The catacombs of Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery are situated at the intersection of several winding roads and paths, among the many marble markers of lives lived recently and in the deep past of our city. In the darkened hall of this narrow space, a glow emerges from the distant back wall. To the right and left are vaults, most dedicated to specific families whose dead were received long ago. These small, gloomy spaces are each lit from above, lending them a church-like feeling wherein the underworld remains touched by the light of day.
On Saturdays and Sundays from September 21 through November 17, 2019, visitors to these catacombs will encounter a group of new works by artist Janine Antoni amidst the markers to the dead. Her installation, “I am fertile ground,” comprises 9 sculptures, each situated in one of the catacombs’ 30 vaults. Each work features a close-up photograph of various body parts — hands, feet, ribs, ears — encased in an elaborate gold frame with baroque details which, upon closer inspection, appear to be molded from the bones of the body part pictured. These single images, diptychs, and triptychs, dramatically lit from the skylight above, are reminiscent of medieval reliquaries, Eastern Orthodox icons, or personal devotional objects.
Hyper-pigmented, the photographs appear almost painterly, even as their photographic accuracy challenges this possibility. Each body is captured in the midst of a gesture or movement — hands grasping the edge a ribcage, forcing the flesh of the abdomen inwards under the pressure of the grip, or a sun-spotted hand tugging an earlobe. In many of the images, the skin is smeared with dirt or gold pigment, further accentuating the texture of the dermis, its lines and folds. It seemed to me that the photos were of both younger and older figures, which Antoni confirmed included herself, her parents, and her daughter, all of which contributes to the sense that these works are fundamentally about time, and the ways in which its passage records itself on flesh.
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