In the northeast corner of Central Park by the Harlem Meer, a large billboard hints at Manhattan’s icy past. The piece, commissioned as part of the Drifting in Daylight art exhibition celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Central Park Conservancy, was designed by Karyn Olivier.
Olivier chose to depict a glacier that covered Manhattan 20,000 years ago. The glacier shaped many parts of the island in ways that are both familiar and taken for granted by New Yorkers. Through her piece she also leaves a trace of Seneca Village, a mostly forgotten African American settlement from the 1800’s.
Olivier, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is an artist and associate professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art. She spoke to GlacierHub about her piece, titled “Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, Rock.”
GH: Why did you choose to depict the glacier that used to cover New York?
KO: The task to create an artwork for a place like Central Park, a place already filled with so much beauty, was daunting—what can compete with such an amazing landscape? So I decided to focus on the site of Central Park and reveal what existed at that location—perhaps allowing for a reflection on what stands there today. I was reading about the Wisconsin Glacier that travelled through what is now New York City, 20,000 years ago. It created valleys, moved boulders, formed rock outcroppings, carried alluvial debris that was eternally stranded in new locations when the ice sheet melted. I was interested in this physical evidence, this geological diaspora, that can be found throughout Central Park—it’s both everywhere, in plain sight, but also hidden by our lack of knowledge and awareness. I was also interested in the more recent history of the site—Seneca Village—and the fact that there is little evidence left of this once vibrant community. This settlement of mostly freed African American residents in the 1800’s was displaced, scattered wholesale throughout the city, with few traces of their tenancy left in the bucolic park. The billboard depicts an image of a glacier, but also a pottery shard that was found on the site of the village. I saw a literal and metaphoric connection between the subtle residual artifacts of both the glacier and village.
GH: What meaning do glaciers hold for you?
KO: One of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve had was coming upon a glacier while visiting Iceland 14 years ago. It took my breath away—its vastness, its enormity, its visual reminder of the immensity of time and a vanished epoch that it holds and bears witness to.
GH: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of medium for this piece?
KO: I decided to use a lenticular photographic process to create the billboard display. In addition to featuring an image of a glacier and an artifact found from Seneca Village, I embedded a photograph of the landscape that currently exists directly behind the billboard structure. Depending on the viewer’s vantage point, multiple iterations of the three images can be seen. At moments each image is distinct; at other times they reveal themselves as fragments; at varying distances the three images overlap and are compressed—in a sense, conflating thousands of years of time in a single image. When a viewer moves from one end of the billboard to the other, the glacier will seem to move and morph into another time period—transformed as if the park goer on some level is controlling time or her understanding of it. The glacier mutates into a shard from a ceramic vessel—a domestic object made from clay dug from the same earth the glacier traversed before it also vanished. I hoped the image would be arrestingly beautiful, mysterious and thought provoking, as the viewer ponders the connection between the park and the display, the display and himself. I hoped it might spark the viewer’s recognition of the circularity and cyclical nature of time and history and his brief existence in this continuum.
GH: What emotions, thoughts or experiences are you hoping to trigger in passers by?
KO: My aim is for the viewer to have a visceral response to the piece. I want the expansiveness of the glacier to be felt in contrast to the scale of a ceramic plate fragment. I hoped to somehow equate the two—the massive and larger-than-life physicality of the glacier with the smallness and intimacy of a domestic object, a kitchen plate. What does it mean to position these two opposing scales and physicalities into the same image? I wanted to raise more questions than answers.
GH: Have you depicted glaciers before?
KO: I haven’t, but this project is inspiring me to continue this exploration.