What is a monument? What does it mean? What gives it power – and who can take it away?
Monument Lab, the brainchild of Mural Arts Philadelphia, has been asking these questions since long before the national controversy erupted around which historical figures should be memorialized in public spaces.
The city-wide public art exhibition is set to return to Philly on Sept. 16. Now in its second year, the exhibit will feature 10 temporary public artworks installed in 10 locations across the city, made by the hands of 20 (mostly local) artists.
PW sat down to chat with five of them – Karyn Olivier, Marisa Williamson, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Shira Walinsky and Kaitlin Pomerantz – about the importance of the questions raised in the work.
Throughout your research and design and construction process for Monument Lab, what was one thing you learned about the power of monuments and their place in a city like Philadelphia today?
Karyn Olivier: I realized that interrogating monuments is critical — now, more than ever.
Marisa Williamson: My research often made me sad. I fell in love with a young activist cut down by racialized violence in the prime of his life. I learned about vicious attacks on the children of Philadelphia's black community by people opposed to integration. I identified (as jarring events were unfolding in our own time) that struggles for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, have seen so many setbacks – that, it's sorely under-noted how extraordinary and faceted the triumphs of justice have been. Murals have the power to make note of that struggle. They remind us that we must keep up the fight or perish.
Michelle Angela Ortiz: Monuments are a record of time and history. They hold a physical space that marks a moment or honors a person's contribution to society. I can say as an artist growing up and living in Philadelphia, there are not many monuments that honor my own community, or the communities that I have collaborated with in the past.
Shira Walinsky: I have spent a lot of time working with high school students and women's groups who came as refugees to the United States. I learned so much about the desire to learn here in the United States and the value of education. I've learned about older women coming every day to ESL classes to learn and hope to become U.S citizens, refugee families reclaiming abandoned lots for gardens and farms.
Kaitlin Pomerantz: I have come to think that the city of Philadelphia may itself be a monument, and that each one of the Monument Lab creations is like a gesture seeking to retell and reshape the city's story and legacy, and fill in the many gaps in its public history.
The controversy surrounding public monuments – from Confederates in Charlottesville to Frank Rizzo in Philly – often feels intractable. It also focuses disproportionately on history and biography, rather than the artworks themselves and the public spaces that they inhabit. Do you think Monument Lab can help correct part of this imbalance in the conversation?
Olivier: Monuments are established with the assumption that we as a nation have collectively decided that something should be remembered, honored and celebrated. In reality, we don’t have equal voices in this mandate. I think Monument Lab is attempting to offer a corrective. Many projects in Monument Lab invite us to see and imagine our critical role in the ever-changing American story.
Williamson: The more people see good art and see it operating in public spaces, the more literate they'll become in our dense visual-cultural landscape. Hopefully, people will be able to use that literacy – and expanded vocabulary – to talk about their feelings, observations and desires when it comes to problematic monuments. Up to now, I've heard many articulate and profound arguments for the removal or repositioning of Confederate monuments and the statue of Rizzo. I have yet to hear a well-informed or well-reasoned argument in defense of having them stay as they are.
Ortiz: Monument Lab has been asking these questions for a long time. These monuments are symbols, they are a reminder of how powerful an image can be and what impact it has to a person seeing this image every day. Monument Lab is presenting other ways to think about monuments and it is giving space to honor people and their histories that are often ignored.
Walinsky: I think the works created in Monument Lab will get people to think more not only about what needs to come down but what is an alternative vision. How can public art, monuments and murals speak to those who don't feel represented in public spaces? How can we write history in a way which leaves room for the difficult parts of our history?
Were you thinking of a particular person or type or person as you created your monument? Who was the audience, in your mind?
Olivier: I was thinking of my neighbors, my community and this monument that stands a few blocks away from my home. My reinterpretation of the Battle of Germantown Memorial asks the monument to serve as a conductor of sorts – to transport, transmit, express and – literally – reflect the landscape, people and activities that surround it.
Williamson: I was thinking a lot about Philadelphia's public school students in the production of my project.
Ortiz: My monument, an animated projection that will be seen on the gates of City Hall, is dedicated to the undocumented mothers detained at the Berks Detention Center in Pennsylvania. It illustrates the stories of two mothers who have been detained with their sons for close to two years while fighting for their freedom.
Walinsky: My audience is really anyone in Philly interested in taking the time to reflect on the work.
Pomerantz: My monument is, ostensibly, to Philadelphia stoops (or "steps"). In this, it is a monument to neighborhood culture, community, shared space, public engagement, and the architecture that fosters all that. But really, it is a monument that is actually a pedestal: the real monument is the person who sits upon it. The audience is the monument. The audience is any person who is willing to engage, to take a seat.
How would you encourage Philadelphians to get the most out of the Monument Lab installations this fall?
Williamson: People should find a map of all the projects. They'll be amazed at how many parks are participating – in areas of the city they've never been to or haven't been to since they were a kid. People should consider taking a SEPTA bus to one, ride an Indego bike to another. They might take a detour to a monument on their way home from work, or make a scheduled trip to see Washington Square on the day of its scheduled programming. They might encounter some projects without planning to. Alternatively, they can look them all up and mark off the ones that seem most interesting. In which case, they'll have to visit them all.
Walinsky: I would encourage Philadelphians to get out and see the monuments and go to the talks and events happening! There are so many opportunities to learn, to be part of a dialogue and to learn about the city while you are thinking about monuments and monuments while you take in the city.
Pomerantz: Think of all the hands that went into each one of these projects, and the ideas that those hands might also have contributed. Read the curatorial information, which is full of ideas from both the curators and artists that may offer insight into how to approach the work and its context. Appreciate this temporary exercise in new forms of celebrating the past and considering the future. Consider how some of the goals for the work could live on once the work comes down.
Educate yourself this season with these interesting (and a few interactive) museum exhibitions this fall.
Gardens of the Mind: Echoes of the Feminine View
The African American Museum in Philadelphia’s fall exhibition will showcase five black female artists: Barbara Bullock, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Joiri Minaya, E.J. Montgomery and Glynnis Reed. Though their styles are diverse and their media range from installation to painting to photography, their works revolve around the garden as a metaphor — a vehicle to explore spirituality, memory, history and the natural environment through the female identity. In the words guest curator A.M. Weaver, “evident in their art is connectivity to the earth and living matter particular to their gaze as women.” | Oct. 6-Jan. 16. $14. African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St. aampmuseum.org/exhibitions.html
Chuck Close Photographs
PAFA has got its hands on the 90 images taken between 1964 and the present day by an artist better known in another medium. Who knew Chuck Close even needed a camera? At a time when his contemporaries were obsessing over abstraction, Close achieved international fame for his hyper-realistic, larger-than-life portraits. And now, PAFA’s never-before-seen retrospective will reveal Close’s photographic work, “from early black and white maquettes, to monumental composite Polaroids, to intimately scaled daguerreotypes and the most recent Polaroid nudes.” | Oct. 6 - April 8. $15. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 118 N. Broad Street. pafa.org/exhibitions
BIG OBJECTS NOT ALWAYS SILENT
Meanwhile, in University City, the Institute of Contemporary Art has opened a retrospective on the prolific artist and designer Nathalie Du Pasquier. Although native of France, Du Pasquier helped found the Italian design collective Memphis in 1981. She has worked in design, sculpture, installations and more, while focussing on painting for the last 30 years. The exhibit will show more than a 100 works spanning the years, including new and never-before-seen pieces. A must-see for fine art design enthusiasts. | Sept. 13-Dec. 23. Free. The Institute for Contemporary Art. 118 S. 36th Street. icaphila.org/exhibitions
You know the Barnes Foundation offers more than in its eponymous collection, right? Head on over to the facility’s modern gallery for “Kiefer Rodin,” a collaboration with the Musée Rodin in Paris that juxtaposes 19th century master sculptor Auguste Rodin with contemporary German painter Anselm Kiefer. Curators suggest you think of it like a conversation between old and new. In more than 100 works of art, Kiefer and Rodin engage in a sort of one-way dialogue about “ the architecture of the human body and the drama of humanity.” | Nov. 17-March 12. $25. The Barnes Foundation. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. barnesfoundation.org/whats-on/kiefer-rodin
Philadelphia Assembled is not an art exhibit, per se. Think of more like an experimental workshop for blending art and civic engagement, now in its second year in Philly. The brainchild of Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk — with, thankfully, plenty of collaborators — “Philadelphia Assembled” opens up the artist’s stage to ideas about radical community building” and “active resistance.” | Now-Dec. 10. Pay what you wish. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. philamuseum.org/exhibitions