I was talking with Anthony Elms, the ICA chief curator, and he told me a line the MOVE members used to say: “Everything that’s alive moves.” It really had an affect on me. You’ve got to keep moving while you’re alive. Are you moving because you’ve been displaced? Are we moving because we have to protest? I think about the Trinidad Carnival—you have to move to play mas [masquerade]. I also liked that move is rooted in physicality because so much of my work is filled with absence.

ML Moving gets at the tenets of sculpture: when the work engages the viewer, there is the utterly real potentiality of movement. It also taps into the mood of 2020: we are very much here, present in the house, or the car (or your work, under the car cover) but the streets are empty.

KO This moment right now is extraordinarily overwhelming for human beings. There’s frustration and even resignation, but there’s also beauty. With May 12, 1985, I was interested in the potential power of the minute—a small gesture’s ability to hold dense meaning. And I inserted ephemerality and fragility to undermine some long-held conventions of monuments and memorials like scale, weightiness, and permanence. There are many ways to create monuments and memorials. A carnation has many references, but it’s a flower, so we know it will eventually wilt and lose its life like all of us.

People entered the exhibition and put on this red carnation, or carried it like a talisman. In that act, we unknowingly made a community for a period of time—declaring perhaps we can matter to each other, even if we’re not super conscious of it. There’s a symbolism that we collectively share when we’re holding this flower. Could some of that be retained once we leave the space, after we’ve had that moment together? Of course, that piece had another reference, the founding of Mother’s Day in Philadelphia, but the more deliberate reference was to May 12, 1985, the day that MOVE members were given eviction notices and arrest warrants—the day before the police dropped a bomb on their compound, killing eleven members (including five children). I hoped that this cheesy flower could hold these disparate histories: the beauty of Mother’s Day (and also sadness if you’ve lost your mother) and then the day after, one of the worst moments in the history of Philadelphia.

ML Yes. I see gestures of reparation in your work. I remember getting a flower pinned on me and the work resonated more over time as I saw others with flowers on their chests, even outside of ICA. We were getting tagged, but with love. Pinning the carnations on people and then causing this dispersal of the flowers into the city and beyond, there’s a repairing happening. It provides a moment of hope. I like thinking about how an idea can get out there into space and be transmitted through the movement of bodies. It also could be a reparation for COVID-19, since our bodies are in a kind of disembodied state right now.

KO I like that thought.

ML Your work doesn’t include the figure, which interests me because I, too, operate in that resistance. For me, the absence of the corporeal has been a conscious decision to not participate in the figuration of racial capitalism and the commodification of Black and Brown bodies. A diffuse or alternative form of figuration could potentially subvert that system. It’s like a ghost form—it has a physical history, but it becomes a collection of material associations that lead circuitously back to bodies.

KO Often the assumption with Black and Brown artists is that we’re going to present a physical representation of what Blackness or Brownness, or identity, is. So when we don’t, it thwarts those expectations.

conversation on Bomb website