The Complexity of Being Human

A red brick, 10-by-20-foot wall punctuated with bits of used clothing looms large in Lehigh University Art Galleries—the creation of artist Karyn Olivier, the Department of Art, Architecture and Design’s Horger Artist-in-Residence.

Steps away, behind the wall, is another of Olivier’s creations—a car-shaped installation formed by discarded shoes and topped with a silver car cover. 

The two pieces will be on exhibit in the LUAG Main Gallery through May 25.

Olivier—the architecture department’s inaugural artist for the residency, which also rotates between the music and theater fields—uses everyday objects, locations and spaces to shift visitors’ experiences with the familiar.

Those who view the LUAG installations will be able to bring their own perspectives to the pieces, she says.

“Everyone can have a distinct definition of what a wall is—be it personal, be it culturally, be it in terms of your community. You can think about it globally,” she says. ”Everyone’s going to have some sort of unique connection to a wall that dovetails into politics and culture. “

Olivier says she likes the idea too of a wall being misplaced or displaced inside a structure.  “So what do we have to think about? … I was thinking about, walls can be barriers, walls can be protecting. I like the fact that a student can be on the other side having a very intimate personal experience—like, in a way, the gallery’s just theirs. But then knowing … it’s a public space.”

The shoe installation was inspired by a photo that Olivier took years ago in Senegal of a man using his vehicle’s car cover to display shoes he was selling. “It was just beautiful,” she says.

As she planned the installation using discarded shoes she had purchased at thrift shops—some shoes badly worn—she thought about how such donations often get exported to third-world countries. She asks, “What does that say about how we value people who have less?”  Still, she points out, some of the thrift-store shoes still bore price tags, a juxtaposition of impoverishment and excess that characterizes society.

“So I’m thinking about the complexity of our human existence, the complexity of what it means to be human,” says Olivier about the installations. “Nothing’s ever so simple.”

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Olivier became an artist as an adult after a career in retail.
As part of the semester-long residency, she is teaching a studio class on “Monuments, Playgrounds and the Town Square,” and she will install a permanent work on campus. An artist talk is scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 12 in the Black Box Theatre at the Zoellner Arts Center.


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