The catacombs of this urban cemetery are above ground, tunneled into a hillside in the 1850s, perhaps to allay Victoran-era fears of being buried alive. It’s in this clammy space assuring eternal rest that Heidi Lau has embedded a sculpture garden that nimbly bridges the terrestrial and the celestial. Her craggy, porous ceramics are hand built with archaic flair, as if hewn by wind and water. They recall spirit stones or scholar’s rocks: bones of the earth endowed with primordial energies. Some of Lau’s works reach for the mausoleum’s skylights; others cast moody penumbrae as they dangle from the ceiling via chains, suspended in gothic limbo. Like fossils they insist that, indeed, nothing is permanent.
The astounding intricacy and volume of these works—many cloistered within a dozen or so dynastic vaults—reflect Lau’s yearlong residency at Green-Wood. Perhaps never before in the cemetery’s 184 years has it been so thrillingly haunted, and by East Asian apparitions: Lau, drawing on Taoist mythologies, conjures vestiges of spirits with staying power. Exquisitely creepy vertebrae trail from her ceramics’ petrified surfaces. Vacant faces materialize, camouflaged by glazes that adeptly meld the qualities of oxidized metal and tar. More conspicuous are the elfin hands that scrabble across this alien patina, as if in gradual self-creation. Surrounded by the dead, this animism goes beyond ancestral tribute. Lau frames the tomb as a transitional space, perhaps to remind us of the slippery boundary between personhood and objecthood.
Accompanying text notes that roaming Green-Wood evoked for Lau memories of her late grandfather’s garden in Macau, and that Chinese gardens are “a metaphor for time, space, and our place in the cosmos.” These distant landscapes translate, improbably, to the catacombs’ spartan interior. We cycle through vaults to visit Lau’s creations, always returning to a central corridor: a flow that generates introspection and a surprising sense of play. That these sculptures, along with the sheer novelty of exploring typically locked burial chambers, don’t compete for our attention is a mark of the artist’s attunement to the potencies of objects and to sites of remembrance. By the exhibition’s early days, spiders, too, had come, finding equilibrium in the pits of new shrines.