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Antoni sculpture installation at Green-Wood Cemetery
Antoni sculpture installation at Green-Wood Cemetery

Janine Antoni, I touch your listening, 2019, mixed media gilded with 24 karat gold leaf

Photo: Christopher Burke

On balmy days in the 19th century many New Yorkers would take their carriages to Green-Wood for a picnic and some artistic viewing. The famous Brooklyn graveyard predates both Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum by several decades, and was one of the largest public spaces in the city at the time to also be filled with art—sculptures and sepulchers in every style. In the intervening years, as generations changed hands and the city encroached around it, Green-Wood began to face the unique problem of having more residents and fewer visitors. One solution to this, a nod to the Victorian Era fascination with life among death, is the cemetery’s renewed vigor as a site of artistic presentation.

In 2017, French artist Sophie Calle installed a tombstone with a mail slot in it, and the inscription “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery” (2017). For the next 25 years, visitors can go and deposit their secrets at the site, which will periodically be exhumed by Calle and burned. This, on top of periodic poetry readings, concertos, and trolley tours, have brought a crowd to Green-Wood for more than just mourning, and the expanding attractions tell of a legitimate interest on the part of the cemetery to become a space for artists’ work.

The latest addition to this work is I am fertile ground, a site-specific project by the Bahamian-American sculptor and performance artist Janine Antoni. The piece is located in Green-Wood’s catacombs, one of the oldest standing structures in the 478-acre cemetery. Normally closed to the public, the catacombs house the remains of some of New York’s earliest wealthy families, and are now being opened for the first time as a site of installation.

In 10 sepulchers zig-zagging across the subterranean catacombs, Antoni has installed a series of mixed-media works evocative of gestures both healing and consuming. Ornately framed and covered in gold leaf, they appear at first as something out of the Medieval period, and indeed many of them follow a layout reminiscent of devotional panel paintings from that era. But look closer and you will see that the images are actually photographs, many of Antoni’s parents and the artist herself, which show hands clasped or grasping at other body parts, and which, when put in the context of the artist’s life, signify a shocking intimacy.

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