View of “Karyn Olivier,” 2020. From left: Fortified, 2017–20; Moving the Obelisk, 2019–20.

View of “Karyn Olivier,” 2020. From left: Fortified, 2017–20; Moving the Obelisk, 2019–20.

Karyn Olivier

Karyn Olivier’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art is introduced by a poignant contestation of the monument’s expected forms and subjects: Attendants at the threshold of the gallery invite viewers to take a simple red carnation and a pearl-topped lapel pin. Olivier’s wall text indicates that she is distributing carnations as a tribute to mothers, conceived in response to multiple historical events. First was the Philadelphian Anna Jarvis’s campaign for a national Mother’s Day in 1905; by 1908, the carnation was associated with the celebration, federally recognized in 1914. Later was an incident that more tragically linked the holiday to this city: the infamous 1985 police bombing (which unfolded just after Mother’s Day) of the communal row house owned by the black liberation group MOVE. Six adults and five children died; at least sixty houses in the neighborhood were destroyed. At the show, the carnations, with their intimate and mobile relationship to the body, invert monumentality’s presumed scale and fixity.

Three new works and three reworked installations exemplify the artist’s ongoing engagement with the political, formal, and affective aspects of the monument, particularly as they resonate with the histories of African and African diasporic peoples, so often denied commemoration. Olivier’s sculptures mobilize what the black feminist geographer Katherine McKittrick terms “plantation pasts and futures,” nonlinear temporal flows acknowledging that our present is grounded in innumerable histories of global exploitation and dehumanization. The first work on view that attends to such subjugated narratives is Fortified, 2017–20, a brick wall that bisects the room. On the front, bits of clothing peek through the bricks—a mortar of plaid boxers, tie-dyed tank tops, and novelty T-shirts. On its verso, the brick wall begins to lose its semblance of solidity, forming a ceiling-to-floor waterfall of quotidian fabrics. Despite the work’s commanding scale, it reads as recalcitrant. Is it meant to honor refugees across time and space, the clothing a surrogate for all the bodies violently refused and constrained by walls? This border facilitates mobile contemplation over immobilizing constraints and is notably porous, suggesting a promise to dissolve distinctions between privileged centers and disenfranchised peripheries.

Car Cover and Export Shoes, 2018, similarly undercuts monumentality’s tendency to manifest as a material and reverential gestalt. This precarious assemblage is constructed of used shoes arranged to overfill a gray Audi car cover. The idea for the work struck Olivier after a trip to Dakar, Senegal, where she came across a market for secondhand shoes exported from America. Tracing the scene’s disparate geographies, she endeavored to underscore the visible relationships to global wealth, encapsulated here by the used shoe, a symbol of Western charity, and the automobile, a luxury possession in the “developing world”—both items often produced in that region. Together, the two goods point to a collision of capitalist impoverishment and excess. Yet a glimpse of this inaccessible profusion of shoes did not overtly explain or critique the conditions that engendered this geopolitical divide.

Olivier’s engagement with postcolonial legacies is most explicit in Moving the Obelisk, 2019–20. Produced during her recent fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, the work refers to the divine ancient Egyptian commemorative pillars she would have encountered as plundered artifacts in the Italian city. Unlike the traditional form, Olivier’s sculpture counts dirt and cardboard among its materials; it has only the look of lapidary permanence. The dirt, poet Trapeta Mayson explains in an accompanying video, stands in for memory and place. As the video progresses, Mayson narrates the work’s fabrication and transportation across the Atlantic, from the artist’s studio in Rome to the ICA, against a long shot of the open ocean. She suggests that the obelisk’s transatlantic journey—understood as an African symbol’s transportation to the new world—could imbue the object with the capacity to memorialize African diasporic experiences during the Middle Passage. Speaking over footage of the work’s reinstallation in Philadelphia, Mayson expands on the significance of the work’s mutability, its spatial transience, narrative ambiguity, and material impermanence. “The past, or more accurately pastness, is a position.” The phrase supplies a fitting beginning, in the guise of a conclusion, for an exhibition that hinges on the politics of time and space across scales, from that of the obelisk to that of the carnation.