Karyn Olivier by 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?

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

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Fairground tent with a single chair behind a wall covered in various cloths and clothing items. A passerby examines the tent.

Installation view of Everything That’s Alive Moves, 2020, at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Photo by Constance Mensh. Image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles.

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 museumgoers’ 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

Person wears red carnation in front of art installation.

May 12, 1985, 2020, carnations. ICA, Philadelphia, 2020. Photo by Constance Mensh.

Michelle LopezYou 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 OlivierI 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?

MLWhen 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.

KOYes, 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. 

MLMoving 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.

KOThis 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.  

Stills from Olivier constructing "Moving the Obelisk."

Stills from video documentation for Moving the Obelisk, 2019–20.

MLYes. 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.

KOI like that thought.

MLYour 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. 

KOOften 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. 

I ask myself, Is not having a figure a generous act toward the viewer because they don’t have to be tethered to a particular subjectivity? Or is it an unexpected burden on the viewer, who becomes the stand-in for an absent person in a work that talks about genocide, or the refugee crisis, or devastation? Though the body is not visible, it’s still present and the viewer must contend or come to terms with it in some way. My hope is that it allows for a heightened empathy.  

MLThe viewer does have to work harder, which is not a bad thing. 

KOWith Fortified and Car Cover and Export Shoes, you can’t deny the absence: you see clothing and shoes, and you think, Bodies should be in those. Who traveled in that completely worn-out shoe, or the shoe that looks brand-new? Whose identity are we witnessing? The anonymousness of it all creates an enormity that feels overwhelming.

Covered car with stacks of old shoes beneath it.

Car Cover and Export Shoes, 2018, car cover, approx. 2,400 used/expired shoes (that would ordinarily be shipped to developing coun- tries), and support materials, 54 × 186 × 72 inches.

MLYes. As a viewer, the absence of the body allows me to imagine the implied violence and the individual narratives lost in the hierarchies of what is deemed important and not.
I often wonder: Is that lack of a figure me subconsciously participating in a form of self-erasure? In his New Yorker essay “My Mother’s Dreams for Her Son, and All Black Children,” from June 2020, Hilton Als talks about racism and discrimination as a kind of erasure. It’s this unmooring diminishment that slowly chips away at identity, and as a result you don’t know who you are. For my own work, my question is, Am I participating in that dominant culture of not being seen if I remove the body and remain invisible in my own work? 

KO Not having the body in the work can so easily be misinterpreted, right? All of a sudden the work is discussed only in terms of minimalism and a certain very white, male art historical context. 

But I feel that my work doesn’t need a body to be illustrated. I allow the space; I trust the audience. I trust materials; I trust objects. This might hearken back to my being from the Caribbean, where objects are so often mutable. Obviously, objects have a history or a prescribed purpose, but their use and value can always change. And I can have agency in that shift. A brick could build a wall or it could be a weapon if need be. I’m interested in trusting and succumbing to the what if. How can I expand, reinterpret, and reimagine these objects for my own power or our collective power? 

MLCan you talk more about that mutability?

KOWell, for example in Trinidad, the empty parking lot at night may host a fete; the highway divider becomes the fruit stand; the sidewalk is your display case. This happens throughout the Caribbean and in many parts of the world and also in the US somewhat, but it’s not as embedded in mainstream American culture. You have a chair, but in a pinch, it’s a ladder, or a table if you don’t have one to put your dinner plate on. Nothing is wasted or squandered. Carnival is an important reference for me. In Trinidad, the robust participation in (and co-opting of) Carnival for Blacks started after emancipation in 1834. It was this space of taking the everyday and inverting structures of hierarchy. Take a piece of cloth and wire and you become a bat! You don’t need much to completely transform who you are. The transformation won’t last forever because Carnival is only a couple days, but it allows one to imagine a different way to live, a new possibility.

MLIt’s the same in the Philippines. We make do with what we have, and it’s always inspiring for me to look at things on the street, like the basketball hoop made of sticks. I’m thinking about how to sculpturally translate this house-of-cards feeling of the political moment, when the things we’re familiar with are collapsing and our democracy is under threat. It seems like a good moment to talk about The Battle Is Joined (2017), your mirrored monument in Germantown, Philadelphia.

KOI was thinking about invisibility and silencing of marginalized peoples, selective silencing, and blind spots. What does it mean to occupy the blind spot? In The Battle Is Joined, I layered historical narratives of the Revolutionary War and World Wars I and II, attempting to initiate a conversation between two monuments in the park—Pastorius Monument, which honors Francis Daniel Pastorius, a German settler who led the first Quaker protest against slavery in 1688, and the Battle of Germantown Memorial, honoring a failed George Washington–led Revolutionary War battle.

The Pastorius Monument was boxed over during WWI and II because the look of the monument was perceived to be “too Germanic.” So I decided to box up Washington’s monument (with the addition of a mirrored surface) like Pastorius’s monument was in years past—transcribing a history from one period onto another. I thought about the paradox of an immigrant (Pastorius), fighting for Blacks’ freedom from slavery, and a celebrated founding father (Washington) fighting for America’s freedom from British rule while owning slaves. 

MLI think this gesture of boxing up is important. The concealment actually makes it more real, like putting a quotation mark on a monument. The erasure magnifies how monuments operate on a daily level without us even realizing. It gets back to that absence.

KOPeople often don’t see monuments. They’re there for us to pay attention to, but we don’t see them partly because of their material heft or their mythmaking that is somehow supposed to represent a universal. And we know the “universal” usually does not include us. Societies tend not to treat history as multiplicitous and conflicting and fragmentary. Or acknowledge our present as being grounded in innumerable histories. So I thought, Okay, if I mirror it, the monument will never sit still—it will be alive, active, shifting; “in perpetual irresolution” as James E. Young famously put it. And if we say monuments don’t really function, then we should demand that they do—we can imbue them with power. What does it mean to see oneself in this mirrored monument? And how powerful it was for us to witness each other, our neighbors, in a neighborhood like Germantown (which has widespread poverty), to see ourselves reflected through this object! We need to be seen.

Of course, when I made this piece I wasn’t thinking of all of those things. The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville happened a week after it was installed. Suddenly this piece became like a call to arms. 

MLWow! The work is a subversive reversal of thinking about monuments; it engages and implicates the viewer, and it ultimately empowers them. 

KOIt’s a monument that reflects what’s in front of you, behind you, above you, below you—what you perhaps hadn’t noticed, that was there all along in plain sight. You may have passed by it many times and thought, This monument has nothing to do with me. It’s not reflecting your history (or the history that matters to you). But all of a sudden you see yourself reflected. If I become the monument, what’s my responsibility? We are in many ways the keepers and protectors of our democracy. As we know, democracies can be eroded and dismantled more easily than many had previously imagined.

Mirrored monument in a park.

The Battle Is Joined, 2017, mirrored acrylic, plywood, studs, 20 ft × 14 ft × 5 ft 6 inches, at Vernon Park, Philadelphia. Commissioned by Monument Lab of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

MLSpeaking of freedom of speech, let’s talk about the controversy around your installation Witness at the University of Kentucky. Your work responded to the Ann Rice O’Hanlon mural from 1934 in the university’s Memorial Hall. 

KOExactly. A New Deal–era fresco. In June 2020, the university’s president announced plans to take the O’Hanlon mural down in response to the murder of George Floyd. In one fell swoop, this decision negated my installation, which was commissioned specifically to be in conversation with O’Hanlon’s work, challenging the stereotypes and explicit racism she depicted. In the fresco you see Black musicians performing for the white elite, slaves working the land, a boy denied access to a performance venue; the lone Native American (the only representation in the entire mural) appears poised to attack a white woman, among other scenes that display various forms of racism. In Witness (2018), I replicated only the Black and Brown figures depicted in the mural, positioning them against a gilded background on the vestibule’s domed ceiling, where without the context of surrounding whiteness, the figures took on new meanings. So when the decision to remove the fresco was made, Witness was instantly rendered blind and mute, which was heartbreaking—and a strange feeling, too, as it seemed to also render these Black and Brown figures anonymous once again, for a second time. My attempt to offer what I hoped would be agency and autonomy has been dismissed.

MLThey effectively silenced you, even though that wasn’t their intention.

KOAt this moment when monuments are coming down, I keep thinking, Are there monuments from the early twentieth century that could engender productive discourse? Can we create contemporary works in conversation with these pasts—to interrogate and reimagine them? Are there any monuments that should be permanent? So with the University of Kentucky’s plan to remove the mural—it’s not about me wanting our works to last forever; it’s about using these artworks as tools, to be useful. Their decision to remove O’Hanlon’s mural felt like a quick fix, a Band-Aid, and we know how long those stick to your finger. It felt like a censure—this conversation was over.

MLSo it makes sense you wanted to respond by writing an op-ed in the Washington Post.

KOI was thinking about how wrong and antithetical to the goals of higher education the decision was. Instead of the university embracing the polemics the two works engendered—a real attempt at a dialogue between the work of a white woman in 1934 and a Black woman today—a seemingly “good deed” of political correctness was offered up to Black members in the university community who opposed the O’Hanlon mural. As I said in the op-ed “Witness was not created to magically dispel or absolve the University of Kentucky from embedded institutional white supremacy and oppression.” When I finished my piece, I assumed that would be when the university’s real work would begin. I thought there would be programming, seminars, perhaps curriculum inclusion of these works—a site where the community could wrestle with the very problematic, paradoxical, simultaneous and fragmented histories. So it’s unfortunate that the president is now planning to tear down the mural. And there’s the irony of the committee purposefully selecting a Black female artist to make a responsive work, and then, in essence, silencing her. When we talk about solving racism and the do-good work of liberals, how/where is the real work actually getting/being done?

Old mural depicting a racist pastoral scene from Kentucky on top of a new rendition of the mural using gold leaf.

Ann Rice O’Hanlon fresco mural, 1934, at Memorial Hall, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Mural on the ceiling of a hall, figures painted on top of gold leaf

Witness, 2018, gold leaf, paint, and canvas, at Memorial Hall, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

MLYeah, what I loved about the op-ed piece was that you were arguing for true diversity, which is, in fact, being able to have all these different existing opinions. A problem in academia is that we can exist in this ideological, enlightened bubble until we realize, Oh my God, our democracy’s failing and we’re still not having these difficult conversations because we’re censoring everyone else. 

KOWe’re at a tricky moment in academia. At the beginning of the fall term at Tyler [School of Art and Architecture], our dean, Susan Cahan, proposed that we hold a conversation with several Black alumni and two Black faculty moderators—myself and Rashida Ng, chair of the architecture department. There were at least 150 people with us on Zoom—there was clearly a hunger for this type of exchange. The alumni were really honest and forthright about the racism they faced from faculty. As an art professor, I’m expected to know a lot about minimalism and modernism and classicism, while some white colleagues don’t feel a need to know anything about non-Western history and culture. This conversation was exciting because at first I thought there would be pushback and defensiveness on the part of the faculty, but it seemed as though people were really listening, and open to doing the work.

I was also thinking, How do we deal with intersectionality at the time of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s mural—which at the time was believed to be the largest fresco made by a woman? So it’s a part of feminist history, while simultaneously being highly (if unintentionally) racist. How do we hold two opposing points of significance? 

MLHow did you feel when the protests started last summer? In that essay I mentioned, Hilton Als wrote about the conditioning of silence in his own upbringing. He talked about how his mother said that getting angry would only diminish your survival, and that was your only goal, survival. So it’s better to just be silent. What was your reaction? I hear you talk about discourse, which I think people have been afraid to have.

KOThat’s why I wrote the op-ed. There were things politically and culturally that were practical and pragmatic that had to happen, but then I thought, Okay, in some respects those are the easy ones. We know the confederate monuments and Columbus had to go. But not everything is so simple, right?

MLNever simple.

KOLiterally, the day HBO came out with the news that they were pulling Gone with the Wind until they could create and present an appropriate context for viewing (i.e. “Yes, this is a racist film, but here is the context…”) is when I decided to craft my letter. I thought, Oh someone could have said, “Remove it forever, erasure is the answer.” I think of the heinous history and unspeakable memories of the Holocaust that are preserved. We have only recently seen on a national scale the preservation of Black history through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and even the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I remember when Beloved, the movie, came out [in 1998], Black folks were up in arms about it. They didn’t want to see slavery. Or 12 Years a Slave [in 2013]. And I fully understand why—it goes back to the pornography of Black pain (and we can get into social death and Afropessimism). But our understanding of the present is contingent on the past, so we need to acknowledge these histories in order to understand, wrestle, dissect, interrogate, move through, and invert them.

MLI think what’s great about this moment is that people are actually receptive. Sara Ahmed, in her book Living a Feminist Life, talks about how we have to assert the fact that these inequalities exist because people will tell you that they don’t—particularly in liberal progressive academia. You know, we live in this allegedly “post-racial world,” where we’re all good and “not racist.” I’ve had interactions where I am sitting there thinking, Am I just imagining this? Now, conversations are happening and people are recognizing that this is real, this is actually something that has to be reckoned with in every single structure. I hope it goes beyond the saving-face period.

KOI’ve got to say, I have to be optimistic. I feel that if you’ve chosen a life as an artist, you’re optimistic. As an artist you’re actively engaging a world of propositions and what-ifs; that’s where we’re creating and thinking about the world we want to live in, right? 

Chalkboard on school building with "School Is Out" written in blue on the top.

School is Out, 2019, at Stenton Park in Philadelphia. Commissioned by Percent for Art.

Chalkboard with "When things go wrong don't you go wrong with them?" written in capitals.

School is Out, 2019, at Stenton Park in Philadelphia. Commissioned by Percent for Art.

MLYeah. Maybe that’s a good moment to talk more about Fortified (2017–20), your brick wall. It’s so playful and optimistic, and then devastating at the same time. The clothing becomes the mortar.

KOI thought of the piece about eighteen months into the Trump presidency, though I have been obsessed with walls for a long time. When I was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome a couple of years ago, I walked the Aurelian Walls, a line of third-century border walls, which you could argue is a twelve-mile-long monument. What does it signify for a monument to be a barrier, a protector and a shelter for some, and not others?

I also thought about my trip to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem a couple years ago, and the cracks holding the weight of all those thousands of individual prayers. Walls can signify power and can feel permanent and impenetrable, but at the end of the day, they are modular structures, just brick and stone. So I wondered, What could function as an adhesion, form a bond? And I immediately thought of used clothing. The front of the wall became something of a three-dimensional painting, a beautifully layered composition.

MLThe wall feels monumental but simultaneously vulnerable. It’s poignant in the sense that it registers loss through the pile of things, but then there’s this collective sense of hope because of its impossibility. There’s such a humanness to it all when I look closely at the wear and tear of each thing.

KOFortified loomed massive, impenetrable—it was almost offensive in its too much-ness; but upon closer observation it revealed itself to be quite porous. Cracks were exposed between the brick of what was assumed to be a solid impasse. This wall—a monument to human costs really—speaks to the force, might, and will to construct it. But like most empires and oppressive systems, it can be dismantled too—brick-by-brick. 

MLYes! I relate. Finding cracks in the system is something I try to do with my work as well. The empire has its own methods of asserting its power, but as artists we can play hardball as to how those terms play out through the materials we engage.

KOLooking closely at the wall, you start to “see” or imagine the individuals set in there—who wore these items and why were they abandoned? You see the baby pajamas and you oscillate back and forth, between the anonymous and the specific, the macro to the micro. Most of us think about clothing as being tied to our identity and how we present ourselves, and I was interested in that experience, but I was more interested in the viewer’s experience when they round the corner and face this cascade of clothing; it’s on the verge of more than one can bear. The wall also begins to feel unstable with this torrent of clothes; they seem like surrogates for the body, stand-ins for the disenfranchised and marginalized. But it could also have a more positive read: together we can. I know it’s kind of hokey, but if we commit to each other we can take it on, begin to take down destructive systems of power. I love Sonya Clark’s piece where gallerygoers are invited to slowly unravel and dismantle the confederate flag over the course of the gallery run [Unraveling, 2015–present]. This idea of building and taking down a brick wall has literal and metaphoric possibilities.

Text written over a memorial with a woman's silhouette in a plan for an upcoming project

Sketch for Right Here, Dinah Memorial, 2021 (forthcoming). Public art commission for Stenton House, Philadelphia, PA.

Sketch for an upcoming memorial.

Sketch for Right Here, Dinah Memorial, 2021 (forthcoming). Public art commission for Stenton House, Philadelphia, PA.

MLGiven your recent experiences with the University of Kentucky and the general climate of the marches of 2020, what are your thoughts on public art?

KOI am thrilled whenever I am given an opportunity to work in the public realm. I love the incidental viewer who’s not expecting to have an art experience. Suddenly they come upon something that maybe wasn’t there yesterday but is there today, and that interrupts their routine. They might be drawn to it, or not. Or say, by the fifth day they have an extra couple of minutes before they have to get to work, so they decide to stop and engage. Now they can’t unsee it. And if it’s good work this could be an experience of “what if?” or inspire another way of imagining the world. For me, public art is really challenging because I want it to matter to disparate publics. I’m a little worried about public art going forward; maybe worried is not the right word—it’s just that I do believe the responsibility artists have is greater than ever before. 

MLLately I’ve been interested in public art in relationship to protest. I went down to Richmond recently, to the Robert E. Lee statue; that site is just so electric right now. Mainly because there’s a dialogue happening. Monument Avenue has this very colonial history and now you see graffiti on top. It’s beautiful in the sense that the graffiti is not supposed to be there, well, people aren’t supposed to be there, you’re supposed to just keep on moving, right? But it has now become a space to stop and reflect. This type of public art is associated with a kind of plop-art power thing that was so problematic, say, with Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. I think public art has more urgency now in regard to what we can do, in terms of reparation and materiality and beauty and involving the public in a way that has humanity. Or we can recontextualize certain iconography, which is what you did so beautifully in Germantown. 

KOThank you. I just completed the final tweaks for a new work, a memorial dedicated to Dinah, a former slave at Stenton House in Philadelphia, who saved the mansion from being burned down by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The conceptual idea was in place before the protests, and it’s satisfying to feel as though my approach to this memorial is spot-on in this moment of reconsidering monuments—they should be spaces of gathering, where we imbue them with agency, empathy, and power. 

MLThat sounds beautiful. So, tell me a little about your upcoming show at your new gallery, Tanya Bonakdar. 

KOI haven’t solidified my plans for the exhibition yet—I’m still in that state where ideas float around as words in my head: presentness, absence, memory, temporality, mortality, displacement, and gathering… I’m still thinking about monuments and memorials, and also the words gap and stopgap a lot, which feel emblematic of this past year. The pandemic has brought up thoughts about the carceral state and imprisonment, so I’m considering a continuation of a project I did in Italy, at Le Murate in Florence, a former fifteenth-century convent that later became a prison. I’m excited to make something that I can viscerally feel, but it’s always scary in the nebulous period before I really know what that is. 

Michelle Lopez is a multidisciplinary artist working in sculpture, installation, and sound. Her 2020 installation Ballast & Barricades at ICA Philadelphia reflected on the teetering built social environment by exploiting materials of protest and gentrification. ICA recently published a catalog of the exhibition, with analysis by Alex Klein, Aruna D’Souza, Joselina Cruz, Josh Kline, and Paul Pfeiffer. In 2019 she was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.

Collapse and Equilibrium: Michelle Lopez Interviewed by Olivia Gauthier
Large sculpture featuring ladders, scaffolding, stones, wire, wood, and fencing titled, Ballast and Barricades, by Michelle Lopez
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Originally published in

BOMB 155, Spring 2021

Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.

Read the issue
Bomb 155 Nobarcode Flatcolor