Park Slope

Exhibition Review: Author Amy Sohn and Artist Christina Kelly Create ‘Gowanus Underworld’

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Gowanus Underworld by Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly
19th century gas valve. (Photo courtesy of Christina Kelly)

Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly are sitting across from each other while we have coffee at Morbid Anatomy Museum, just a few blocks down from Trestle Projects (400 Third Avenue near 6th Street) where their collaborative exhibit is currently showing.

Titled Gowanus Underworld, their work is part of a group exhibition called Falling In and curated by Melissa Staiger. Each piece of work involves a connection to our murky and polluted waters which have an incredibly storied past.

The exhibition is also part of Gowanus Open Studios which takes place this weekend. You can visit the exhibit between 12pm-6pm on Saturday, October 15 and Sunday, October 16.

Gowanus Underworld by Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly
[L-R] Author Amy Sohn and Artist Christina Kelly. (Photo by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)
The conversation and interaction between the two collaborators reflect what each brought to the work.

Gowanus Underworld is a minimalist visual and sound collage of sorts, allowing visitors to dig deep into a series of crimes and macabre stories discovered from newspaper counts surrounding events which took place in and around the eponymous canal.

Multimedia artist Christina Kelly places a series of photos out on the table, which serve as jumping off points for the objects and individuals that populate the five stories in their exhibit.

Author and Brooklyn native Amy Sohn, who is well-known for her novels Prospect Park West and Motherland, discusses how the objects interelate. “The hopefulness and failures which take place in the stories are kind of like the Gowanus itself,” she says.

Kelly explains that her process began with selecting historical objects which were housed at Proteus Gowanus, the interdisciplinary art space at 543 Union Street, which closed its doors in 2015. She chose four different objects which were discovered on the banks of the Gowanus Canal and then cast them in concrete.

Gowanus Underworld by Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly
Gowanus Underworld Exhibit. (Photo by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)

“The history of concrete is a large part of the history of Gowanus,” Kelly says. Concrete in our neighborhood dates back to the late 19th-century Coignet Agglomerate Company which was housed in the Coignet building.

Designed in 1872, the building was originally part of a five-acre factory complex that extended along the Gowanus Canal from 3rd to 6th Streets. The plant closed in 1882, and up until 1957, it housed a company that played a role in Brooklyn’s industrial development during the nineteenth century, especially in Park Slope.

Kelly selected a gas valve, a porthole, a nail from a wooden bulkhead, and a piece of the Coignet building to serve as prime visual elements for the exhibit.

Sohn used historical newspaper accounts to discover true stories that relate to each object. She then wrote fictional monologues based on her research and subsequently recorded actors speaking the text. The words are then heard through four small speakers.

Gowanus Underworld by Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly
A speaker from the exhibit tells the story of a distraught mother in “Gas Valve”. (Photo by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)

When Kelly and Sohn became friends, they discovered a joint interest in history. While the piece is a collaboration, Sohn wrote the monologues based on Kelly’s choice of concrete castings.

“We wanted to create an interactive dramatic event,” said Sohn. And the “interactive” event experienced by the viewer is the key to the success of the exhibit.

Gowanus Underworld by Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly
Porthole. (Photo by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)

The subject matter is rich and diverse. And the connections between objects with the speaking voices are intriguing.

Without giving too much away (because the stories are best heard fresh while witnessing the objects), the gas valve is connected to Helen O’Neill, a distraught mother who lived at 59 15th Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues). In another story, Sohn writes about the eventual company collapse of the Coignet Agglomerate Company.

Four small speakers project the stories simultaneously. While you place a speaker up to your ear, you’re able to hear the other stories in the background.

“It’s like chatter conversation from three other ghosts,” says Sohn.

As a coda to the event, the fifth monologue takes place on the street outside Trestle Projects. (Tip: arrive with a QR Code reader on your phone.) After you step outside of Trestle Projects, you’ll take a guided walk down 6th Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenue) where you assume the role of a detective investigating a murder.

Walk further towards the canal, and you just might hear a few more ghosts from the past.

The Event Rundown: Gowanus Underworld, A Collaboration between Amy Sohn and Christina Kelly (part of Falling In, an exhibit curated by Melissa Staiger)
When: Through Saturday, October 22. The gallery will be open during Gowanus Open Studios, October 15–16, 12pm-6pm.
Where: Trestle Projects, 400 Third Avenue (near 6th Street)
Contact Information: [email protected] or 917-923-8096
How much: Free.

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