Is it worth even trying to make monuments in a society that is as angry and riven as ours? And if the answer is yes, what should our monuments be like?

Those questions underlie two exhibitions currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Each showcases the work of a Philadelphia-based artist and educator.

One, Karyn Olivier, head of the sculpture department at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, seeks out public commissions. The other, Michelle Lopez, who leads the sculpture program at Penn, has created a huge gallery installation that at first seems chaotic and later reveals itself as an intricate exercise in tension and balance.

Monuments appear to be permanent expressions of shared values, but that is largely an illusion. In America, at least, monuments have long been about claiming territory and asserting the role of your party or ethnic group in the life of a region and the country. They proliferate in times of tension — attempting either to uphold an old order or express the aspirations of the newly arrived or long neglected.

That’s their paradox. Monuments imply public agreement, but they are most often symptoms of unresolved issues in the society. Right now, many in the public are questioning and turning against the monuments we have, even as the movement grows to build new, more inclusive ones.

Olivier is very much part of this phenomenon. She was the winner of a competition to design a memorial to Dinah, an enslaved woman who saved the colonial landmark house Stenton from being burned during the American revolution.

And three years ago, in The Battle Is Joined, she enclosed the Revolutionary War memorial in Germantown’s Vernon Park with mirror-surfaced acrylic. This temporary intervention, which is not in the ICA show, made the unremarkable stone stub far more visible than before, even as it made the memorial disappear.

If you looked at it, you would see not an inscription about the past, but yourself and your neighbors. It obscured the recollection of the Battle of Germantown, and reflected the battles that people have in Germantown today.

With this piece, Olivier found a way to re-energize an old and forgotten monument by literally drawing in people who pass it every day. It made her a monument-maker to watch.

Karyn Olivier's "The Battle is Joined" (2017), a temporary exhibition that stood in Vernon Park and is not part of the ICA show.
courtesy Karen Olivier
Karyn Olivier's "The Battle is Joined" (2017), a temporary exhibition that stood in Vernon Park and is not part of the ICA show.

Unfortunately, there in nothing as compelling as The Battle Is Joined in the ICA show, “Everything That’s Alive Moves,” which was organized by Anthony Elms, ICA’s chief curator. The emphasis is on the conceptual.

For example, one of the works, May 12, 1985, consists simply of distributing carnations to visitors to the exhibition.

The carnations recall the history of Mother’s Day, which was promoted by Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia woman, in the first two decades of the last century. The title commemorates a Mother’s Day in which a warrant was issued to enter the house that was the headquarters of MOVE, though it was not the date of the police attack by helicopter that destroyed an entire block of houses.

The link between memorializing the MOVE conflagration and the local history of Mother’s Day is tenuous. Wearing a flower, like wearing a particular hat — MAGA or pussy, for instance — can make a crowd appear to be a movement. But dispatching someone to distribute carnations feels like a cop-out. An artist who is creating a memorial needs to do something that is both lasting and emotionally moving.

Another work, Moving the Obelisk, consists of a soil-covered cardboard obelisk and a video that shows the obelisk being created in Rome, where Olivier was a fellow at the American Academy, then cut apart, shipped, and installed in the ICA gallery where it currently stands. This is a sort of dumpy obelisk, perhaps intentionally, and made to be seen indoors, unlike most.

Olivier’s narration discusses how the ancient Romans used Egyptian obelisks as a trophy of colonization and suggests a relationship to other examples of western pillage of Africa, including the people who were made slaves. This work is best seen as an argument, as opposed to an obelisk meant to endure for the ages. If she were doing a monument that is meant to last, she wouldn’t use cardboard and leave the seams showing.

Fortified, the largest and most impressive work on display, is essentially a brick wall in which pieces of clothing have been inserted between the brick courses. On one side, we see mostly wall, with bits of the clothing visible, while on the other side, the garments hang loose and obscure the wall.

When I was there, a guard was explaining to visitors that this wall is inclusive, and not a barrier, like other walls that come to mind. The socks, undershorts, baby clothes, and brassieres seem to seep through the wall. No barrier is ever completely effective, and there is a human cost.

Installation view of Michelle Lopez's "Ballast & Barricades" at Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.
Eric Sucar
Installation view of Michelle Lopez's "Ballast & Barricades" at Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

The other show here, “Michelle Lopez: Ballast & Barricades,” is a landscape of ugly-beautiful ruins. It embodies the strife and incoherence of our physical and political environment, but also models a way to balance disparate energies and interests.

The show, organized by ICA curator Alex Klein, consists of 16 works. It is dominated by a piece that was commissioned for this exhibition and makes full use of the high space in the ICA’s second floor gallery.

Scaffolding, police barriers, and even a chunk of a demolished house hang in the air, held by chains and cables and counterbalanced by big pieces of demolition rubble. What first appears to be a ruin turns out to be as delicate and intricate as a spider’s web. Every element is held in tension, and is in some way, dependent upon and stabilizing all the other pieces.

Installation view of Michelle Lopez's "Ballast & Barricades" at Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.
Eric Sucar
Installation view of Michelle Lopez's "Ballast & Barricades" at Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.

The pamphlet given to museumgoers suggests that it represents “an ongoing history of bodies and violence,” a feminization of stereotypically masculine materials, and a reminder of our crumbling infrastructure — as if we didn’t have enough of those. Seeing it in the wake of impeachment, I viewed it in terms of checks and balances and the precariousness of our polity.

I think my difficulty in pinning down its meaning is part of its strength. It is a visual tour de force that engages the body, the eye, and the imagination.

We feel the energies that threaten to pull the piece apart and the sinews that somehow keep it together. It reminds us — as our current generation reconsiders, removes, and remakes the markers left by previous ones — that good monuments ought to be good art.

ON EXHIBIT

Karyn Olivier: Everything That’s Alive Moves and Michelle Lopez: Ballast & Barricades

Through May 10 at Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thurs.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Weds. (closed Mon. and Tues.)

Admission: free.

Information: 215-898-7108, icaphila.org.