A public garden & cultural center

Crystal Z. Campbell

Usable Pasts
Sunroom Project Space | September 1 – October 14, 2012

Crystal Z. Campbell sees history as a series of questions. Her work critically examines historical material and explores the gaps in our social and cultural collective memory. In preparation for her Sunroom Project, Usable Pasts, Campbell searched through Wave Hill’s informal collection of archival images and documents, a process that yielded more questions than answers. The artist’s interest was piqued when she learned that the first home on the site was built in 1843, more than two decades before the abolition of slavery in 1865. While Campbell found little information about the workers, servants or possible slaves who helped build and maintain the property, gardens and domiciles, ample documentation was available on the lives of the affluent families and celebrated individuals who lived at Wave Hill over its 117-year period as a private estate. Usable Pasts revives voices that have been buried along with objects that can no longer be handled—shards, remnants and traces that can never be fully reconstituted.

To address these omissions, Campbell undertakes a hypothetical excavation, exhuming “artifacts” from Wave Hill’s past. She inserts an invented perspective using song, spoken word and archival imagery in a futile attempt to compensate for missing pieces of history. Crumbling objects appear in photo-based images on display. These artifacts can only be experienced as reproductions, mediated by the camera. In the space, an operatic voice sings lines from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?,” which is interjected with excerpts from biographies of notable men—William Henry Appleton, Bashford Dean, George W. Perkins, Theodore Roosevelt, Arturo Toscanini and Mark Twain—all former residents of the Wave Hill estate. Born into slavery two hours north of Wave Hill, Truth asserts her place in the present, while spoken excerpts from biographical articles found at the Bronx Historical Society suggest that these accounts of the male figures are akin to distant historical relics. The artist leaves the viewer with fragments from a site: sound, silence, impressions, voids, earth and light.


Crystal Z. Campbell, Usable Pasts, 2012, mixed media installation, dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the artist.










Crystal Z. Campbell, Usable Pasts, 2012 (detail), mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist website

The Arts at Wave Hill are supported by Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc., Milton & Sally Avery Arts Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and by the Cathy and Stephen Weinroth Commissioning Fund for the Arts. 

NEA-and-NYSCA 2.jpg