Ideology On Ice

Robert Atkins, San Francisco
October 28, 2016

The American Dream, a four-ton, 30-foot-long, ice sculpture by LigoranoReese, is the most recent of the artist duo’s Melted Away series and the molten heart of its American Dream Project. It is also a Trojan Horse: Its straightforward display of a familiar concept conceals a rare capacity to elicit complex reactions and intense emotions from viewers, at the same time demonstrating sculpture’s power to engage our bodily awareness in a way that its photo-documentation cannot. Two versions of the sculpture appeared this past summer during the presidential nominating conventions in Cleveland and in Philadelphia.

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The American Dream – Philadelphia, PA (All photos by Nora Ligorano unless noted.)
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The American Dream – Cleveland, OH

Viewers were encouraged to reach out and touch the shards of LigoranoReese’s melting depiction of an ideological tenet so basic that only politicians can say it without quotation marks around it.

Some of these viewers were interviewed by the artists or by media outlets including the New Yorker.

Very few of the respondents seemed capable of expressing their views with detachment:

  • “It’s time for the American dream to disappear; maybe it’s not serving anybody.”
  • “As the demographics of the country begin to change, it’s as if we are changing our commitment to that concept . . . we are seeing a reset and we are not going back.”  
  • “What is it? The recurrent theme is opportunity and…[the bottom line is that] people are being prevented from pursuing their dreams because of who they are.”
  • “The American dream has never existed so an ice sculpture that melts is nice symbolically, but when I wake up tomorrow morning the position of black people, poor people of color, poor whites will be unchanged.”

If there’s a better metaphor than The American Dream for the way we feel now — beset by toxic political rhetoric, record high temperatures and police racism under scrutiny — I can’t imagine what it might be.

* * *

LigoranoReese stands for Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese, a Brooklyn-based, husband-wife team who have been collaborating for 30 years. Although The American Dream Project belongs to their Melted Away series, the series is only part of their conceptual art output. (Often misunderstood, conceptual art is simply art that employs any art or non-art medium, format or disciplinary approach to realize the ideas at its core.) The two artists met in Baltimore in 1977 and bring very different skills to their partnership. Ligorano’s passion is textiles. A longtime artist and designer of fabrics, she has done everything from painting and sculpture to video and artists books and still works apart from Reese on projects involving photography and digital printing. Reese was primarily a poet and writer associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and sound poetry and performance art when they met. He now works in video and continues to write both “fractured” poetry (his term) and journals.

To simplify, Reese is the literary member of the duo whereas Ligorano’s impulses tend toward the material — or in the case of Melted Away, the dematerializing — aspects of their work. Put another way, she often weaves together the conceptual and tactile strands of their work, finding associations and meanings in materials and forms, which are fodder for reflection and discussion with Reese. This process might be likened to a duet in the language of other art forms — such as dance or music — that are more attuned to collaboration than visual art.

The origins of the duo’s first ice sculpture were serendipitous. In 2006, Reese visited the Jim Kempner Fine Art gallery in Chelsea to pitch to the dealer a photo-portfolio of Bush 43 administration officials in mug-shot format called Line Up.

George W. Bush in Line Up (2006)
George W. Bush in Line Up (2006)

(Pop-inflected, political satire is a constant in LigoranoReese’s art primarily through its Pure Products of America series which ranges from Line Up to often functional wares such as its Contract With America underwear or The Bible Belt.)

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Contract with America underwear (1995). Photo by Peter Norrman.

Kempner and his director Dru Artstark chuckled their way through the proofs until Kempner lifted his head to announce that he would publish the prints. Later, as Reese moved toward the gallery door, Artstark called down from the mezzanine, “Have you ever made garden sculpture?” To make a long story short, LigoranoReese hadn’t, but it soon would.

Bible Belt by LigoranoReese (1992)
The Bible Belt by LigoranoReese (1992)

Hearing about the invitation that night, Ligorano was excited at the prospect, immediately announcing that their garden art would be made of ice — a material she finds fascinating for its literal embodiment of transition and change. Reese had been reading de Tocqueville, mulling over the freshly minted Patriot Act and bemoaning the intensifying Iraq War. They began to think of the text-sculptures as “temporary monuments” capable of bearing the weight of “big ideas.” Democracy would be the form and title of the piece for Jim Kempner and would be repeated in 2008 at the Denver and Saint Paul presidential nominating conventions.

Democracy in New York City
Democracy in New York City
Democracy in Denver
Democracy in Denver
Democracy in St. Paul
Democracy in St. Paul

The three Democracy sculptures morphed into the Melted Away series, a large and cohesive group of projects with the ice sculptures at their centers: In 2008, they presented The Economy on Foley Square (adjacent to Wall Street) to mark the 79th anniversary of the stock market crash of 1929:

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Main Street Meltdown (October 29, 2008, New York City)

In 2012, The Middle Class, at the Tampa and Charlotte presidential nominating conventions:

Middle Class: Morning In America (Jim Kempner Fine Art, New York City)
Morning In America (Jim Kempner Fine Art, New York City)
Middle Class: Morning In America (Tampa, FL 2012)
Morning In America (Tampa, FL 2012)

In 2014 The Future, at the People’s Climate March in New York:

Dawn of the Anthropocene (September 21, 2014, New York City)
Dawn of the Anthropocene (September 21, 2014, New York City)

And now The American Dream. With each iteration, Melted Away grows more complex and full-throated. New technologies and formats enable improved production and distribution, while experience reveals the possibilities of outreach to new audiences and new coalition partners including producers, presenting organizations and municipalities.

Transmitting the action of the fleeting Melted Away events has long concerned and challenged the artists. “In our first fundraising efforts of 2008, we described the centrality of streaming to expanding the audience and time space of the sculpture.” Reese noted. “Over time we’ve refined the techniques. In 2012, we successfully streamed from both Tampa and Charlotte.” Ligorano added, “We soon realized that with the camera mic on you can provide more of the ambience. People felt that they were there and they really liked that sensation. We were surprised by the positive response.”

In 2014, for the People’s Climate March they streamed and embedded the video in the websites of Cities for People and EcoWatch. In 2016, they streamed to two commercial galleries — the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco and New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, where they were part of the For Freedoms show. They also streamed to the sites of non-profit organizations, including their sponsor, ArtsEverywhere, and the Streaming Museum.

“As the political class debated the meme of the day, we talked with one another about what truly matters”
More important than the technological enhancements, however, have been the production of new and expanded programs. In 2014, the artists assembled a group of writers to “bear witness” to The Future and published their writings on the Melted Away website. This year the duo “felt it was really necessary to add more of a public presence, something we conceived of as akin to a teach-in,” Reese recalled. “We were thrilled to partner with the City Club of Cleveland — the oldest free speech organization in the country — to convene a series of discussions with community leaders about equality.” For a lengthy afternoon program, the club organized “The American Dream at the Intersection of Art and Politics,” a lively symposium that drew an audience of more than 200 that engaged with artists, community organizers and representatives of institutions. “As the political class debated the meme of the day, we talked with one another about what truly matters,” observed City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop. “That is, opportunity, equity and access. The vision behind this resonated so strongly throughout Cleveland . . . We were proud to be part of it.”

The contributions of writers to The American Dream broadened its perspective and expanded its outreach. LigoranoReese initiated residencies in Cleveland and Philadelphia that involved a total of 17 writers whose works were published online, in newsprint handout format and read aloud and streamed. To select the writers they worked with writer and Miami University [Ohio] professor cris cheek, whose understanding of the project and its needs was acute.

When it came to selecting writers, “We wanted to find those who would write live on site,“ he said. “So people had to be there, and not phone it in or be remote. We wanted a range of writers with differing aesthetics and references. We wanted writers who were capable of collaborating. The sense of collaborative creativity at both sites was tangible.”

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Josh Adler reads in front of The American Dream (Philadelphia, PA 2016)

cheek credits LigoranoReese with “ . . . very generously creating space for others artists to be creative in,” and the writers with “ . . . providing an additional sense of social dispersal, of production and circulation, and of interaction [as well as a] different lens through which the work could be considered. After all, the work itself is writing,” he observed. “It has both linguistic and concrete materiality as linguistic form. It is conversational and reflective. People have conversations around it, making it discursive in multiple ways . . . I might think of it like the multiple viewpoints in a painting such as Las Meninas by Velasquez.”

The American Dream

Amistad / Myth / Erection / Republic / Indian Killing / Christian / Atheists / Narrow / Dirt / Rape / Erase / Antithesis/ Murder

***

American Dream / I’ve never had one / word without African / empty as whole waiting for something.

***

The American Ream

***

American Musical / Gene Kelly Dances across letters / he is also ice / his feet fast / begin to melt / he is ankles hobbling / over AMERICAN / he is on his knees / his prayer is drips / on the sidewalk / the letters are lit like a Broadway sign / all light white / Gene Kelly is the light / turns / it out / melts.

***

Watching the letters drip like sweat on a slave’s, sharecropper’s, [ill]egal / immigrant’s back, I notice / how it disappears like opportunity in America.

***

Letters are clear / shaped like ones / on American money / ancestors appear / in space between / faces misshapen puzzles / mouths open / hands touching a letter

The three A’s become shadows / strangers landing no shore.

***

Ice impermanent as the middle class / as out of place as waste.

***

(Mary E. Weems, Cleveland 2016)

* * *

Of course, none of the Melted Away pieces could have taken place without the duo’s ability to successfully leap the tremendous bureaucratic hurdles entailed in realizing many public art projects today. The task is even more difficult when the art is temporary and set to run during high security events. Since the production of Christo’s Running Fence (1976) in Northern California, the bureaucratic obstacle course has become so endemic to public art that it sometimes seems the heart of the work itself.

“The hardest part of these projects is finding a place to put them on. It’s far from a uniform process; nearly every city and locality has a completely different procedure,” Ligorano explained. “And the rules can be Byzantine. You have to understand that the presidential nominating conventions are on a par—security wise—with the Super Bowl.”

“And then there’s ‘pre-censorship,’ meaning the obstacles entailed in finding a location within which to express yourself,” Reese said. “So-called free speech zones have been with us since at least 2000. But the free speech zones or dissenters’ parade routes are invariably far away from the people you’re trying to reach with your message. Tampa had a very strict permitting process. You applied for a permit and a date and then you were put in a lottery.”

“You weren’t guaranteed a location,” he continued. “Which is fine if you are light footed and not ordering several thousand pounds of ice for a specific date, time and place. Because of a hurricane, the first day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa was cancelled, but the city wouldn’t let us move our event by one day saying, ‘Well, if you wanted that date, you should have applied for it 60 days ago.’ It was only through the intercession of the American Civil Liberties Union, that we were able to present at all.”

* * *

Many other artists have made the U.S. presidential elections the subject matter of their art. Reese, in fact, is one of them. He works with the artist Antoni Muntadas on Political Advertisement, an ongoing, quadrennial collaboration that results in a 90-minute-long survey of TV (and now internet) ads for the US presidency dating back to 1952 and presented at institutions throughout the world as a catalyst for discussion.

Unlike LigoranoReese and Muntadas, however, the majority of creators working in this realm might loosely be described as performance artists, that is, artists who have adopted personas or altar egos to satirize candidates, whether generic or specific. The forebears of this approach date back nearly a century to the faux presidential campaigns of radio personalities Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, an m.o. that culminated in comic Gracie Allen’s Surprise Party candidacy of 1940. It featured a nominating convention, media appearances and the involvement of Eleanor Roosevelt. In the same spirit, talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel is currently running a low-key, tongue-in-cheek campaign for the Vice Presidency.

In 1968, Pat Paulsen launched the first of his five non-candidate candidacies on the Smothers Brothers television show with a hilariously deadpan riff on political doublespeak. Artist Lowell Darling’s similarly good-natured but unsuccessful attempt to unseat Governor Jerry Brown in the 1978 California gubernatorial race garnered Darling thousands of votes and the endorsement of Brown, and sparked the artist’s interest in a presidential run. Darling found the economics of securing a spot on fifty state ballots prohibitively expensive, a reminder that the prospective candidate lacking a personal fortune or the backing of special interest groups with deep pockets is out of luck. (The effort required by an artist to get on the ballot distinguishes the doggedly single-minded artist-candidate such as Darling, from the majority who court write-in votes, such as the accomplished poet Eileen Myles, a presidential aspirant in 1992.)

Despite its sometimes-overlapping subject matter, Melted Away shares far less with these performance works than with temporary public artworks and interventions by artists employing media-art tactics to put across their viewpoints. One stunning arena for media works by dozens of artists including Laurie Anderson, Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger and Robert Wilson has been the huge Times Square Spectacolor board, which has shown works by artists off-and-on since the late seventies. (The Midnight Moment program continues to showcase three-minute films by artists at 11:57 pm nightly.) At the other end of the technological spectrum were the street works of Jenny Holtzer. She adhered stickers printed with koan-like adages or Truisms on surfaces throughout the city, in distinctly, low-tech DIY fashion.

Art on the street seemed everywhere at the end of the seventies. The unauthorized (and controversial) identity-oriented interventions of graffitists appeared on the sides of subway cars while the often edgy (and controversial) work of the artist Les Levine—who purchased advertising space for it—startled strap hangers inside. The Reagan administration’s relentless assault on social and cultural services during the eighties became a frequent target for text-oriented artists including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martha Rosler, Group Material, David Wojnarowicz and Gran Fury, the collective of AIDS activist designers and artists. It blanketed New York with AIDS information and prevention messages in the form of posters in subways, banners on the sides of buses and witty peel-and-stick decals. (One admonished: “Men: Use Condoms or Beat It.”) Like LigoranoReese, Gran Fury also produced sculpture composed of words with their variations of Robert Indiana’s ubiquitous Love sculpture, reconceived as AIDS and Riot.

But closest to LigoranoReese’s event-oriented sensibility were the photo-projections of images and artworks by artists like Nan Goldin/Visual AIDS and Krzysztof Wodiczko (about AIDS and homelessness, respectively). These spectacular visuals, sometimes projected across buildings, were often utilized as the backdrop for demonstrations or other gatherings protesting public policy—or its lack.

This abbreviated “tour” of one New York-art-world “neighborhood” during the eighties and nineties is less intended to suggest the influence of any particular artists on Ligorano and Reese’s practice than to provide a context for it. Consider it instead a sociogram of relevant artists, the social concerns that motivated them and the modus operandi they employed.

* * *

Today, an easily manipulated sense of resentment and betrayal is ubiquitous.
Many pundits dubbed September 11, 2001 the jumping off point of the 21st century and, indeed, of contemporary life itself. Although the tragic events of 9/11 marked the end—according to the media hyperbole—of American innocence, perhaps they actually were a reminder that innocence is gradually lost, like a block of stone that must be chipped away to expose its heart. The demise of the American dream has involved not just inequity, but skepticism about the motives of those who govern and the character of institutions supposedly acting on our behalf. Earlier blows to the body politic date back a half-century to Watergate and the Vietnam War, the latter a tardy acknowledgement that following World War II, Americans were no longer universally revered abroad. Americans are not typically well informed about foreign affairs, but the well-known role on 9/11 of the Saudi-born terrorists and the spiriting of Saudi elites out of the U.S. that day, disturbingly suggest that our interests and those of the oil industry were not aligned.

Today, an easily manipulated sense of resentment and betrayal is ubiquitous. (Donald Trump’s political success is dependent on this.) Nearly every institution has been discredited as either the (unfair) victim of paranoia, or the (legitimate) recipient of overdue scrutiny. Whether the United Nations and Supreme Court, the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood, big pharma and big banks, or the Boy Scouts and the Olympic organizing committee, no once-trusted institution seems to have survived with its reputation intact. Despite the extent and breadth of this ill will, expressions of resentment in Cleveland and Philadelphia seemed surprisingly narrow in focus, primarily through the lens of income inequality or the potential loss of hard-won civil rights gains, rather than more philosophical or idealistic matters. Although this economic perspective may be the most reasonable and “objective” means of communicating complaint, its legalistic character is also a vehicle of self-censorship masking deeper, more personal grievances and disappointments.

When did the American dream acquire this often nearly exclusively economic meaning? According to Ligorano, a vision of economic betterment emerged, not surprisingly, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The origins of the American dream itself, however are rooted 150 years earlier in the Enlightenment-era ethos of freedom and individualism upon which the U.S. was founded. The Declaration of Independence’s bold assertion of equality “hold[ing] these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal,” echoes the idealist assurance of the American dream: a man’s birth and wealth would no longer be prerequisite to the realization of dreams in the brave, new world taking shape in North America.

These were men’s dreams to be sure; the promise was never intended for everyone. “Of course it’s been used for excluding on the basis of class or race or gender,” Reese observed. “And this has been widely referenced. But we also wanted to take this political cliché and up-end it in order to clear space for other ideas about social mobility that have some basis in actual experience.”

Dawn of the Anthropocene (September 21, 2014, New York City)
Dawn of the Anthropocene (September 21, 2014, New York City)

After economic inequality, the other complaint most frequently heard from interview subjects this year takes racial inequality as its subject. This is among the least surprising of phenomena inadvertently identified in the American Dream Project, which of course is hardly a scientific study. Explanations for it doubtless reflect increased attention paid by corporate media to inescapable matters of race, whether the murders of unarmed African-Americans by police caught on shocking smart phone videos, or the Obama presidency ending with the majority view among Whites that racial relations are worse now than in 2009, when the president took office near the nadir of the Great Recession.

* * *

What does the American dream mean? For LigoranoReese, the concept of the American dream is rich and elastic, bearing no resemblance to the propagandistic purposes to which it has so often been put. Reese even finds poetry in it. “For me,” he said smiling, “the American dream is actually a dream, an illusion.” He admires the Romantic movement that arose at the turn of the 19th century and was characterized by an embrace of such disassociating temporal states as the momentary, the eternal, the abandoned, the dream and, of course, death itself.

Reese credits Percy Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias (1817-18) as a source of inspiration for the Melted Away series. The connections between the series and the poem’s evocation of the tragic ephemerality of earthly power and the ravages of time hardly require enumeration. Less obvious is the suggestive choice LigoranoReese made in choosing to title their ongoing series Melted Away rather than Melting Away. The past tense evokes the finality of death, or as Ligorano put it, “the past tense suggests the sense of loss, of mourning and transformation from one state to another.” Reese, who finds the title elegiac, also notes the political significance of Romanticism for the European revolutions of 1848 and the emergence of modernity. “These [Melted Away] pieces are temporary monuments to social ideas in transition,” he says. “Democracy, the American dream, the middle class and the economy.”

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The American Dream (Philadelphia, PA 2016)

Those involved in the performative aspects of Melted Away are likely to have had their vision of the American dream altered through their participation. Indeed participation is the key to understanding Melted Away’s performative character. It is an understanding that rejects the traditional artwork-viewer relationship in favor of the possibility of shifting roles in accord with the conceptualist belief that the audience completes the work of art — an early instance of the use of the concept of interactivity. LigoranoReese, for instance, are audience members for the spoken word performers commissioned for the literary portion of The American Dream. There are no conventional binary distinctions in the conceptualist universe.

Kathy Brew, a filmmaker and curator from New York, joined the artists in Philadelphia to assist with The American Dream. “I volunteered for their previous project, The Future,” she told me. “At both I helped to engage with passersby for the video documentation of the work. This year’s experience did have me thinking about the American dream. And it certainly elicited varied responses.”

As a curator and educator, Brew spends a lot of time looking at screen works, at documents of life mediated. “I always enjoy being out in the world and interacting with people in the light,” she continued. “You can expect quirky things to happen at events like this. One thing that turned out to be fun was a little twist in the way we had to gather the water melting from the sculpture in buckets to avoid turning the site into a swamp. It was so hot there that day that instead of dumping it off to the side, I doused myself a couple of time and others followed suit . . . But seriously, it did feel like a political action and like art, too. I appreciated that.”

The City Club of Cleveland’s symposium title “The American Dream: A Symposium at the Intersection of Art and Politics” similarly evokes both art and politics, as well as their intersection and perhaps even their fusion. Many of the symposium participants and audience members, however, exhibited uncertainty about art’s potential for altering consciousness and stimulating social change, a common attitude among Americans. That this subject was never raised directly at the symposium isn’t surprising either: Contemporary art’s character as an alternative, complex form of knowledge embracing both psyche and soma, makes it difficult even to find the language with which to discuss such matters.

Experiencing art like The American Dream, on the other hand, requires only a willingness to participate, that is, to approach it patiently and attentively. (Art’s ability to nurture creativity and critical thinking is why it is so useful as the basis for school curricula.) The conceptual artist Muntadas asserts, “Perception requires involvement.” LigoranoReese extend this maxim to confidently claim that one aspect of art’s utility is its capacity “to ask difficult questions . . . ” To do this during the political season for which The American Dream has been produced is to invest this diminished realm with art’s open-endedness and sense of possibility. Given our constricted political sphere and our polarized and manipulated polity, this is a major accomplishment.

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Morning In America (2012, Charlotte, NC)
Robert Atkins

Robert Atkins

Robert Atkins is a UC Berkeley-trained art historian who works at the intersection of art, politics, and queer identities. He has curated exhibitions at venues from Sao Paulo to Tokyo, including “From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS,” the first international traveling show of its kind. He is a co-founder of Visual AIDS, creators of Day With(out) Art and the Red Ribbon. Atkins now lives in San Francisco where he is at work on his selected writings The Eternal Frame: Sex and Politics in Recent American Art, So You Want to Be An Artist? A Primer for Prospective Picassos and Their Parents, and On Susan Sontag: Media, Morality & Modernity.

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